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The saxophone in popular music by Skip Spratt

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The saxophone in popular music – Wherediditgo?

by Skip Spratt

The saxophone has been one of the most widely recorded windinstruments in popular music for decades – until now.

This sounds like the commentary of a fatalist; however thiswriter is quite the optimist. All music and popularity is circular. What comesaround goes around.

Years ago, when I aspired to become the next great studiosaxophonist, there were many in the field that were lending their sound andplaying to some of the greatest pops songs of the seventies.

The tradition of saxophone in popular music dates back tothe Sousa marches only shortly after the actual invention of the saxophone.Following the new hybrid brass and woodwind instrument’s popularity in themarching band came the era of Ragtime, Dixieland and the early Swing Era.

Through the 1930s and 40s the saxophone gained popularityamong many as the “electric guitar of its time”. Tex Benekeand Jimmy Dorsey were just two contemporaries who basked in the limelight ofsaxophone fame during the Big Band Era. This was a time when a guy on stageplaying the saxophone was IT.

Move forward several years and the popularity of the BigBands, along with swing saxophone solos waned. Playing the sax still remainedcool as rock and roll bands routinely featured a tenor sax romp in the middleof an otherwise predictable tune.

The sixties saw the popularity of the bossa nova and StanGetz. 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 agood 8 to 16 bar saxophone solo. Players like Ernie Watts, Michael Brecker,David Sanborn, Pete Chrislieb and Tom Scott made an indelible impression uponthe 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 commerciallyattuned ears.

Throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s anyone turningon AM radio was sure to hear a saxophone solo grace the otherwise mundanepopular landscape. Hall and Oates and Huey Lewis and the News were among thelast of the popular bands to truly feature the saxophonist within.

Fast forward to the 1990s: Barely a saxophone could be heardamong the rap-influenced landscape of popular music.

Now, well into the 21st Century the saxophone hasvirtually excused itself from popular music. Although “Smooth Jazz” has keptthe sound of the sax in our ears, it doesn’t share the widespread popularityformerly enjoyed by Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons.

This does not mean that saxophone has a lesser role in ourelementary, middle and high schools. It also has not meant a significantlysmaller roll in high school study or college. What is truly at stake here is acommon acceptance of the instrument that we all love – the saxophone.

Yes, the popular music industry has not embraced the hornbands 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.

About the Author:
Skip Spratt holds a BM with honors in Jazz Saxophone and an MAT in Music Education from The University of the Arts, and a Certificate from Berklee College of Music in Boston. He is the instrumental music teacher at Berlin Community School, Secretary of the NJ-IAJE and has taught saxophone at Rowan University.

Skip is the keeper of The Saxophone Shed ( He is available for private instruction of all levels in saxophone, flute, clarinet and improvisation in the Philadelphia area. Additionally, Lessons by Mail are Cd lessons available to students in any region. Just click on the Lessons by Mail link at
Created: October 4, 2005.
Update: January 18, 2006
©2005-6, HarriRautiainen and respectiveauthors

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