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Is the Saxophone Following the Clarinet into Jazz Extinction?

David Berger

In the mid or late 1960s I heard an interview with Duke Ellington on the radio. The interviewer asked the Maestro, “All the other bands have stopped using clarinets, are you considering dropping them from your band?” Ellington responded by saying that the clarinet is the sound of New Orleans music and is at the heart of the feeling of jazz. As long as he has a band there will be a clarinet in it. He went on to say that he was not subject to musical trends. If something is great, it is great forever.

That conversation took place 50 years ago. The clarinet has all but vanished in “modern” jazz, even though there are a few incredible virtuosos still on the scene. Although old-fashioned bands, like mine and the JALCO, feature clarinet solos, the “modern” big bands restrict their use to section playing that has little to do with jazz and nothing to do with New Orleans.

When I was in college in the late ‘60s one of my friends (an excellent rocker) remarked that when he would see a sax section stand up and play a soli, he thought that was so corny. At the time I didn’t understand him—I was going to the Vanguard on Monday nights, and when Jerome and the sax section would stand up and play one of Thad’s solis, I was ecstatic.

50 years later I’m still writing sax solis, but the “modern” bands have eschewed them. You could play a whole semester in a college sax section and never play one harmonized note, let alone a soli. The saxophone’s role in “modern” big bands has been relegated to improvised solos (preferably emulating Coltrane) and unisons. Saxophone chords are too reminiscent of the Swing Era.

Well, I love the Swing Era. There I’ve said it. If you know my music or my transcriptions, you probably knew that about me already, but here I’m saying it, and I’m not ashamed. The reason I became a musician is because when I saw Louis Armstrong on TV as a child, he embodied unbounded and unrelenting joy. I knew I could never be him, but I wanted to get as close to him as I could. As I learned to play jazz trumpet and piano as a young teen, I came under the influence of Charlie Parker. So then my quest was how to play and write music that embraced swing and bebop. Enter Gil Evans and Thad Jones. Jazz was becoming more abstract by the mid to late ‘60s, and I wanted to embrace all that too.   What made me different from most of my peers was that I embraced the old and the new, and they only wanted one or the other. That holds true even today.

I am a firm believer that great art builds on the past; it doesn’t ignore or deny it. Jazz is about individual expression and cooperation. Both must be present. The saxophone is probably the most expressive and certainly the most sensual of all the jazz instruments. So often I hear pieces that are neither expressive nor sensual. I’m not saying that I want my saxophonists to play like Johnny Hodges or Ben Webster. I want them to play like themselves and have the courage to show us their romantic side. Temperley used to say that what made Hodges great was that he was basically a tough guy who showed us his tender side. It’s those great opposites that create great art.

I love writing for the sax section. They have such a great range from the top of the alto or soprano down to the low Bb of the bari. They have such technical dexterity. They can play practically anything you ask of them. They have a great dynamic range and can play any volume throughout their entire range. And they can be so expressive. They bend, scoop, trill, fall off, vibrate, swell, and dozens of other effects that make them sound almost like the human voice. Of all the instruments I know, they are the closest to the human voice.

I had lunch with Erika Floreska last week. She was telling me about her daughter who plays saxophone in middle school. Many of you know Erika. She was the heart and soul of Essentially Ellington for about 20 years. We all owe her a great debt. So her daughter is totally into Charlie Parker and Coltrane. She came to Erika recently all excited. She said that she just heard a recording where all 5 saxophones played a Charlie Parker solo in harmony. All 5 of them! Erika’s daughter is over 50 years younger than me, and she is as thrilled as I am to hear a sax soli. And I don’t even play the saxophone.

When I was young and played trumpet in bands, there was always one chart in the book that we all waited to play every night. In Lee Castle’s band it was Ernie Wilkins’ Sweetie Cakes (#1086—don’t ask me why I still remember that). In Larry Elgart’s band it was Bill Finegan’s chart on Soon. But for the saxes, they lived to play sax solis.

Jimmie Lunceford’s band was renowned for their wonderful sax section. They held sectionals every single day—and it sounded like it—always precise and nuanced. If you don’t know their recording of Eddie Wilcox’s chart of My Melancholy Baby, check it out. I’m going to publish it soon.

The king of all sax solis is Ellington’s Cottontail. In actuality although Ellington gets the composing credit, the head and the lead line for the sax soli were written by Duke’s star tenor saxophonist, Ben Webster. Everything is voiced in 4-part close with the bari doubling the lead alto an octave below, which is standard voicing procedure for sax solis.

Thad Jones came along in the late ‘50s with Basie and then with his own band in 1966 and wrote more angular, bop influenced lines voicing them predominantly in 5-part harmony. Although Ellington had been doing this for decades, it sounded fresh and hip in Thad’s hands and with his more “modern” players. For those hipper arrangers since then, this has become the standard for sax solis. You can hear Thad’s 3 and 1 for alto lead or Groove Merchant for soprano lead.

I’ve written dozens of charts with sax solis and continue to write them when applicable. Some are in 4-part harmony (Doin’ The Do), some in 5-part (No Refill) and some with soprano lead in 5-part (A Whole New You). Not only do I try to write swinging rhythms, interesting sing-able melodies and interesting harmonies, but I like each saxophone player to have a good melody that relates to the other parts in a symbiotic fashion. I encourage my players to be expressive, so that even the simpler solis have developed complex details that get added by the players at sectionals. Oh, our section stands up to play the solis, and audiences love it. Me, I just stand in front of them and bask in their sonorities. They are all playing a solo together, in harmony, all 5 of them!


FANCY FOOTWORK: The Art of the Saxophone Soli  

A couple of months ago my assistant, Marc Schwartz (a very fine saxophonist), suggested that we compiled a bunch of my sax solis into a book, so that sax sections could play them at sectionals. He said that he would have loved to do that while he was a student at the Eastman School of Music and that high school students would also benefit greatly. Marc has copied all the parts and scores into Sibelius and created the artwork. The book is available in eBook form so that you can download it and print parts and scores. If you play the saxophone or have a band with a saxophone section, we think you will find this music fun to play and learn from. Just click on the link below, and it will take you to the purchasing page on our website. Also on this page, you'll find recordings to play along with for each soli.


BUY NOW: Fancy Footwork: The Art of the Saxophone Soli

** EARLY BIRD DISCOUNT through Sunday 7/24/16 **

Buy this book before July 24th and receive it for $34.95. After this promotion we will sell it at list price ($49.95). Get it while it's cheap!


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  • Carl Maraghi on

    Reading my parts in this beautiful book makes me relive the last 12 years of my life. Since graduating school where Dave thought me for 2 years, I joined the Sultans of Swing later renamed the David Berger Jazz Orchestra on the baritone saxophone chair. I’ve learned so much reading and practicing those saxophone solis! From practicing them in Dave’s apartment to reading them cold on the bandstand at Birdland and other venues, they not only made me a better reader and a better instrumentalist, but an all around musician. That saxophone section is such a blast! 5 very different individuals, that love each other, creating a beautiful sound, as one unit. Thanks Dave!

  • Kenny Berger on

    First let me say that I am just as critical and suspicious of young,self-consciously retro musicians as I am of those who jump on the avant grade bandwagon in order to skip having to learn harmony and practice long tones. That being said, I believe that too many contemporary jazz “composers” are severely handicapped by a lack of knowledge of the history and traditions of jazz composition and arranging and we are now facing a phenomenon that jazz has not witnessed before: Namely, jazz writers with no cred or professional experience as players which threatens to produce the same sort of disconnect that plagued so- called classical music throughout the 20th century. In addition, since the passing of Brookmeyer, there is no contemporary jazz composer of major influence on the upcoming generation who is a great player or who uses swing rhythms in a meaningful way. The main influences seem to be colorists for whom rhythm is an afterthought. My pal John McNeil refers to this kind of “jazz” as “Euro-shit”.This has lead to a generation of jazz composers whose music tends to place the cart before the horse from the get-go and who resort to knee-jerk choices such as automatically rejecting swing rhythms and simple lines and colors. The thought of a sax section never enters their minds. Speaking of knee-jerk choices, if I play or hear one more "modern"piece that starts with slow bass clarinet arpeggios over a background of cymbal rolls and bass pedal tones I’ll jump off the nearest bridge.

  • Douglas R. Ewart on

    I love the clarinet’s timbre, so rich and truly sensual, particularly the B flat clarinet’s chalumeau register. The clarinet (clarinet family) is as expressive, if not more so than the saxophone (saxophone family), and far more complex acoustically, harmonically and with a vast reservoir of overtones. The multiphonic possibilities are multitudinous. The instrument is far more challenging to play than the saxophone. I feel that instruments that require a lot of time to master may be on the downswing at this juncture (I have not done a survey so I cannot say definitely). Whenever you look at popular media you don’t see contestants playing wind instruments. However, these instruments will have a resurgence with re-introduction of bands, orchestras and chamber ensembles of all kinds in schools, community centers, churches and the like. Support live music of all kinds, and please support street musicians. Music is the healing vibration!
    Douglas R. Ewart

  • Ron Smith on

    I share a lot of your views. In fact I remember playing on Lee Castle’s band and you wrote a wonderful piece
    of music featuring the clarinet. You were in the trumpet section, and it was an arranging lesson for me as I listened and played bass.
    In my own quintet years later where I did most of the writing I doubled on bass and tuba, and the wood wind player doubled on flute,clarinet,soprano sax, and tenor sax.
    The biggest problem was getting a sub (who played clarinet).
    If the younger generation of players don’t hear all these instruments they are being cheated.
    Maybe the expression should be “it takes a big band to raise a jazz musician”.

  • Andrew Homzy on

    Ellington is right: The clarinet defines NOLA music.
    I was always disappointed that, coming out of New Orleans, contemporary groups such as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, pianists such as Dr. John and arrangers such as Allen Toussaint eschewed the clarinet in their music. And would you believe that some jazz educators don’t allow clarinetists in their bands and that some schools don’t allow clarinetists into their jazz programs? Well, too bad for them because there remained a persistent line of post-1940s clarinetists running from Alvin Batiste and Dr. Michael White to Don Byron and Anat Cohen, Ken Peplowski, Evan Christopher and literally 100 others who can bring musical artistry to any kind of music you’ve ever heard.
    And the colours.
    While individuals have their personal tone, the saxophone has pretty much the same timbre throughout its register. In contrast, the clarinet has four distinctive registers: Chalumeau, Throat Tones, Clarion and Altissimo.
    In closing, here’s a few more of those 100: Jack Mayeu, Kenny Davern, Anti Sarpila, Paquito D’Rivera, Paulo Moura, Tony Coe, John Ellis, Jimmy Hamilton, Rusell Procope, Perry Robinson, Jimmy Guiffre . . . (your favourites go here)

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