Random Thoughts On The Sax Section

VincentLopezSaxSection1926VerticalIn trying to describe what makes Bennie Moten’s saxophone section so wonderfully different from any other in the continuum, I started to think about what jazz listeners have come to expect from the entity known as a “saxophone section.” The following began as an introduction for the Moten posts, went in its own direction and then turned into some random thoughts on this very important part of the jazz orchestra. The reader may be able to extract some larger point, or at the very least enjoy the music and photos.

jazz-consortium-bandleaderblogdotcomPaul Whiteman called the saxophone section the string section of a big band. There’s more to his comparison than plush harmonies and fast scales. Just as the string section of a classical orchestra identifies the group as another link in a particular musical tradition, while distinguishing the best orchestras as unique members of that particular musical community, so does the saxophone section of a jazz big band. That’s not to diminish the distinct sound of a particular brass or rhythm section. Yet what instrument signifies “classical” like the violin, or “jazz” like the saxophone?

http://archive.org/details/BenPollack-91-100Think of Benny Goodman’s well-drilled but warm foursome under Hymie Schertzer’s transparent lead, or Earle Warren’s searing alto atop the twin tenors of Lester Young and Herschel Evans, with Jack Washington anchoring it all on baritone. Duke Ellington’s saxophone sections patched together various reeds in different combinations yet remained instantly recognizable despite, or because of, their versatility. Whiteman wasn’t just commenting on notes in a score or crafting good copy: how much does a single note from this instrumental part reveal about the musical whole?

Walter Thomas, Andrew Brown Arville Harris, Eddie Barefield in 1934The modern saxophone section lives and thrives by concerted blend and drive as well as the power of its soloists. Woody Herman’s “four brothers” section is best known for solos by Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward, and Serge Chaloff, but their famous titular number shows how well they work(ed) together as well as individually. The best sax sections are their own band within a band. There’s enough differentiation of register and timbre between the two to three instruments that comprise the section to create a self-contained ensemble. At the same time, solid improvised solos splintering out of the unit are a given. Several “Meets the Sax Section” albums illustrate the idea, as well as how powerful that idea has remained for listeners.

Vanguard Jazz Orchestra c/o nj.comThe swing era may not have introduced the concept of a saxophone section (which was already de rigueur for dance bands by the twenties), but it did codify a certain conception of it. From the big, rich sound of Count Basie’s new testament saxes, through the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band grooving under Jerome Richardson’s greasy soprano, to the thick, ultra-precise reeds directed by Bob Mintzer and other contemporary players, there’s a clear expectation of what a saxophone section should “do,” which still allows individual texture and growth.

Mingus Big Band JazzTimesUnlike the classical string section, where individual tone is incidental to the “ideal tone” taught and striven for in conservatories, the ideal tone in a jazz band is the musician’s tone. Individual timbres may balance one another but never disappear into the mix. Every metaphor has its limits…

Thomas County Central High School Saxophone Section

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8 thoughts on “Random Thoughts On The Sax Section

  1. Paul Lindemeyer says:

    Something that has been lost in jazz saxophoning is tone. There’s not a lot of time to focus on your sound when you’re a young musician who’s responsible for burning the scales with metronome precision. It’s an intangible and a subjective, so it doesn’t get discussed. Section playing is a great way to teach it without having to talk about it.

    When I did jazz lab with Louis Smith at the University of Michigan, he was not one to explain things. He simply said, “In this band we’ll play without vibrato. Don’t use it.” It was a stylistic orientation – Lou was a homie and firm acolyte of Thad Jones – but it also gave us a chance to listen across the section and focus on interpretation, and also made it easier to match sounds for us non-music majors.

    Later on I got great lessons in expression and tone just from sitting next to fine players in a section – Chuck Wilson and Andy Farber on altos come to mind, as well as John Moore on tenor. John is not a jazz player, but a classical soloist with a resolutely purist tone concept out of Sigurd Rascher, and a player capable of incredible delicacy and subtlety on a big “honking” instrument. The “section” we were in was a sax choir of twenty-plus – another great place to learn ensemble esthetics, but often overlooked as a cultish preoccupation by those outside Rascher’s circles.

    I often wonder what the standard of sax playing would be if the jazz and classical traditions were brought closer together. I’m sure it would benefit both sides. Academia isn’t built that way, but jazz players would gain an idea of tonal beauty and classical ones a palette of expression, things neither school currently develops in young saxophonists.

  2. Andrew Homzy says:

    I discovered that “classical” saxophone flourished mainly in two places – France & the USA. Ravel was the only great composer who understood, liked and significantly featured the saxophone in a symphonic work. In the USA, three “classical” saxophonists became, arguably, widely known – Rudy Wiedoeft, Benny Krueger and Jimmy Dorsey.

    What I found interesting is that “classical” saxophonists play with, essentially, the same tone as those who were recording on the scene about 100 years ago – the same for violinists. Blindfolded, you can’t tell one great violinist from the other. Jazz saxophonists, however, are as different as cats. Tone, rhythm, melodic & harmonic characteristics quickly identify the masters.

  3. Andrew J. Sammut says:

    Thanks to both of you, as always, for reading and for continuing the discussion.

    One of the things that makes early jazz such a unique experience is the emphasis on tone that you both mention, both as an expressive element and an individuating one. Musicologists and historians will point out how early jazz is comparatively limited in terms of harmony, rhythm or whatever next to more contemporary styles, while remaining seemingly oblivious to the music’s diversity of tone. King Oliver may not play the same number of notes as Dizzy Gillespie, but he can play the same note in many different ways. I also think that a beautiful tone (or a raspy one, a growling one, a rapidly vibrating one, etc.) simply reaches the untrained ear easier than a flat nine or changing chords every beat; I know it does mine!

    I do have to add just one (1) little cent about violinists: for me, period instrument players achieve much more differentiation of tone on their violins i.e. Andrew Manze’s thick, dry sound on Handel’s sonatas versus Hiro Kurosaki’s laser-thin yet much sweeter focus on the same works.

  4. Don Jacobs says:

    Dear Sir,
    I’m in hopes of getting permission to use the vintage photo above of the 4 Black men playing saxophone (yestercenturypop.com/2013/07/09/s/). I’d like to use it briefly in a music video I’m trying to put together. Please contact me if you would at djacobs821@aol.com. It would be greatly appreciated. Thank you, Don Jacobs

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      Hello, I actually got that photo through Confetta Ras’ excellent website, jazzagemusic.blogspot.com so you should probably ask her for permission. Thanks for reading!


    My uncle was Hymie Shertzer thank you for including him as he was also a wonderful warm human being, He left the ‘c’ out of Schertzer after 1934 for business reasons ,long name for posters ,marquees ,and record labels. all the best Elliott Schertzer

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      I have been a huge fan of your uncle literally since I first started listening to jazz, on a Benny Goodman reissue that included your uncle’s warm, transparent lead alto. Goodness knows I am not the only one! Thank you so very much for reading and for writing, Mr. Schertzer.

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