The name “saxophone” doesn’t just refer to one instrument, but to a family of them.
The designer of the saxophone, Belgian-born inventor Adolphe Sax, initially applied for 14 instrument patents on this day in 1846. He was living and working in Paris and that patent he filed for was French. His initial designs were also crafted from wood.
In a way, that makes sense: Sax’s intent was to create an instrument that combined the relatively easy-to-play mouthpiece of a clarinet (most woodwind instruments at the time were double-reeded like oboes, which is much harder to play) with the easy fingering of large woodwinds, writes Hugh Hart for Wired.
Although the saxophone is still technically classified as a woodwind, a kind of instrument that uses a wooden reed rather than a brass mouthpiece, Sax quickly switched to making his instrument in brass, writes Today in Science History. He didn’t have a factory and made little profit from his invention, the website writes.
In its early years, the saxophone quickly went into use by French army bands, Hart writes, but Sax himself spent much time in court defending his patent, which then expired in 1866. “Myriad modifications followed,” he writes, “improving ease of play.”
In 1888, according to the website, the sax came to America when a man named Charles Gerrard from Elkhart, Indiana, began making brass saxophones for military bands.
By the early 1900s, the saxophone was a staple of American vaudeville, Hart writes, used as a comedy instrument. The saxophone market also stabilized into the baritone, tenor, alto and soprano range that’s popular today.
But it wasn’t until the early 1920s that the saxophone became known as a serious instrument. That’s thanks to a musician from New Orleans named Sidney Bechet, writes Hart. “Bechet started out on clarinet and later, in the early 1920s, discovered the soprano saxophone—an instrument rarely heard in jazz at that time,” according to NPR. Bechet’s mastery of the soprano sax brought the instrument into the fold.
As the story goes, he found a soprano sax in a London junkshop while touring Europe, writes John Fordham for The Guardian. At the time, although the saxophone wasn’t used in jazz music, “they were used in upmarket dance bands – usually to mimic the swoops and sighs of a violin section.” But Bechet immediately took to the instrument, writes Fordham, immediately creating an iconic sound on an instrument that would come to be a signature of jazz.
Soprano saxophones are straight, but the most recognizable shape for a saxophone is curved, with the bell facing upwards. That’s because of the physics of sound: the lower instruments would have to be awkwardly long to create the right pitch, and the curve simply allows the instrument to be a manageable size. After Bechet’s innovation, jazz musicians began paying more attention to saxophones of all shapes and sizes.