Why The Saxophone?

Laurie Savage, saxophonist and philosopher

Ted and I were talking about Covid the other day and our hope that like many another disease it would evolve to a less dangerous form, and so the conversation drifted, as conversations are wont, to evolution and the idea of the saxophone having evolved from simpler, less virulent instruments like The Ophicleide.

It probably wasn’t a case of natural selection, but rather the Ophicleide, a rather benign and woofly keyed Euphonium-like beast was hybridised and weaponised by that redoubtable mad genius, Aldolph Sax in the early 1840s.

When I was in the later years of high school in the late moon-landing-and-marijuana tinged 1960s I discovered two wireless programs that change my life in subtle ways: Relax with me hosted by Arch McKirdy (2BL), and John Thompson’s Underground (2SM). In most ways they were chalk and cheese but in another, very important, way they were very similar. Both programs played music one would never hear on the steam wireless. Arch McKirdy introduced me to Phil Woods (“What are you doing the rest of your life*”), Ben Webster, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Hank Mobley, Gerry Mulligan and others, while John Thompson introduced me to Mike Bloomfield, Howling Wolf, Johnny Winter and many other blues based bands, some brilliant, some not. The saxophone caught my ear and so did the blues.

So, why the saxophone? Simple, I can’t sing**. I loved the English guitarists like Alvin Lee, Eric Clapton and Robyn Trower, and was wrapt in the electric bass of Jack Bruce with its deep growling melodic lines. So I borrowed a bass and gave it back a day later – I hated the feel of it, I have absolutely no affinity for stringed instruments. But, a friend’s Dad was an altoist in a dance band and let me have a blow; it was love at first honk.

Men in my family were not encouraged to play music, serious literature was OK, sport was ideal but music was not something men did so it took a while. When I was 30 I bought a sax, took music lessons and as soon as I could arpeggiate 3 chords and force high notes by biting the reed I went to blues jams. Nothing much changed for a long time but I got better and sometimes manage to play something I’m happy with and that makes people smile.

*WAYDTROYL must have been the least appropriate opening score for a movie about Horatio Hornblower.

** Yes, singers, I know … anyone can sing. That’s probably true for women because their voices don’t break. It’s different for many men.

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