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Alto Saxophone History

Alto Sax Story - Adolphe Sax

Where did the first Sax come from and Who made it? How long ago? Was the
Alto Sax the first Saxophone?

Here is a little introduction to the beginnings of the Alto Sax, Saxophone History and Adolphe Sax.

Alto Sax - The Who and When?

Adolphe Sax invented what we now call a Saxophone, and the only date we have for when the Saxophone was made is when he filed for a French patent in 1846 to protect this new invention. It's obvious he had been working on them for a few years and letters to and from Mr. Sax and friends talk about these new instruments and place a Birthday back to about 1840 or 41 but no one really knows for sure.

Which Sax was the First Sax, Mr. Sax?

I always thought the first Sax Mr. Sax made was the Soprano Sax in an attempt to make a louder clarinet out of metal for military bands. A little research shows Mr. Sax started with Bass Clarinet. The Bass Clarinets of his day played pretty bad and Mr. Sax made changes to that instrument, making a brand new Bass Clarinet that played really good. The first Sax he made was a Contra Bass Sax probably in the key of C, created for use mostly in Orchestras to be more flexible and melodic sounding than the bass instruments of that day. I was wrong on which Sax he made first and what kind of band he made it for. I'm glad I did a little reading before writing this article!

Adolphe Sax Background

Adolphe Sax was born in Belgium on my birthday, November 6, in 1814. (Great Day to be born!) He was the son of an Instrument maker and was working in his dad's shop, drilling Clarinet holes and repairing instruments as early as 6 years-old. Mr. Sax first played Flute and later learned to play Clarinet before creating and of course playing the Saxophone.

From my reading, Mr. Sax sounded like a real hot headed guy. Even his move to Paris in 1841 seemed to be motivated by anger and frustration because he did not win a Belgian National Exhibition award for his work due to his young age. His life is a sad story of people tearing him apart and being totally mean to him out of jealousy, because he was always making stuff better than anyone else could. He had the ability to make enemies everywhere he went and even decades after he was dead, court cases were still being fought over his new inventions and patents. It's really sad, but after all he did for musicians like making new instruments that played way better than anything ever made before; Adolphe Sax died pretty poor in 1894 at the age of 80.

The Saxophone

The Bass Clarinet was Adolphe Sax’s first real success. He also appears to be the first to make mouthpieces out of Brass for Clarinet instead of the traditional Wood Carved Mouthpieces of that day. Mr. Sax’s first Saxes looked like a big brass snake or kind of like a metal Bassoon. When Mr. Sax got the Patent for the Saxophone in France, in 1846, the shape of the Sax had evolved into the basic shape we see today. He had sketches for different sizes of Saxophones by 1846 so we can say that the Alto Sax was made some time before the 1846 Patent date.

Alto Sax - What was it like?

The early Saxophones had a few less keys than the modern Saxes do today. They had no Low Bb, biss key, high E, F or F# keys, no little rollers between the pinky keys, no automatically closing G# or low C#, no right hand alternate F# key and 2 or 3 octave keys instead of one that switches for you. These helpful additions and extended range came over time. The first Saxes looked pretty simple.

Alto Sax - Why "Saxophone?"

The name "Saxophone" was obviously an adaptation of Adolphe's name. He named it after himself - the Saxophone If I had made it, I guess it would have been called the Vailophone.

Growing Popularity for the Sax

The First place Mr. Sax's instruments found a home were Wind Bands or Military Bands throughout Europe. By the time of Sax's death, the Saxophone had found its home in the US in the hugely popular Wind Bands of John Philip Sousa and Gilmore. It was not long before the Sax had found great popularity in the Vaudeville act of the Brown Brothers in the early teens, a Sax Sextet that performed in clown outfits, and then Rudy Wiedoeft took the Sax to new solo places with technical facility that amazed the American public.

By the close of World War 1, the Sax had American manufacturers, Method books to learn how to play Sax, H. Benne Henton had performed in the Altissimo range, and the Saxophone was just starting to move into the Jazz Bands.

The word "Jazz" is first seen in print in 1913. By 1914 we start to see Saxophones in these new Jazz Bands and by the time the Roaring 20's get started, young men would buy a Saxophone much like young men bought Guitars in the 60's as a sign of being hip, modern and popular. The Saxophone Advertisements of that day sold the Saxophone Player as the life of any party, the person we all wanted to be. The Sax was finding its way into more and more Jazz, or should I say Dance Orchestra's, as they were now called since social dancing seemed a natural pair to this new Jazz. It was 1926 and the first formal orchestration book was written: Arranging For The Modern Dance Orchestra by Arthur Lang which is still in use today.

The Sax was here to stay. Saxophones were selling in the tens of thousands and no right thinking band leader would even consider a band without the Sax. With prohibition, a national youth dance and party craze, and post war enthusiasm and an overall sense of prosperity and growth; the Sax was launched into the spot light and seemed to exemplify American culture for that time.

Other Adolphe Sax Pages and Early Sax Info

National Music Museum PICs of Adolphe Sax's Saxophones.

Image of an Adolphe Sax Alto Saxophone ca. 1860

Adolphe Sax - Historical Excerpts by Leon Kochnitzky from the Belgian Government

Saxophone History Time line 1814-1995

Sax Gourmet Early Sax Ads - An Historic look at Sax Advertising, and a little humorous too.


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