Imagine a private eye’s office in a film noir flick, or bob-haired flappers smoking cigarettes from long holders, speakeasies, burlesque performers at nightclubs late in the evening. These are commonly associated with the smooth sounds of the saxophone. But the instrument’s true roots date back to 19th century Europe and its cultural impact is still felt in contemporary music today.
Thom Botsford is head of the English and Communications Department at Pensacola State College, and an experienced English and Journalism professor. He has played saxophone for over forty years, performing with various bands. On Saturday, July 28, he will present a musical and literary tribute to the saxophone at Open Books. He will also review Michael Segell’s book “The Devil’s Horn: The Story of the Saxophone, From Noisy Novelty to King of Cool.”
IN recently spoke with Botsford about his love for music and desire to share the history of and appreciation for the saxophone.
IN: How do you intend to present a fusion of literary and musical elements at your upcoming event?
BOTSFORD: I take highlights of the book and my personal experience. Listening to jazz and sax are longstanding hobbies. I review the book and play a little bit, to provide character of the instrument.
IN: How did you get interested in jazz?
BOTSFORD: My dad loved it; I grew up around it. I started playing clarinet, and all the great clarinet music was jazz. Jazz has instrumental virtuosity. Whether you play horn or piano, jazz was spectacular—more complex more challenging, more patterns, more rhythms. Some people don’t know how to listen to it—can’t really appreciate it because there’s too much going on for them. They don’t listen to the instruments as if the instruments were a voice. Jazz is unique music, but it wasn’t always that way. It was highly popular dance music in the 1920s to ‘30s. It’s kinda like the new classical musical, musician’s music. Jazz is about freedom.
IN: What is the saxophone’s origin?
BOTSFORD: The inventor was Adolf Sax. He came from a Belgian family of fine instrument makers in the 19th century. As a young man, he became instrumental in trying to invent a new instrument to project sound better than clarinet or other reed instruments. Reed instruments produce a fluid, violin-like sound, but they do not project well. They sound soft compared to brass instruments, such as the trumpet or trombone. The saxophone combined a horn with reeds—beauty of reed instruments, lush quality of sound—but would project like a brass instrument. Sax invented saxophones in seven to eight different sizes. There were many orchestras all over Europe. He hoped to create an instrument that would become part of a symphony orchestra. The sax became a hugely popular instrument among marching and military bands among Europe—especially Paris in the late 1800s. Orchestras never added sax sections, but sometimes had soloists. He could not have predicted what happened when it came to the U.S.
IN: Why is it significant in American culture?
BOTSFORD: Firstly, huge numbers of community bands organized at the turn of the century. Saxophones sounded good playing outside and came in various sizes—even huge saxophones you’d stand on a ladder to play. They were popular in huge community bands and marching bands. After they began to be manufactured in Indiana, sax playing became a popular hobby. The birth of recorded music and record players in the jazz age made them more popular. Saxophones became involved in New Orleans jazz and a major part of big band orchestra. They were popular soloists. They played a huge role in blues, rhythm/blues, funk, soul, and later rock-n-roll. The guitar became the most popular rock instrument in the 1950s, saxophones seem to go with any kind of music. They are in the theme for “Saturday Night Live,” and Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax” is well known.
IN: How did the saxophone gain a rebellious reputation?
BOTSFORD: It was called the “devil’s horn” because it was associated with vulgar dance music and strip clubs. In Hollywood, gangster movies and lurid love scenes used a certain kind of sax music. It got an image as a bad boy. Around the turn of the century, the Catholic Church thought it made a vulgar sound. The sax has been a pioneering instrument in avant-garde jazz—some of the sounds it makes are dissonant and strange.
IN: What instruments do you play?
BOTSFORD: I play clarinet, alto saxophone, and tenor sax. I switched from clarinet in college.
IN: What makes the saxophone unique?
BOTSFORD: It closely resembles the human voice. Its sound range falls about the same frequency as the human voice, maybe that’s why it’s so popular. Every player sounds different. You can tell one sax player from another, just as people’s voices are different.
IN: Do you perform in public regularly?
BOTSFORD: I played with The Mighty Mudsharks, a band that played rock classics from 1960s and 1970s. We were the house band at the Ale House in the 1990s. When we had a piano, bass, drums and saxophone, my sax replaced the guitar parts. Now, I play weddings and with a jazz-fusion band. Jazz-fusion is the electronic/funk jazz of the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of using 4/4 swing tempo, musicians combined a rock beat or Latin American world rhythms with jazz played on top. There were outstanding fusions that took place, and there were rock bands that added jazz elements, such as Blood, Spit and Tears, Chicago, and Steely Dan. The rock-jazz, jazz-rock movement lasted around 20 years. We play the highlights of that. Our next show is at the Five Sisters Blues Café on Monday, August 13.
IN: What do you hope your audience will gain from the event?
BOTSFORD: An appreciation for the rich and ironic history of the saxophone, and its ability to insinuate itself into any music it wants. It’s an example of history and music, it’s just entertainment. I hope to help people listen to music a little more closely. IN: What has music brought to your life?
BOTSFORD: Music is an integral element of my life. I listen to it quite often—in the car, in the gym. I think listening to it, and playing it are very therapeutic things for people. Music takes them out of themselves. People have a visceral response to music. It seems very important to human beings, but we don’t quite know why. Without music, my life would not be nearly as rich. Somehow, it’s good for the soul.
WHEN: 6 p.m. Saturday, July 28
WHERE: Open Books, 1040 N. Guillemard St.
DETAILS: 453-6774 or openbookspcola.org