It happened today - June 28, 2016

On this date in history, June 28 of 1846, Adolphe Sax patented the saxophone. Way cool. And very lucky.

It’s lucky partly because Sax, an instrument-maker, was also an extremely unlucky child or, if you look at it from the other side, extremely lucky. At various times he suffered a three story fall and hit his head on a rock, drank a bowl of “vitriolized water” (this story is all over the internet but nobody says what it is but since vitriol is sulphuric acid I wouldn’t drink it), swallowed a pin, was seriously burned by gunpowder, fell into a hot frying pan, was poisoned and suffocated simultaneously by varnished items stored in his bedroom, was hit on the head by a cobblestone and nearly drowned in a river. His autobiography says his own mother despaired of his surviving childhood and his neighbours called him “little Sax, the ghost”. Oddly appropriate given the often haunting tone of a “sax”.

We’re also lucky because the saxophone is, as Sax himself intended, a hybrid woodwind/brass instrument with a unique sound. I’ve often commented negatively about things like, say, Facebook, that if it didn’t exist we wouldn’t go about saying “You know what would be really cool? You know what would make my life fulfilling?” and then describe it. But it’s true in a positive way about saxophones.

If they didn’t exist, you wouldn’t notice they were missing because it almost certainly wouldn’t occur to you that they could exist. There’d be brass instruments which were brassy and had three simple valves, and woodwinds with a softer sound and that totally weird fingering that I never could figure out. (I learned trumpet in high school, in the loosest possible sense of the term “learn,” before being switched to the “euphonium” which wasn’t when I played it but did evidently evolve from a lesser-known Sax invention, the “saxhorn”. But I can still remember how to play a trumpet. The clarinet seems to me to make no sense and require at least 14 fingers. Fortunately my inability to finger one cost the world nothing.)

Instead there’s also the often haunting tone of the sax, a genuine hybrid. I do not say jazz would not have been invented without it. But certainly there was a kind of synergy between them. And with the blues. Songs clearly exist today, and versions, that were inspired in part by the fact that the musician had the sax sound in their mind when pondering possibilities. And it’s proof of genuine creative genius as one of life’s wonders. Interestingly, Sax patented a series of them in different keys, but where the B♭ and E♭ ones intended for military bands caught on, including oddly for military bands, the C and F versions for orchestras never did. The sax is not really suitable for the Baroque feel. But the jazz age is a different matter.

I said above you almost certainly wouldn’t have thought of a hybrid brass-woodwind if Sax hadn’t. But you might have, because he did. And there is a remarkably steady stream of big and small pieces of miraculous creativity where people see possibilities and make them happen and bring something so new into the world that it’s hard to categorize it as simply discovering the possibility. It really feels as though they made it. Still, without Sax it might have been different, later, or indeed never, leaving a big hole in music we wouldn’t even know was there.

As for the ophicleide, which Sax manufactured, and the saxtromba he invented, well, you can’t win them all. And sadly, Sax didn’t win his long legal battles over his patents and died in utter poverty at 79. But he did survive the pin and vitriol and all that to reach that age, and in the process gave the world the saxophone.