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This Week On Riverwalk Jazz: The Saxophone In Early New Orleans Jazz

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Jim Cullum Jr.
This week on Riverwalk Jazz, The Jim Cullum Jr. Jazz Band joins forces with saxophonists Kim Cusack, Vince Giordano, Brian Ogilvie and others to explore the music of early jazz saxophone masters. Our own Ron Hockett shows off his saxophone chops while his clarinet duties are covered by Allan Vaché and Evan Christopher. Bass saxophonist Vince Giordano recalls Adrian Rollini’s pivotal role in the Jazz Age sound of Bix Beiderbecke’s classic recordings. The late clarinet legend Kenny Davern and late former band member Brian Ogilvie are heard in encore performances from the archive.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website. You can also drop in on a continuous stream of shows at the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound.

The clarinet and the saxophone are first cousins—both produce their sound using a single reed, and so are classed as “single-reed woodwinds.” Before 1920, early jazz bands took their instrumentation from military bands where the clarinet was the important high voice. The saxophone was rarely heard, but most first-generation New Orleans jazz clarinetists—including Lorenzo Jnr Tio, Barney Bigard and Johnny Dodds—could “double” on sax and sometimes used it for a vocal effect.

Jazz fans of the 1920s heard the beginning of true saxophone virtuosity in recordings by Frankie Trumbauer on C melody sax and Adrian Rollini on the Bb bass sax. Both instruments are all but forgotten today.

Also in the '20s, Sidney Bechet became the earliest master of the Bb soprano sax, an instrument that did not receive much subsequent attention until John Coltrane sparked a revival with his landmark recording of “My Favorite Things” in 1960.

One of the first popular dance bands to use more than one saxophone was the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra of 1925. The stunning, cohesive precision of the sax men in this band would give rise to the driving “sax section" sound of the Swing Era ten years later.

By the 1930s, the saxophone sound had become so popular in jazz that the clarinet was almost totally edged out of the front line in most jazz bands. It was the tenor sax that took over as the dominant reed solo voice in jazz with the rise of great swinging innovators such as Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young.

Even New Orleans-oriented “traditionalist” bands such as Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats, Bud Freeman and Muggsy Spanier added a tenor sax to the front line in the '30s. While many fans prefer the purity and simplicity of the traditional three-horn front line—trumpet, trombone and clarinet—the addition of the saxophone voice gives the ensemble sound a new dimension, depth and color.

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