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Belgium Honors Ignored Native Who Invented the Sax

November 3, 1990

DINANT, Belgium (AP) _ One thousand musicians will gather Sunday outside the boyhood home of a neglected inventor to ″sob on the long cool winding″ instrument that Adolphe Sax created 150 years ago.

The golden horn revolutionized 20th century music, but Sax never heard the long, lonely flights of Lester Young, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

His life, however, played like a melancholy jazz solo.

It was marred by nearly fatal accidents, the first at age 3 when he fell three floors and was left as dead. Surviving childhood, he then faced the envy of competitors who did all they could, even attempted murder, to destroy him and his invention.

He went bankrupt three times and ruined his health trying to keep control of his invention, which French musician Eugene Bozza called ″the most moving, the most heart-gripping, the most beautiful wind ... instrument.″

The anniversary is being celebrated this weekend in Dinant, capped by a concert Sunday in front of Sax’s home by 1,000 saxophone players from throughout Europe. Many of the saxophonists are trained in classical music, which did not fully accept the instrument until the 1940s.

Sax was born in 1814 in a modest home on Dinant’s Rue Neuve, eldest of the 11 children of Charles-Joseph Sax, a successful maker of musical instruments.

Adolphe learned singing and the flute very young and lifted instrument making to such perfection that his father became his pupil.

At 20, he became famous for designing a clarinet so superior to rivals that the conductor of the Paris Opera called all others ″barbaric instruments.″

Disappointed by Belgium’s lack of support of his skills, he went to Paris six years later, poor but hopeful that French avant-garde musicians would take his work to glory.

″Get your new instruments finished soon,″ French composer Ludovic Halevy had written him, ″and come to help starving composers and the public who want something new.″

Halevy knew Sax was working on a revolutionary instrument. The Belgian had invented the saxophone in 1840 in Dinant, feeling immediately that it would change the musical world. But he was so scared it would be copied he hid behind a curtain when he first presented it in a competition in Brussels.

It was ″a unique instrument at the edge of silence,″ said Hector Berlioz, the only one ″expressing tenderness, restrained passion,″ according to Georges Bizet.

Contrary to what Sax expected, it was not an instant success. Patented in 1846, he had to fight countless court battles to defend the paternity of his instrument. His workshop was set afire once, and one time an assailant fired a shot at a co-worker, believing it was Sax.

Although he sold 20,000 saxophones in 17 years, he failed to get the wide recognition he dreamed about. He died in 1894, less than a quarter-century before jazz finally gave his instrument the triumph it deserved. Hot jazz, later refined into swing, bebop, free-form and fusion, swept from America to change world music and give writers the melody for modern themes of alienation and rebellion.

Carl Sandburg, in his 1920 poem ″Jazz Fantasia,″ caught one mood of Sax’s invention:

″Drum on your drums, batter on your banjos, sob on the long cool winding saxophones

″Go to it, O jazzmen.″

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