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Saxophones: Smooth Operators
The saxophone wasn’t invented until the 1800s, but its popularity has exploded in popular music and culture. Read on to learn more about the sax’s many lives.
The sax, a relatively modern instrument born in the 1800s, was built to balance the sonic muscle of a brass instrument with the vocal qualities of the woodwind family to which it officially belongs. Though it was originally used almost solely in orchestras, the instrument has driven straight through jazz, soul, ska, funk, and rock. Its versatile, soulful timbre has proven surprisingly resilient, too. Although it was maligned for years as a schmaltzy remnant of eras past, its resurrection by artists ranging from the Fleet Foxes to Lady Gaga prompted a full-on report from Paste Magazine in 2011.
The instrument seems to have a powerful connection with human heartstrings, prompting jazz pioneer Charlie Parker to advise newcomers: “Don’t play the saxophone. Let it play you.” Bill Clinton famously blasted away at a tenor sax on The Arsenio Hall Show just months before winning the general election. On an iconic recording of “My Favorite Things,” John Coltrane grips the listeners with the warm purring he drags from the reed of his soprano sax, a higher-pitched instrument without the recognizable broad brass bell or curved body. And Bruce Springsteen closed his magnum opus, Born to Run, with a minutes-long sax solo from the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons—a performance which the Boss reportedly spent months meticulously re-recording.