Loretta Barnard

That’s some good sax: We blow hard for international saxophone day

The saxophone has endless appeal, so to honour it, we thought we’d wrap our lips around it. You know where I’m going with this, daddy-o.



Feeling saxy? Maybe it’s because Saxophone Day is coming up on Monday 6 November. And yes, Saxophone Day is an actual thing – but what’s it all about?

Saxophone Day commemorates the birthday of Adolphe Sax (1814-1894), the Belgian musician and instrument maker whose efforts in the 1840s to achieve a better tone from his bass clarinet resulted in his invention of the musical instrument that in the twentieth century became particularly associated with jazz and later rock ‘n’ roll.

Antoine-Joseph Sax, known as Adolphe, was born in 1814, the son of a carpenter and musical instrument maker. He began playing the clarinet when he was a boy and often tinkered with the valves on his instruments to try to make them sound better. By the time he was 20 he’d publicly exhibited his improvements to the bass clarinet. Only a few years later, he’d also invented an organ and a new method for tuning pianos. But his great love was for woodwind instruments, so he turned himself to creating something new and at the 1841 Brussels Industrial Expo, he debuted his saxophone for the first time. It was quite the spectacle and led to a commission to provide good quality instruments for French army bands.

Sax moved to Paris and began developing a range of saxophones in different sizes, seven altogether, from sopranino to baritone to contrabass. But money was a constant problem – he was never a good financial manager and lived modestly in poor accommodation – until one day he got a big break. Famed composer and music critic Hector Berlioz praised his inventions. Soon the instrument was in demand in military bands and other ensembles across France and beyond.

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Before long Sax had a flourishing workshop, but meanwhile instrument makers in Germany and elsewhere were taking legal action to have Sax’s patents nullified. In fact over the years, Sax was involved in a number of lawsuits over his invention, others claiming they’d done it first. This took its toll and although his saxophones sold well, he filed for bankruptcy a number of times between 1852 and 1877.

One of the things that most disappointed Sax was that his invention never found a real home in classical orchestral music. Sax had written a manual for the instrument, hoping the saxophone would soon be featured in classical orchestral works, but this never truly eventuated. Even being on staff at the Paris Conservatory for over a decade didn’t have much of an impact in this respect. The musical establishment, like all traditional establishments, was unwilling to embrace this unorthodox new instrument.

I think Sax would be thrilled to know that after his death, some of the great classical composers of the twentieth century wrote some marvellous music for his instrument. There’s a beautiful solo for saxophone in the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (1940), and Glazunov composed his now famous saxophone concerto in 1934. Debussy’s Rhapsody for Alto Saxophone (1919) was apparently written reluctantly, but no matter! The saxophone is a perfect lead instrument in this dreamy piece of music.

But it’s jazz with which the saxophone is most associated. Indeed for many people the saxophone epitomises jazz, and it came to real prominence in the 1920s when musicians like Coleman Hawkins and Sidney Bechet wowed their audiences. From then on, the sax became an essential part of dance bands and jazz orchestras, and long may it reign!

Jazz has produced some outstanding proponents of Sax’s amazing invention. Johnny Hodges whose beautiful tones made him an integral part of Duke Ellington’s orchestra for decades had a massive impact on jazz and on later saxophone players of any musical persuasion. Benny Goodman called him the “greatest man on alto sax I ever heard”. His smooth tones in this rendition of All of Me are sure to dazzle you:

Among other acclaimed jazz saxophonists are Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Paul Desmond, Ben Webster, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, Will Vinson, and the much loved and highly influential John Coltrane. Among our Australian greats are Bernie McGann, Don Burrows and Sandy Evans. You can spend literally hours and hours on YouTube listening to these master saxophonists. Their styles range from swinging to soulful, from warm to hot, bold and bluesy to dreamy and balladic. Really, there’s something for everyone.

When Adolphe Sax died in 1894 at the age of 79, little did he suspect that the instrument he invented and for which he had such high classical hopes would one day become a staple of jazz, that most inventive genre of music. A great pairing.

This Saxophone Day, keep the music playing. Let’s go out with Art Pepper playing These Foolish Things and some Tenor Madness from Sonny Rollins:


Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who has authored four non-fiction books, been a contributing writer to a wide range of reference books and whose essays have been published across a number of platforms. A regular contributor to The Big Smoke, she also coordinates the TBS Next Gen program.

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