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.
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