Two Presidents and a Saxophone (Part 1)

In the art of electioneering the cold spray of facts and figures is strictly for losers. Winners make their message generate heat by harnessing the power of finely calibrated theatrics. Thus it is that at election time all the world’s a stage. And if on that stage an iconic prop can fire the chemistry between polly and people even more, then that prop is worth its weight in votes.

So, when the man seeking to become the most powerful politician in the world uses prowess on the tenor saxophone to fire this chemistry, you know that instrument has some serious weight. By 1992 and Bill Clinton’s first tilt for the presidency, the saxophone was deeply insinuated in the ebb and flow of American life. A proven icon, its cachet came from the ground up. Clinton knew that it would be a smart move being seen with Adolphe Sax’s favourite invention hanging around his neck.

But this wasn’t always so; the saxophone has a history.

Conceived in the wake of the Enlightenment’s quest to articulate a rational knowledge-based future, the saxophone reimagined brass and woodwind instruments by removing limitations (in dexterity and projection) which, while long-accepted features of their design, had become serious impediments as contemporary music looked to its own future. The saxophone was as powerful as a trumpet and as nimble as a flute. A single saxophone could shout out like Pavarotti and croon like Sinatra. It was acknowledged how closely its expressive qualities resembled those of the human voice – the supreme compliment for any musical instrument. But there was more; it was not one but an entire family of instruments, capable of enriching traditional ensemble soundscapes and, through its distinctive tone, suggesting innovative new ones.

Sax set up shop in Paris in 1843 with reason to hope that, given half a chance, the saxophone would be a major player in the modernisation of French solo and ensemble music-making. And shortly thereafter, another president stepped onto the stage: Louis-Napoleon, elected by a fractious France in 1848. No stranger to the alchemy of electioneering, Louis-Napoleon turned out to be the first truly populist politician – he won his election by the kind of landslide that Clinton could only dream about. But the saxophone was too new and remote from the people at this time to stoke Louis-Napoleon’s campaign fire.

Nonetheless, like Sax, the new French president’s military had its own hopes for the instrument. Could it be a game-changer in rejuvenating the lacklustre performance of its vast network of military bands? The military wanted its new president to install the saxophone from the top down and, always the fast friend of his military, Louis-Napoleon eventually complied. In doing so he became the inventor’s most important patron.

The realisation of Sax’s hope was finally in train, but it was a train largely driven by the politics that both put Louis-Napoleon in power and would eventually throw him out.

If Sax’s instrument designs were ahead of their time, his business model was by then tried and true. He was in fact that very model of a modern capitalist: a factory owner. As a manufacturing entrepreneur (card-carrying member of the bourgeoise) he was part of a driving force reshaping western Europe throughout the nineteenth century. This force was the subject of vehement contestation and he was part of that toohis initial years in Paris had not been smooth (and that’s putting it mildly).

The factory was a potent rallying point here; just how potent is clear when we remember that in the very year Sax’s presidential patron came to power Karl Marx published The Communist Manifesto, his stinging critique of modernity’s dark side in whose heart beat the factory system. The Manifesto‘s fighting tone dramatised discord simmering since the French Revolution over modernity’s political and economic advances – who would be its winners and losers? It was this fundamental concern that set France’s political pendulum swinging from republicanism to monarchy throughout most of the nineteenth century.

The point here is not to judge Sax’s conduct as a manufacturing entrepreneur – was he a good capitalist or a bad one – but to highlight that, good or bad, he was affected by the sweeping cultural forces changing French society throughout his century, and that the reception of the saxophone during his lifetime can only properly be understood in this context. Sax positioned his manufacturing business in such a way that it flourished when the pendulum swung to the side of the monarchy but struggled when it arced the other way. Unfortunately for him, in 1870 the pendulum swung to the republican side and stayed there. And so it was that Sax and his new instrument found themselves on the wrong side of history. As the aging inventor gradually faded from view, so did his cherished invention. In the saxophone Sax’s technical vision had been brilliantly realised, but his hopes for its triumphant uptake were all but extinguished.

There’s an evocative scene set in Jean-Pierre Rorive’s retelling of the saxophone story in which a discarded instrument is retrieved from a trash can in France. The person retrieving it is an American musician on tour. A new chapter in the life of the saxophone was about to begin.

Andy Sugg | Photo: Kevin Peterson

Sax master Andy Sugg presents TTTenor with John Mackey and James Sandon at Bird’s Basement on Wednesday 28 August