JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


Do you want to do that question about the standard and the [alternative]?

Yeah. Coleman Hawkins - you have to understand that the saxophone was invented in Europe by a man named Adolph Sax - named after him. And [Sax] invented a series of saxophones of different sizes uh, you know, different ranges: the alto saxophone, the baritone, the soprano; uh, contrabass which is as big as a building - and not all of them were made by Adolph Sax but eventually the saxophone family grew that way. And for most people, most composers at that time didn't really know what to do with the saxophone. A lot of them thought it was sort of a vulgar instrument. It was considered a bit too reedy. They weren't quite sure how to play it. Most of the reed instruments at that point were the more fragile reeds like the oboe and the bassoon.

And a few composers started using it. Berlioz used saxophones, uh, Reveille used saxophones, of course, earlier in the 20th century. But the most famous saxophonist in terms of popular music was a man named Rudy Wiedoeft who played in vaudeville. And Rudy Wiedoeft was one of these guys - and there were a lot of them in those days - who would play two and three saxophones at the same time. In other words, it was a comedy instrument. And it looked like a funny instrument. It had this weird curved horn and they always played it by tonguing every note. Now, the saxophone mouthpiece is a piece of plastic, closed on the top, sometimes metal. And it's completely open on the bottom. It's just a hole. And you close that hole by putting in a thin piece of wood called a reed. Reeds come in all kinds of sizes - the more virtuoso the musician usually the harder the reed. Musicians used to say that Benny Goodman's reed looked like a diving board. Nobody else could play it, it was so thick. But you cover [that hole] with the reed.

Now you've got this little tiny space of air between the reed and the mouthpiece on top of it. And you create sound by making the reed quiver with your tongue and blowing air into that little crack between the two parts. So the way that the saxophone had developed and the way Rudy Wiedoeft and these other guys played it was to tongue every note. Literally, use the tongue for every note against the reed. So it would sound like [Giddins demonstrates] - every note was tongued. The idea of playing legato on the saxophone was virtually unheard of.

Coleman Hawkins comes along. As a kid, he played cello. He managed to make the saxophone sound like a cello. He stopped - in very early records, if you listen to "Stampede" with Fletcher Henderson you can hear even Hawkins tonguing. But he quickly got beyond the tonguing. And he created - one of the records we spend a lot of time in the textbook on is a piece called "One Hour." It may be the first jazz ballad. And you can hear Coleman Hawkins creating the modern saxophone style. Coleman Hawkins figures out how to make it a romantic instrument. He gets a legato sound. And suddenly, simply because of the way he plays it, saxophone doesn't look so funny anymore. Now it looks sexy. And you actually have newspaper columnists attacking the saxophone as the instrument of the devil. It's actually called the devil's instrument. It's too erotic. The idea of women playing saxophone is just sort of, you know, a terrible thing. So Hawkins' style, which is to play through all the chords of a cycle - to play with a heavy vibrato, a very masculine, virile approach - becomes the standard approach to the saxophone. And it remains the standard approach for a decade.

And then comes along the first really alternative way of playing the tenor saxophone: Lester Young out of Kansas City; originally out of New Orleans and Mississippi. He traveled with a family band, became famous in Kansas City working with Count Basie. Lester Young is Hawkins' opposite. If Hawkins played with a very virile vibrato, Lester plays almost without vibrato. If Coleman Hawkins likes sort of short, choppy phrases that follow through the chords, Lester Young likes long, fluid phrases that don't necessarily touch on every chord, that are much more melodic. Um, when you listen to a Coleman Hawkins solo, and he's going through a 16-bar passage, you feel that he's finding his way through every curve and turn harmonically through those 16 bars. When you listen to Lester Young play 16 bars, you feel like he's already figured out what the route is and now he's going to create a line that will take you there. It's much more melodic and singable - far fewer notes. And at the same time Lester Young has a funky quality, especially in the low register, that was endlessly imitated by the rhythm and blues players. So on the one hand, Lester is very romantic, very melodic, very lyrical. Very tender, as when he plays with Billie Holiday. But at the same time he can be incredibly funky and swingy when he's playing up-tempo tunes with Count Basie and his own groups. And so he influenced basically the whole, the whole, you know, world of saxophone because the R&B guys took one thing from him, the melodic, and bebop guys took something else.