The story of the saxophone is best understood by taking a look at its inventor Adolphe Sax. The son of Belgium’s appointed chief instrument maker, Adolphe would learn his father’s craft and quickly surpass him in both skill and vision. At age fifteen, he fabricated a clarinet and two flutes out of ivory, a feat previously deemed near impossible. By the age of twenty he had created a new fingering system for the clarinet and reinvented the bass clarinet, transforming it from an awkward derivative of the clarinet into the regal and elegant woodwind instrument it is today. He wasn’t limited to woodwinds, and is actually credited by many as the inventor of the modern trumpet, having been the first to successfully fuse piston valves into what we now call bugles. Adolphe wasn’t just an engineer; he was also a master instrumentalist. Trained at some of Europe’s finest conservatories, he could play, and play well, virtually every wind instrument of the time.
Being the visionary he was, Adolphe had an idea to create a completely new instrument. This instrument would combine the power of a brass instrument with the subtleties of a woodwind instrument and the facility of a stringed instrument. After much experimentation, he had his first working model in 1841, which he called the bass horn. It wasn’t until a review of his new instrument in the French paper Journal des Debats, however, that the name le saxophon or
saxophone came about. In 1846, Adolphe Sax won two patents for his designs: One for a set of saxophones intended for the orchestra and the other for a set of saxophones intended for military bands. Each set consisted of a range of sizes from the small sopranino saxophone to the huge subcontrabass saxophone. These two patents represented Adolphe’s two dreams for the saxophone.
The first dream was for the saxophone to become a key part of the orchestra. There were a few problems in the way of this dream. First was the fact that Adolphe over the years had made many enemies in the orchestral establishment. His constant desire to improve the mechanics of the wind instruments in the orchestra made many of the players grow angry with him, and his proud nature offended many conductors. Secondly, the saxophone, despite having a beautiful voice and great facility, lacked precise intonation at the time, and this made it problematic for the orchestra. Although the saxophone has been written for by a few orchestral composers, many of whom were personal friends of Adolphe, the saxophone to this day has not lived up to his dream of being a staple of the orchestra.
Adolphe’s second dream, however, was realized on an even grander scale than he expected. Adolphe, although Belgian, had a special place in his heart for the French military bands. By definition, military bands are supposed to imbue a sense of power and confidence, but France’s military bands in the mid 1800s sounded so weak that they instead invoked laughter. Adolphe believed that his instruments, especially his saxophones, could turn the image of the French military bands completely around. Reluctant at first, the French adopted his instruments. The result was so effective that military bands from around the world were knocking on Adolphe’s door asking for his help, and his instruments.
This was a very important step for the saxophone because, through military bands, the saxophone would become a remarkable new image and sound that could be seen and heard around the globe. It was through these bands that the saxophone made its way to New Orleans and became a key component in the formation of early jazz.