Saxophone's History as 'The Devil's Horn'

Michael Segell discusses his new book, The Devil's Horn. It follows the history of the saxophone through more than 160 years as a controversial classical, jazz and rock instrument.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

(Soundbite of saxophone music)

HANSEN: The saxophone has been around for 160 years and has had a profound influence on the world's of classical, jazz, blues and rock music. The sax has helped at least one political candidate connect with the public.

(Soundbite of Bill Clinton playing the saxophone; applause)

HANSEN: And the saxophone is the instrument of choice for cartoon character, Lisa Simpson, and her musical soulmate, Bleeding Gums Murphy.

(Soundbite from "The Simpsons," featuring a duet of these two)

BLEEDING GUMS MURPHY: (Singing) Oh, I'm so lonely since my baby left me. I got no money, and nothing is free. Oh, I've been so lonely since the day I was born. All I got is this rusty, this rusty old horn.

LISA SIMPSON: (Singing) I've got a bratty brother. He bugs me every day.

HANSEN: But the history of the saxophone is a checkered one. Adolph Sax, who lived in Belgium with his instrument-making family, made the first one in the 1800s, and it took a long time for the horn to get any respect at all. Michael Segell has written a new book, "The Devil's Horn: The Story of the Saxophone from Noisy Novelty to King of Cool." Segell describes himself as an amateur sax player and he joins us from our New York bureau.

Welcome to our program.

Mr. MICHAEL SEGELL ("The Devil's Horn"): Thank you.

HANSEN: So what attracted you to the instrument, the saxophone?

Mr. SEGELL: I'm actually a recreational drummer, and I've been playing in the same band for 35 years, ever since I was in college. And just a couple of years ago, the saxophone player strapped his horn around my neck and showed me where to place my fingers on the keyboard and how to blow, and I did and I felt utterly transported. I became infatuated with the horn. I couldn't leave it alone; it was very much like falling in love. And I decided to take lessons and find out everything I could about the horn. And one of the first things I did was I went to legendary players and I said, `What happened to you the first time you picked up a saxophone?' because I wanted to see whether my experience was typical. And what I heard was that everyone had an experience that was actually even more powerful than mine.

Sonny Rollins told me that his mother had given him a saxophone when he was five or six years old, and he opened up the case and he felt that it was this beautiful, shapely woman who was reaching out to him. And he picked up the horn and he went into his bedroom for what he felt was for 15 minutes and he came out six or seven hours later and he had been in a reverie the whole time. And if you've ever seen Sonny play, you realize that he gets to that spot quite often.

(Soundbite of saxophone solo)

Mr. SEGELL: So it has this very spooky, diabolical, seductive quality that seems to hit all saxophonists.

HANSEN: Is that why it's sort of had a seedy reputation for so long?

Mr. SEGELL: Well, the seedy reputation probably began in 1903 when the Vatican declared that the saxophone gave reasonable concern for disgust and scandal. Now you have to wonder how the pope would have figured this out, you know, sitting in his apartment listening to some wax cylinders of saxophone music and saying, `Wow, that's profane. That's what profane music is.' And then in the teens, when there was the dance craze in America and everyone was boogalooing and doing a lot of dirty dancing in the seedier nightclubs, which is naturally where the saxophone gravitated to, the Ladies' Home Journal wrote that the saxophone rendered listeners incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong and evil and good. And then I think the apotheosis of all of this scapegoating of the saxophone occurred in 1954 when Elia Kazan made the movie version of "A Streetcar Named Desire." And there's a scene in the movie in which Stella and Stanley has had a fight and Stella is standing at the top of that wrought-iron staircase in her sultry New Orleans apartment, and they're coming back together. And in the background is a sultry saxophone solo.

(Soundbite from "A Streetcar Named Desire" featuring saxophone solo)

Mr. SEGELL: The Legion of Decency screened this movie. They would either give their imprimatur to movies or they would say that we can't possibly endorse this. And they said we can't possibly endorse this because of that scene. Not because of what was depicted on the screen, but because of the so-called carnal, voluptuous sound of the saxophone.

HANSEN: Is there also something in the shape of the instrument? I mean, the fact that when you have to play it it's almost like you are--you know, you wrap your arms around it and you hold it close to your body and the fact that it has a very sensual shape?

Mr. SEGELL: Absolutely. It's an ambiguous sexual shape, and certainly that imagery was used to great effect in the '50s and the '40s with the rhythm and blues honkers. There was one fellow, Big Jay McNeely who would get down on his back on stage. He would be wearing a phosphorescent suit and he would surround himself in a ring of fire and he wold play one scary, honking note for about 30 or 45 minutes with a scorching rhythm section behind him.

HANSEN: Now when Adolph Sax, who invented the instrument back in Belgium, he didn't have any of this in mind when he was trying to fashion a new musical instrument. How is it that he--I don't know. How did he come up with the idea for this new horn?

Mr. SEGELL: The simple explanation technologically was that he placed a clarinet mouthpiece on the body of an offaclyde(ph) which was the forerunner of the tuba, a great big instrument. But he envisioned that the saxophone would have two uses: in military ensembles and also orchestrally. But because the saxophone had been invented in the 1840s, it had missed out on all the great music that was written in the 18th century, and when people heard the horn they had no desire to rewrite that music to include the saxophone in it.

HANSEN: This is a remarkable invention. Adolph Sax actually patented it in 1846. But when he moved to Paris, there are actually people who tried to sabotage him. They stole his tools. They stole saxophones from his workshop. They even tried to assassinate him.

Mr. SEGELL: Well, that's the saxophone for you, controversial right from the start. The biggest issue for Adolph Sax right after he invented the horn was that his saxophone threatened to put out of business all sorts of other instrument makers. The saxophone is so flexible in its sound, it can sound like an oboe, a bassoon, a French horn, a flute. You can do all sorts of things with it. And when he won his contract to have the saxophones placed in the French military ensembles he obviously was going to put out of business a lot of people. So you're right, they formed this Association of United Instrument Makers and they twice tried to kill him. They burned down his factory, as you say. And that legacy seems to have followed the saxophone right up until the present. It just gets people's goats.

But interestingly, the saxophone ended up empowering three very disenfranchised groups in America and they would be African-Americans, women and children. It wasn't really until the soloists broke out of the dance bands--and they would be Coleman Hawkins and Chu Berry and Ben Webster and Mayor Lester Young--that the saxophone really found the voice that we think of today.

Something very similar happened with women in the teens. It was considered impolite for women to play an instrument in public, and yet in the teens around the time of the suffrage movement, women formed in America all-female, all-saxophone bands of four, eight, 12, 20 saxophones.

And the short story with the children is that the profits from the enormous sales of saxophones in the teens and the '20s when a million and a half saxophones were sold in America during what was known as the saxophone craze basically subsidized music education in America thanks to the instrument makers, who were self-serving by giving their instruments away to fledgling bands in public schools.

HANSEN: So what's your sound? I mean, if you have someone like Paul Desmond who wants his horn to sound like, you know, a dry martini--you know, what's your best song? What's your sound?

Mr. SEGELL: My best sound is when I'm growling and I'm faking it, basically. Running up and down the horn and just screeching and wailing and just trying to sound like Pharoah Sanders, which is a kind of music that I don't actually like to listen to.

(Soundbite from "Naima" of Segell saxophone solo)

Mr. SEGELL: But I can play a couple of sweet songs, like I can play "Naima" by John Coltrane, which I find really moving because, for one, it just puts me in touch with this amazing guy. And I realize that as he went on his spiritual quest of that last 15 years of his life when he cleaned up, an interesting thing was happening. He was playing higher and higher on the tenor.

(Soundbite from "Naima" of Segell saxophone solo)

Mr. SEGELL: And as his spiritual quest continued, he moved into the soprano, and it was almost as though there were these parallel movements. The farther out the guy got into the ether, the farther he had to climb up the musical scales in the saxophone family. It was a very interesting thing and it just--when I play it I think about that all the time.

HANSEN: Michael Segell's new book is, "The Devil's Horn: The Story of the Saxophone from Noisy Novelty to King of Cool." It's published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Michael Segell joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks a lot.

Mr. SEGELL: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite from "Naima" of Segell saxophone solo)

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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