The saxophone has been one of the most widely recorded wind
instruments in popular music for decades – until now.
This sounds like the commentary of a fatalist; however this
writer is quite the optimist. All music and popularity is circular. What comes
around goes around.
Years ago, when I aspired to become the next great studio
saxophonist, there were many in the field that were lending their sound and
playing to some of the greatest pops songs of the seventies.
The tradition of saxophone in popular music dates back to
the Sousa marches only shortly after the actual invention of the saxophone.
Following the new hybrid brass and woodwind instrument’s popularity in the
marching band came the era of Ragtime, Dixieland and the early Swing Era.
Through the 1930s and 40s the saxophone gained popularity
among many as the “electric guitar of its time”. Tex Beneke
and Jimmy Dorsey were just two contemporaries who basked in the limelight of
saxophone fame during the Big Band Era. This was a time when a guy on stage
playing the saxophone was IT.
Move forward several years and the popularity of the Big
Bands, along with swing saxophone solos waned. Playing the sax still remained
cool as rock and roll bands routinely featured a tenor sax romp in the middle
of an otherwise predictable tune.
The sixties saw the popularity of the bossa nova and Stan
Getz. Big Bands still dotted the landscape with popular leaders such as Woody Herman, Buddy Rich and Maynard Fergusson still featuring some of the best saxophonists of their time.
The seventies brought funk, disco and still the need for a
good 8 to 16 bar saxophone solo. Players like Ernie Watts, Michael Brecker,
David Sanborn, Pete Chrislieb and Tom Scott made an indelible impression upon
the popular saxophone scene of the 70s and through the 80s. Horn bands like Chicago´
and Earth Wind and Fire cemented the sound of saxophone into our commercially
Throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s anyone turning
on AM radio was sure to hear a saxophone solo grace the otherwise mundane
popular landscape. Hall and Oates and Huey Lewis and the News were among the
last of the popular bands to truly feature the saxophonist within.
Fast forward to the 1990s: Barely a saxophone could be heard
among the rap-influenced landscape of popular music.
Now, well into the 21st Century the saxophone has
virtually excused itself from popular music. Although “Smooth Jazz” has kept
the sound of the sax in our ears, it doesn’t share the widespread popularity
formerly enjoyed by Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons.
This does not mean that saxophone has a lesser role in our
elementary, middle and high schools. It also has not meant a significantly
smaller roll in high school study or college. What is truly at stake here is a
common acceptance of the instrument that we all love – the saxophone.
Yes, the popular music industry has not embraced the horn
bands or saxophone in recent years. Not to worry. What goes around comes around. What was old is new again.
If not today, tomorrow the saxophone will once again prevail.