How did the saxophone, this instrument invented by a Belgian for military orchestras, become reserved to one genre? How did jazzmen get their hands on Adolphe Sax’s invention? This is the first part of a series devoted to the instrument’s giants, starting with the tenor—pay honor where honor is due— and its many adepts, from Coleman Hawkins to Wayne Shorter.

When he patented “a system of woodwind instruments, called saxophones” in 1846 upon their conception, Adolphe Sax, a Belgian instrument maker based in Paris, had not imagined that his invention would become, more than half a century later, the prerogative of a new musical genre: jazz. To say the least, this music, born on a completely different continent among the Afro-American community and composed of descendants of slaves, didn’t have much to do with the primary purpose of this instrument to which Sax gave his own name. Created first and foremost for military music and brass bands, supposed to offer sturdiness and weather resistance, ideal for parades, the saxophone established itself as the symbol of jazz, embodying the freedom of improvisation in the eyes of the audience. Struggling to find its place within the symphonic orchestra, and being relatively cheap and easily transported, the saxophone earned its stripes in the hands of mostly self-taught musicians, who designed their own technique, revealing all of its expressive potential and giving it a repertoire. In other words, the page was blank, everything had yet to be done and jazzmen had a field day with the four main instruments of the family: soprano, alto, tenor and baritone. Let’s start with the tenor, the most emblematic of all; the dominant one, the one which possesses, as they say, the same tessitura as the human voice. Is that one of the reasons why it is sometimes so overwhelming?

Against all odds, the saxophone isn’t a leading instrument on the original jazz scene. In the New Orleans orchestras, it’s often relegated to the background, overshadowed by the trumpet and the clarinet, more voluble (aside from Sidney Bechet with the soprano). You’ll have to wait for Coleman Hawkins to show up for the sax to fully make itself heard. The “Hawk”, as he’s called, does more than just opening a breach: he sets a path, revealing all the tenor’s scope thanks to a large expressive range, able in its sound, characterized by a generous vibrato, to go from a voluptuous whisper to a hoarse roar, at the service of a confident and dynamic phrasing. Hawkins will serve as the reference for many generations of incoming saxophonists, but also to contemporary players, such as Ben Webster, the expert in languorous ballads, whose sound seems to become so mellow that it is veiled by a breath of air, or Chu Berry, who died at 31 in a car accident, who had a straightforward and biting way of playing with an accurate positioning, exuding great confidence. All won their spurs in the ranks of the main big bands of the time, from Count Basie to Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Teddy Wilson, accustomed to establish themselves from the first notes and to shine during a solo. Don Byas, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Paul Gonsalves, who spent most of his career within Ellington’s orchestra, figure among the other direct emulators of Coleman Hawkins, whose influence can be felt as far as musicians like Archie Shepp and James Carter.