The joy of sax, once more once

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Adolphe Sax (above) was born on November 6, 1814. I missed the anniversary of his birth this past Sunday, but it seems that today is a good day to catch up with Mr. Sax’s legacy via the notice I posted here of Michael Segell’s new book three weeks ago. Segell devotes the first chapter of the book to Sax’s sad story. He writes: “For all its brilliance, and despite its almost instantaneous impact on the world’s music, the saxophone was never kind to its creator.”

At the outset of the notice I refer to Peter Guralnick, whose eye-opening new biography of Sam Cooke has just been released. I will come back to Guralnick’s new book some time soon. In the meantime, in honor of the anniversary of Sax’s birth, let me take the liberty of running my notice of Segell’s book once more once.

Peter Guralnick may be the best writer ever to devote himself to American popular music. He has a gift for writing profiles and narrative as well as unfailing good taste in music. In his two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, he joined a scholar’s mania for detail and accuracy to a fan’s passion. The result is definitive. But Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom is my favorite of his books. In it Guralnick tells the history of soul music, taking a kind of sidelong glance at the civil rights era in America. The history is deeply affecting; Guralnick helps us not only to hear America singing, but to hear what it means. This book has echoed in my mind long after I first read it fifteen years ago.

To the small shelf of my favorite books on American popular music I now add Michael Segell’s The Devil’s Horn: The Story of the Saxophone, from Noisy Novelty to King of Cool. The book is an offbeat history of the saxophone from every angle of interest — its inventor, its evolution, its foremost players, its collectors and its impact on popular culture. Segell describes the saxophone as “the most recent important important musical instrument to be invented,” and demonstrates persuasively why it “was so quickly embraced, why millions of players and listeners have willingly submitted to its spell–and why so many others, frightened by its diabolical charm, have tried throughout its short history to malign or suppress it.”

Segell describes its seductive charm: “After an innocent first kiss–a perfect long tone, say–its mysterious energy envelops and overwhelms you. You enter into some strange unwritten devotional contract, helplessly announce your allegiance to the cult of Adolphe, and become a loyal advocate for the voice of Sax.” The book is clearly Segell’s written installment of the contract; he pays tribute to what he describes as the unwritten contract in brief autobiographical segments between chapters, tracing his progress on the instrument.

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Segell describes himself as a “professional music lover.” In the course of his work on the book, he fell under the spell of the instrument:

Like its inventor, the saxophone is ambitious, aggressive, insinuating and contrarian. It encourges personal expression; because of its acoustical design, everyone who puts the saxophone to his lips produces a unique sound–“the one thing,” Coleman Hawkins once said, “nobody can take that away from you.” It’s not surprising that within a few years of its invention, it received a hearty embrace in America.

At the heart of the book, in its account of the saxophone in jazz and then pop music, Lester Young, John Coltrane, David “Fathead” Newman and King Curtis (Curtis Ousley) emerge as heroes of the instrument. As Segell moves the story to pop, he takes due notice of the role of Leiber and Stoller in bringing the instrument into the pop mainstream.

Segell’s diligence as a researcher — like Guralnick’s in Sweet Soul Music and elsewhere — pays dividends over and over again throughout the book. When Segell tracks down saxophone buff Jim Maher on the upper west side of Manhattan, for example, Maher greets him with a 32-page single-spaced manuscript titled “Sax Notes–Mike Segell” that he compiled for him on the earliest uses of the saxophone in dance bands.

Adding to the pleasure I took in this book is the fact that its author and I were high-school classmates in a small high school class; we took English composition together as juniors, for example, where Mike would occasionally ask me to title his papers. And we are long-time friends. But my enthusiasm for the book is impartial. Compare my enthusiasm for it to that of Tom Nolan in his San Francisco Chronicle review: “Saxophone–a real horn of plenty.” Or to that of Will Friedwald in his knowing take on the book for the New York Sun (subscription required): “What Belgium gave to jazz.” Suffice it to say that in this book Mike hits the mythical one true note.

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