Happy Birthday, Mr. Sax Thursday marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone. Miles Hoffman explains how an instrument designed for military bands became inextricably linked to jazz.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Sax

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It is rare to be able to celebrate a man who invented a popular musical instrument. Mostly from the guitar to the violin to the flute, musical instruments evolved over time. There is no Mr. Flute, there's no Madame Trumpet, but as our colleague Renee Montagne tells us, there is a Mr. Sax.



That is the sound of a quartet of saxophones. Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Adolphe Sax and to help us celebrate is MORNING EDITION music commentator Miles Hoffman. Good morning.

MILES HOFFMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And perhaps I should say Monsieur Sax, rather than Mr. Sax?

HOFFMAN: Oui, oui, oui. Yes, you should say Monsieur Sax because he was born in Belgium. His father was an instrument maker. Adolphe, the son, got started in dad's shop, but actually before he invented the saxophone he invented a whole bunch of other instruments including an improved bass clarinet and a whole family of valved brass instruments that were called - what else - saxhorns.


DON JOHNSON: (Playing instrument).

HOFFMAN: That's the sound of a saxhorn, Renee. It's played by the trumpeter Don Johnson.

MONTAGNE: And it sounds quite a bit like a trumpet.

HOFFMAN: It does indeed and in fact the saxhorn was considered, or is considered, a precursor of the modern flugelhorn.

MONTAGNE: Flugelhorn, but let's get back to the saxophone. When did Adolphe Sax actually invent it?

HOFFMAN: He seems to have invented his first saxophones in the early 1840s, Renee. Which means he was still in his 20s, but he took out a patent for the whole family of instruments, the whole family of saxophones, in 1846 and I say family because he made instruments in a whole range of sizes from small instruments that played way up in the soprano range, to enormous saxophones that played in the bass range and we're actually very lucky, Renee because one of the world's most extensive collections of instruments made by Adolphe Sax himself is located right here in this country in Vermillion, South Dakota.

MONTAGNE: And may I ask, why Vermillion?

HOFFMAN: Renee, if you say Vermillion to serious instrument collectors anywhere in the world, they know exactly what you're talking about because Vermilion is the home not just of the University of South Dakota but of the National Music Museum, which happens to house one of the two or three greatest musical instrument collections in the world. They have priceless stringed instruments, they have rare keyboard instruments, they have perhaps the greatest trumpet collection in the world. It's just an astonishing place.

MONTAGNE: And the museum has a collection of Adolphe Sax saxophones.

HOFFMAN: They have 10 saxophones that were made by Sax himself including one of only five bass saxophones that Sax himself ever made and it was probably from his personal collection. They've restored several of these instruments to playing condition and C.J. Kocher who's the saxophone professor at the University of South Dakota has made a few demonstration recordings with these instruments. So here's Dr. Kocher first playing a soprano saxophone.


C.J. KOCHER: (Playing instrument).

HOFFMAN: That's the lovely sound of a soprano saxophone made by Adolphe Sax. Here's a tenor saxophone, Renee.


KOCHER: (Playing instrument).

HOFFMAN: And here is C.J. Kocher playing a baritone saxophone.


KOCHER: (Playing instrument).

MONTAGNE: The sounds of saxophones made by Adolphe Sax, born 200 years ago today. And Miles, you said earlier that Sax took out his patent in 1846 and we usually think of the saxophone as a jazz instrument but there was no jazz in 1846. So I take it that's not the way the instrument started out?

HOFFMAN: That's right, Renee. It was originally intended for use in military bands and in fact it was another November 6 birthday boy, a military band leader by the name of John Philip Sousa - you may have heard of him - who helped to popularize the saxophone in this country and he had saxophones in his band. And the saxophone section has remained an important part of virtually all military bands and wind ensembles to this day.

MONTAGNE: And what about orchestras? What would have drawn a classical composer to the saxophone?

HOFFMAN: The sound, Renee. It was an interesting sound, it was an exotic sound and it was especially French composers who were drawn to it. They wrote concertos, they included it not all the time, but every now and then in their orchestral compositions. One of the most famous passages for the saxophone in classical music is from Maurice Ravel's orchestration of "Pictures At An Exhibition" by Mussorgsky.


ORCHESTRA: (Playing instruments).

HOFFMAN: That was the sound of the alto saxophone, Renee, in Maurice Ravel's orchestration of "Pictures At An Exhibition."

MONTAGNE: And Miles, let's end this on a jazz note. I mean, you can't talk about Adolphe Sax and the saxophone without hearing some jazz and there is so much to choose from.

HOFFMAN: Why don't we go out with a clip of one of the greatest alto sax players who ever walked the planet? This is Charlie Parker, also known as Bird, playing a famous solo from the song "Kim."


CHARLIE PARKER: (Playing instrument).

MONTAGNE: OK I'll stop moving my shoulders and thank you. Thank you, Miles, it's been a pleasure.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Renee, always a pleasure.


PARKER: (Playing instrument).

INSKEEP: Renee spoke with our regular guest, Miles Hoffman. He's the violist of the American Chamber Players and associate professor of Viola at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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