Monday 24 July 2017

Two men who had tons of sax appeal

If brass is your musical thing, then this is the day for you, for November 6 is the birthday of two men whose muse helped shape your enjoyment. In 1814, Adolphe Sax was born in Belgium. Forty years later, in Washington DC, John Philip Sousa first saw the light of day.

Adolphe Sax came from a musical family, and won a place at the Brussels Conservatory.

His dad made wind instruments for a living, so Sax's curiosity led him into experimenting with a fusion of woodwind and brass.

Trumpets, horns, tubas, trombones -- all made of that alloy -- use lips and mouth in combination to create the sounds from a metal tube. Clarinets, oboes, and bassoons get their distinctive sound from blowing across reeds that vibrate and resonate through pipes of wood.

It was Sax's search for an instrument that would combine the two techniques that brought us the saxophone, and John Philip Sousa was the man who brought the "sax" into the mainstream.

Sousa's father had roots in Portugal and Spain and played the trombone. His mother came from Bavaria in southern Germany, where brass bands provide the backing track. With those credentials, his musical destiny was set.

He followed his old man into the US Marine Band, ending up as its conductor. By now he was writing his own material, and saw greater opportunities for himself as the name in front of his own ensemble -- Sousa's Band, as it came to be known, was born.

Sax didn't live to see how Sousa would champion his invention by making it an integral part of his orchestra. That did much to popularise it, and help it on its way to being the staple of jazz.

Sax made little money from his invention, and died a poor man, while Sousa became world famous.

Sousa also gave his name to an instrument, the sousaphone, a variation on the tuba.

Sousa reckoned its music would "mushroom over the band like frosting on a cake". Maybe it did, but it's not much remembered and it's Adolphe's Sax that plays on.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30am each Saturday ghamilton@independent.ie

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