If there was ever a period in American popular music friendly to wind players it would have been the Swing era (mid-1930’s until World War II). The average swing band employed up to 15 wind players: saxophones, trombones and trumpets. If you think about the fact that swing was the popular music of the day, the chance of being employed as a saxophonist, trumpeter or trombonist was far greater than in any other period before or after.
Things changed fairly quickly when Swing fell out of favor. Pop music turned its focus on the vocalist: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Doris Day, and so on. These singers were backed by mostly nameless studio orchestras. Following that, the advent of Rock & Roll further focused the spotlight on the singer/front man and brought the electric guitar to the forefront, an amplified instrument that could rival the volume previously created by the 15 saxes and brass players. Wind players were mostly left to scramble and head to the studios or the school band rooms in the hopes of staying in the business.
For adaptable players, the one wind instrument that survived was the saxophone. The sax became the instrument that best suited the new sounds: Rhythm & Blues and Rock & Roll. For some reason the saxophone was most appropriate for this new raunchy and raw music, perhaps because it is capable of producing a very human sound with growls, flutters, doits, shrieks and the like. Some of the saxophone players who were able to embrace this new sound found themselves quite busy. People like King Curtis and Sam “The Man” Taylor were called upon to come into the studio and create 20 seconds of magic on countless pop recordings. Their sounds are familiar even if their names are not.
We can point to singer/saxophonist Louis Jordan as one of the musicians who managed the transition in fine style and set the table for those to come. Louis created a small jump band using a saxophone and a trumpet that bridged the gap between the large swing bands and Rock & Roll. In addition, the instrumental music of the 50’s and 60’s that managed to find a space on the airwaves was heavily saxophone oriented. Bassist Bill Black, of Elvis Presley sideman fame, went on to form the Bill Black Combo, a group that released numerous albums of instrumental covers with the a nameless saxophonist taking the place of the vocal. Ace Cannon, another saxophone player, found a similar niche playing pop instrumentals that made Rock & Roll palatable to almost every age group. These saxophonists rarely received credit on the recordings, and sometimes received disdain from the strict jazzers, but we can assume they welcomed the work.
Alto players Louis and Ace notwithstanding, the predominant saxophone voice of the day was the tenor. It seemed to best fit the range and match the male vocal, and new entries to the scene included Plas Johnson, Jerome Richardson and Harold Ashby. This is the same Harold Ashby who was in the Duke Ellington saxophone section for a decade, after he was a preeminent sax voice on the electric blues coming out of Chicago on Chess Records.
This trend continued into the 70’s and 80’s. Among the instrumentalists who were able to bridge the world of jazz and rock are the prominent saxophonists Grover Washington, David Sanborn and Kenny Gee, who is now reportedly the largest selling instrumentalist of all time. He surpassed trumpeter Herb Alpert, one of the few exceptions to the saxophone rule. While solos from wind instruments seem to be increasingly rare in pop music, if you hear one in the form of the music of Sting, Phil Collins, or Billy Joel, it will most likely be the saxophone.
Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, focused on developing a hybrid between brass and woodwinds, and he would be pleased that his instrument thrived. Perhaps it’s a little payback for the lack of saxophones in symphonic orchestras. The saxophone’s popularity may explain why typical middle and high school band directors now share a common observation with Professor Harold Hill: “I have saxophones ‘springing up like weeds.’”