Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Adolphe Sax

Adolphe Sax in 1844
Adolphe Sax (1813-1894) in 1844

On June 28, 1846 – 175 years ago today – Adolphe Sax patented the saxophone family as a group of eight (not seven, as is often erroneously stated) instruments. Of these eight “saxophones”, four remain in common use today: the soprano and tenor saxophones, both pitched in B-flat, and the alto and baritone saxophones, both pitched in E-flat.

The invention of the saxophone was a stunning achievement. Never before or since has a single individual created an entirely new family of instruments.

Left-to-right: soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones built by Adolphe Sax in Paris in 1865
Left-to-right: soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones built by Adolphe Sax in Paris in 1865

That’s Not Funny!

In the musical world there are all sorts of jokes (nasty jokes!) that are considered stereotypically appropriate for the sorts of people that play certain instruments. Most common are viola jokes. That’s not because there’s anything inherently funny about violas or the people who play them but because violists tend to be naturally supportive, genuinely nice people, people who will usually will not fight back when joshed but rather, will smile a melancholy smile, roll their eyes, and shake their heads.

Question: what’s the difference between a viola and a coffin?

Answer: with the coffin, the dead person is on the inside.

No respect.

But other instruments and their players have their own jokes as well. For example, those who play such physically “primitive” instruments as the drums and trombone are celebrated (unfairly of course!) for their perceived lack of intelligence and social grace.

Question: what do you call a drummer without a girlfriend?

Answer: homeless.

Question: what did the trombonist get on her SATs?

Answer: drool.

Oboists are stereotypically known for their irritability, perhaps a result of playing an instrument that requires so much air pressure that their brains are routinely squished backwards into their skull caps.

Question: what does an oboist use for birth control?

Answer: his personality.

Accordion players, appropriately, have inspired a veritable mountain of jokes. I’ll told some before, and I’ll tell one now:

Question: how to you define an optimist?

Answer: an accordion player with a pager.

Those puffed-up popinjays that are conductors are the butt of some really nasty jokes, something they fully deserve.

Question: what’s the difference between a bull and an orchestra?

Answer: with the bull, the horns are up front and the asshole’s in the back.

And saxophone jokes? Until I was preparing this blog, when I did an internet search, I had never in my 67 years seen or heard a saxophone joke. (I would ask you to remember that I began my professional life as a jazz musician and was thus surrounded by saxophone players; as an undergraduate I studied big band composition with the saxophonist and composer Benny Carter and improvisation with the saxophonist Lee Konitz. If anyone was going to hear a saxophone joke, it was going to be me!)I would tell you that the saxophone jokes I have found online are pretty much all repurposed lawyer jokes, drummer jokes, and viola jokes, with one outstanding exception:

Question: what’s the difference between a tenor saxophone and a baritone saxophone?

Answer: the baritone holds bigger plants.

Okay; I’ll admit that’s pretty good but it’s also pretty tame and not particularly unkind.

Question: why are there so few saxophone jokes?

Answer: because the instruments are so damned cool and the people who play them equally so.

I like the way Michael Segell puts it in his book The Devil’s Horn (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2005), as his description mirrors my experience:

“Saxophonists are a generous and agreeable lot, enormously sympathetic to a new convert. They are happy to help in any way they can.”

Today’s Music History Monday will focus on Adolphe Sax and his crazy life (I would tell that the guy had more lives than a feral cat and Wile E. Coyote combined). Tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes will focus on the actual instruments Sax invented (including the “saxotromba”, “saxhorn”, “saxtuba”, and the six-piston trombone), the challenges he experienced trying to have those instruments accepted by “the establishment” and, of course, some recommendations for some really scalding hot recordings of saxophone ensembles.… Continue reading, only on Patreon

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