The History of the Saxophone

Reading through the history books, the saxophone remains one of the most remarkable instrument ever to appear on the music scene.

It has been many decades since its invention, but the sax still stands out. The relaxing, sophisticated, romantic, and sensual sound the sax produces strokes your nervous system in an exciting way that you can’t get enough of it.

Here’s a classic sax album to kick things off by the “colossus” himself, Sonny Rollins.

Although music has continued to change over the years, the saxophone has consistently enriched the music scene. The sax is one of those instruments that fascinates you even if it is lying around, not being played.  Just the look of it is intriguing.

Sax music is not just about the external sound that is produced by the saxophone; it’s a piece of the soul. Its an expression of what is felt from deep within. The sax has many of the same characteristics as the human voice, with a great deal of character and diversity of sound.

Adolphe Sax & The Invention of the Saxophone

The saxophone was invented more than 170 years ago by Adolphe Sax.  This would have been in the 1840’s (patented in 1846).

Adolphe was one of the most renown instrument makers of his time. He was also a clarinetist and flutist.

Sax’s father was also a skilled instrument maker and had passed this skills to his son. Being a skillful instrument maker, Adolphe had made some improvements and changes to existing instruments.

The improvements that Adolphe had made in the bass clarinet through the extension of the lower range and creation of the ophicleide helped him to acquire the experience that he needed to make the first saxophone.

Being a student of clarinet and flute in the Brussel’s Conservatory of Music, he made an observation that only a keen student would have seen.

He noticed that the typical woodwind had a missing range and he believed that just a brass instrument would fill that void. He then began to develop an instrument that would overblow the octave, and he made an instrument that had both clarinet and horn properties.

Adolphe created saxophones in various sizes both small and big. He then applied for a patent for this instruments and was then given a 15 years patent. This patent was a composition of the fourteen different designs that he had created.

The fourteen original designs where then categorized into two groups each ranging from contrabass to soprano.

 The two groups were E and B and F and C. The set E and B were used in military bands although it is the most commonly used set in today’s saxophones.

The set F and C was often used in the orchestra. Throughout the 15 years he had, he experimented on this instruments to find the right key. He finally settled on an instrument that was alternating in between Bb and Eb.

The Evolution of the Sax

After his patent expired in 1866, various instrument makers arose and made some improvements and changes in the sax.

Although Adolphe may have tried different modification such a lowering the range, a French instrument maker was the first one to be able to make this kind of adjustment.

Minor changes such as the addition of keys for alternate fingering were made. This made the saxophone easy and fast to play it. Bending the pitch was also achieved through this modification.

Various developments were made on Adolphe’s saxophone such as operating the tone holes with one key. Initially, the saxophone had two separate octave keys that helped to play the upper registers. This advancement made it easier to play the sax.

Buffet, one of the largest saxophone manufacturing company, immediately after Adolphe patent expiration, together with other companies such as Millereau, began producing licensed saxophone.

In 1881, shortly after Gautrot had been dismissed, he renewed his patent and made more innovations on the sax.

This aim of the new patent was to extend the saxophone bell so that it could produce the A and Bb notes. He also added another octave key to make a total of four. The addition of the octave key was to enable the production of G and F notes.

Pierre-Louis Gautrot

When it came to manufacturing and designing instruments, Gautrot was a genius.

Just after Adolphe patent expired, he applied for his patent in 1868.

After carefully making observations on the challenges the saxophone was faced with, he realized that pad leaking was the most significant problem. His patent was aimed at producing saxophones that were leak proof. 

Although the system Gautrot introduced was not perfect, it had a great impact and minimized the problem of a leaking pad.

Although Gautrot was a genius he also had his weaknesses. He had poor management skills when it came to business and this lead to him being declared bankrupt.

Henri Selmer and The First Modern Saxophones

Seimer is one of the known manufacturers of clarinets and other mouthpiece instruments.

He founded a company named after his name that is located in Paris.  He won a number of medals such as gold and bronze for the instruments that he had manufactured. 

He made various development on Adolphe’s sax in the early 1940’s. This included the renovation of the octave key, and the best of the development was offsetting of the tone holes.

His company was the first one to create a modern saxophone.

Most of the modern saxophone trace their origin to this model. He invented the balanced action of the sax that leads to a significant improvement in the sax world. His mechanism was straightforward and it made it easy to play the lower register in the same speed you could play in other parts.

Mark VI

Mark VI is the most remarkable saxophone that Selmer created. This model was available in alto, soprano, tenor, and bass. Salmer’s Mark VI saxophones were transitional and incorporated both the design that he had seen in the preceding saxophone and also the element design that was found in the current saxophone.

All these instruments were manufactured in France and later imported to other countries such American and British markets. This model set a standard that all manufactured use. There have been modifications over the years of the saxophone, they are all variations of Selmers Mark six model.

Charles Houvenaghel

Understanding the technical difficulties that could confront an instrument, the life of Charles Houvenaghel was devoted to improving the saxophone.

His knowledge of the manufacturing processes gave him an upper hand as compared to other competitive manufacturers.

He had those rare qualities that once come along once in a while. He was so brilliant in instrument design, he had an ear for music and a background in engineering. All these qualities combined made him redevelop the mechanics of the saxophone system.

He used the tone placement principle of the Boehm system. Although the regular fingering system of the sax is used, addition of new fingering can be used.

The most distinct feature of this modification is that it lowered the tones and you do not need to use the side keys to produce both the tone scales.

This instrument was expensive to build and many saxophonist players were unable and unwilling to learn the newly introduced fingering despite its advantage.

Only a few numbers of this instrument were able to be produced into the market. This model was only used for a few years and is not currently in the market.

Parts of a Saxophone

The sax consists of a conical tube and a bell. It also contains 20 to 23 tone holes at intervals, and they vary in size. To play the upper register, two vent holes are placed along the tube. Soft leather cups cover these holes.

Although the saxophone is categorized as a woodwind instrument, it is made of brass which is different from what most woodwinds are made of.

In contrast to brass instruments which produce sound when there is contact between the mouthpiece and the lips, the sax produces sound through wooden reed which is oscillating.

Another significant feature that makes it be classified as a woodwind is that pitch is produced as a result of breath going through the closing and opening keys.

The yellow brass is mostly replaced with copper for tonal and visual effects.

Little significance is given to the type of material used in the manufacturing of saxophones. All the attention is focused on the sound that is produced. Different materials such as polycarbonate and plastic have been used to a certain degree in the production of saxophones. 

A silver plate or an acrylic lacque coating which can either be clear or coloured is used to cover the brass before the final assembly of the saxophone parts.

Applying lacquer coating is very crucial in preventing oxidation of the brass. This maintains the shiny appearance of the sax. Over the years, different surface colours have been used. It’s just a matter of preference.

History Continues…

The saxophone is a versatile instrument. It adds a sensational moment to all music genres.  From rock to blues to folk to jazz.

The saxophone sound is very unique and cannot be ignored when its played in a mix. As is the custom of many bands when trying to find their rebellion by experimenting using different instruments, the saxophone has been a stable rock in an ever-changing sea.

The magic in bringing your emotions to a standstill can only be found in the saxophone.

Who Are The Best Tenor Saxophonists Of All Time? Our Top 4


ed lozano

The saxophone was created in the 1840s by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian musician and inventor. And, even though it’s a relatively new instrument, as compared to the violin and the piano, the saxophone has always been associated with jazz.

old tenor sax

However, it wasn’t a very popular instrument from the outset. Brass and woodwind players didn’t like it very much and, subsequently, the saxophone wasn’t taken very seriously. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that military bands from Europe and the US began to adopt the instrument and, along with some marketing campaigns, the saxophone became known as a popular novelty instrument.

Ragtime musicians and important band leaders like Patrick Gilmore and John Philip Sousa took interest in the instrument. But, it wasn’t until the 1920s in the US that “the hot music of the day” changed the perception of the saxophone from a novelty instrument to an instrument that was capable of more colour and different sounds.

sax quintet

In fact, the instrument provided the capacity of imitating a variety of sounds while demonstrating a wide range of textures. In addition, the saxophone came in a variety of ranges from sopranino to baritone and, since the 1920s, the saxophone has been associated with jazz.

The Golden Age of the Saxophone

During the period from the late 1920s to the 1940s, the saxophone matured into the hallmark instrument of jazz. The sound of jazz as well as the legacy of the instrument lied in the hands of four classic tenors:

  1. Coleman Hawkins
  2. Ben Webster
  3. Chu Berry
  4. Lester Young

Most of the early saxophone players weren’t jazz players at all. It wasn’t until Louis Armstrong came along and, in the 1920s, changed the face of jazz. Armstrong influenced the way that jazz was played by using long and short eighth notes that were played slightly behind the beat.

Coleman Hawkins 

Coleman Randolph Hawkins (November 21, 1904 – May 19, 1969) was also nicknamed “Hawk” and sometimes “Bean”. In addition, he is sometimes referred to as “The Father of the Jazz Tenor Saxophone”.


Hawk was raised in Kansas City and was a well-rounded musician. He played the piano and the cello and possessed a deep understanding of music theory.

In the early 20s, he moved to New York City and joined Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra where he met Louis Armstrong who had also joined the band. This meeting was very influential on Hawk and changed his approach to playing completely. Armstrong’s improvisational style had a tremendous impact on Hawkins’s style.

Although Hawkins was accomplished on the instrument, his musical interpretation (prior to Armstrong) was rather stiff. He used a technique called slap tonguing that (when overused) sounded, well, corny.

Hawk abandoned the stiff ragtime-style rhythm, adopted the long-short eighth notes that Armstrong introduced and his improvisations took off. He also diminished his use of slap tonguing and developed his trademark, cello-like vibrato. This new approach to the sound and inventiveness of his improvisational skills set the standard for the saxophonists that followed.

Check out Coleman Hawkins playing “Lover Man” below.

Hawkins’s health declined in the late 60s and he ultimately passed due to complications from liver disease.

Ben Webster

Benjamin Francis Webster (March 27, 1909 – September 20, 1973) was born and raised in Kansas City. During the 1930s, Coleman Hawkins spent a lot of time in Europe and had tremendous success. Back in Kansas City, sax players were lining up to take his place in the highly competitive Kansas City jazz scene. Ben Webster was one of those players.

ben francis webster

Webster took Hawkins’s ideas and was able to put his own twist to it. One of the amazing attributes regarding Ben Webster was in the variety of sounds that he brought to the instrument. He was a smooth player that could sound buttery and velvety when playing a ballad. He also possessed a beautiful vibrato. It was said that he could play the most sensual ballad known to man.

Here’s an example of Ben Webster playing “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, a familiar tune but taken to new heights by way of his amazing interpretation.

Likewise, when he played an uptempo number, he could lean into the horn and create growls and raucous textures that were executed with attitude.

Check out Ben Webster performing “Perdido”.

During the late 1930s, Webster came into prominence when he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra in what was then called the Ellington/Blanton Orchestra. Duke was known for having the best soloists in his band but he never really had a great saxophonist. When Webster was added to the band, Ellington’s band was complete and he had a hot improviser in every seat.

Webster went on to make some prominent recordings with bassist, Jimmy Blanton. He died after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage in Amsterdam following a performance.

Chu Berry

Leon Brown “Chu” Berry (September 13, 1908 – October 30, 1941) was born in Wheeling, West Virginia. Chu is probably the least-known player on this list. Berry spent most of his early years in the midwest playing with many of the important bands of the early- to mid-30s. His most important association was with Cab Calloway in the late 30s and early 40s.

chu berry

Chu Berry had assimilated all that Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster had contributed to the saxophone while putting his own stamp to it. Berry also possessed a flawless technique which he displayed on uptempo numbers that he seemed to be more partial to. Also, he had a great knowledge of harmony just like Coleman Hawkins. This made it possible for him to improvise effortlessly at fast tempos.

Berry had a softer sound than his contemporaries and didn’t use much of the growl sound that Hawkins and Webster utilized. However, Berry did emulate the cello-like vibrato introduced by Hawkins (and that all saxophonists of that era seemed to prefer).

chu berry

Chu made some terrific small group recordings with Hot Lips Page and Roy Eldridge. Here’s a recording that Berry made in 1938 with His Little Jazz Ensemble featuring Roy Eldridge called “Sittin’ In”.

An interesting fact is that Chu Berry recorded “Body and Soul” about six or seven months before Coleman Hawkins recorded that same tune in 1939. Many believe that Hawkins’s version became the more famous rendition because of the improvisational liberties that he took on the piece. Berry remained truer to the melody in his version. This recording highlights Berry’s sound and phrasing: Chu Berry and Roy Eldridge performing “Body and Soul”.

Tragically, Berry died in a car accident at the age of 33 in 1941. Due to his shortened career there aren’t as many recordings available; however, his original approach to the sound have made him one of the most copied players and important figures in the history of jazz.

One final note, Berry received his nickname because he had a habit of biting down on his mouthpiece.

Lester Young

Lester Willie Young (August 27, 1909 – March 15, 1959), nicknamed “Pres”, was one of the most interesting players of his time. He was born in Mississippi and raised in New Orleans. Pres spent most of his career in the midwest (living in Minneapolis) and played with many of the Kansas City territory bands.


Lester Young is one of the most interesting characters in the world of jazz and he was light years ahead of his contemporaries—he didn’t play like Coleman Hawkins. Lester brought with him a light and airy sound that he developed as a kid.

Young came from a family of musicians that traveled all over the country and played minstrel shows and festivals. He played the C melody sax as part of his family’s band and, it’s important to note that, the C melody sax was more popular than the tenor or alto at that time.

Lester was able to transfer the sound of the C melody sax to the tenor and this helped him create his own inimitable style. His sound was a major influence on the sax players and musicians of the 1940s; e.g., Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Dexter Gordon are a few of his disciples.

lester young

Lester’s approach to rhythm was very much like Armstrong; i.e., he swung his eighth notes and played behind the beat. He was a foreshadower of the bebop sound. In fact, Charlie Parker memorized Lester’s solos note for note and was able to imitate Lester’s phrasing and time feel.

Young’s first great session was with Bennie Moten and the Blue Devils. But, he really came into his own playing with the Count Basie Orchestra.

Many of the midwestern musicians hung out in Kansas City and had their own style and approach to playing. This style was called the Kansas City Riff Style and they relied heavily on the blues and improvisation. Lester was major figure in this scene.

The Basie band, which was based out of Kansas City, left in 1936 and made their home in New York City. Here’s Lester with the Basie Band “(Back and Home Again in) Indiana”.

Lester had many wonderful working relationships with the musicians of the 40s and 50s. His most notable relationship was with Billie Holiday and they made some timeless recordings. His approach to slow tunes and ballads display a rhythmic mastery that allows him to really lay back and play behind the beat. Check out Pres and Lady Day performing “Fine and Mellow”.

Lester’s health declined during his final years due to the cumulative effects of alcohol and malnutrition. He died at the age of 49.

Final Thoughts

These four classic tenors came into maturity in the 30s and helped shape the sound of jazz for the years that followed.

  • Hawkins is considered to be the father as he was the first to perform successfully and his sound and harmonic approach became the model for the musicians that followed.
  • Ben Webster provided a greater pallet of colors and his ability to play sensual ballads demonstrated more of the possibilities that the instrument offered.
  • Chu Berry created a beautiful, innocent, soft and smooth approach that is quite appealing making him one of the most copied players to date.
  • Lastly, the most important of the four, Lester Young, contributed rhythmic and tonal options that influenced the future of jazz. Lester set the standard for the bebop players and modern jazz musicians.  

I encourage you to research more recordings of these great players. We owe them a debt of gratitude for their contributions and can repay that debt by simply keeping the music alive.

Thanks for reading!