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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Friday, March 12, 2021

The Greatest Saxophonists in the World - and how the very idea is harming us

     The recent controversy in the saxophone world surrounding the release of "this year's model" tore the curtains back to reveal a deep and painful division.  What is argued to be the greatest saxophone company in the world appeared to unintentionally work on a new instrument for eight years without consulting any women saxophonists.  The problem, at least in my opinion, is that they had eight years to think about it and nobody ever noticed until it was too late.  A quick look at the list of their endorsing artists reveals a long list of outstanding women, so the questions remains.  What went wrong?

I have been a university saxophone professor for over twenty years.  A quick look back at my list of students reveals that about 40% of my class has been female.  I can also think of a long list of incredible women that I have either studied with, performed with, or admired.  You actually don't have to work very hard at all to come up with a list of highly accomplished female saxophonists.

When I asked friends and students what they thought about the absence of the voice of women in the big release, two answers were very common.

  1. I didn't really notice until someone pointed it out.
  2. They [the company] just wanted to focus on the best players in the world.
Point number one perfectly illustrates the underlying problem.  If you are a woman, you noticed.  If you are a man, it could easily sail right by you.  That is how privilege works.  We tend not to notice exclusion when we are not the ones being excluded.  There is much to unpack there, but for now, let's look at number two.


I asked my students some questions about the second suggestion:
  • How do we know who are the best saxophonists in the world?
  • Who actually decides?
  • Who is helped or harmed by this list?
For fun, I conducted a little experiment.  I googled "best saxophonists in the world."  I know, I know.  This is a ridiculous thing to do, but I had no trouble getting a list.  I went with the top hit and was instantly hit with some interesting information.  In this "top ten," I found myself looking at a list of saxophonists that were entirely jazz musicians, almost entirely black men, and mostly deceased.  I kept looking at lists, but google would only give me lists of jazz saxophonists.  The only way that I could get any classical saxophonists was to include the word "classical" in my search.

When I did include the word classical, I got a list from a British website that included Rascher, Mule, Rousseau, and three British saxophonists.  One of those saxophonists had a business connection with the parent company of the site.  This wasn't much of a list, but at least some of the saxophonists were alive, and two of them were women.  At the end of my little experiment, and it was indeed little, I was unable to find a list that included classical and jazz saxophonists on a single list.

Before we continue, I want to emphasize that this is probably the least scientific investigation that I have ever conducted.  I fully realize that google won't even give us the same results, and search engines show us what is popular or what they are paid to show us.  Google doesn't actually have expertise or an opinion on the matter.  What follows is just some observations that may or may not have much value, but I think that we find some good fodder for discussion.


Google tells us that the best saxophonists play jazz.  Why is that?  I will argue that jazz has historically been far more popular in terms of commercial success.  Most of these saxophonists are dead because the golden age of jazz, at least in terms of selling records and generating profit through festivals and clubs, well, it is over.  If we use record sales and media presence as metrics, modern artists cannot compete because the market has diminished greatly over the years.  There is an unbreakable connection here between "the best" and "the most popular."

If we continue on this path, jazz is historically far more popular than so-called classical saxophone.  Larry Teal became the first full-time American saxophone professor in the United States in the 1950s, so it is important to note that the saxophone was a marginalized instrument.  If you had the desire and the means to study music formally, it was very difficult to do that as a saxophonist.  On the other hand, the saxophone was considerably more accessible to African American men that had severely limited access to music schools,  and they could learn jazz from the recordings and from the community, essentially becoming self-taught.  This seems to have been socially acceptable for men, but far less so for women, which illustrates the damage of being even farther marginalized.


Getting back to the question of "best," how do we measure musical greatness?  We can obviously make subjective observations, such as tonal beauty, phrasing, and perceived virtuosity.  It is also possible to take some objective measurements, like accuracy of intonation, speed of articulation, and range.  When I looked at my original list of "bests," two saxophonists (whom I love very much) threw this method of evaluation into chaos:  Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler.

Ornette and Ayler make the subjective elements difficult to use as a meaningful comparison with more traditional saxophonists.  If Ornette was our first expressionist, Ayler is our Jackson Pollock.  I am firmly convinced that Albert Ayler didn't really play the saxophone very well [edit: Ayler is very important to me, but I am suggesting that he cannot, and should not, be evaluated in terms such as "accuracy of intonation"] because it wasn't a requirement for the music that he brought forth from his imagination.  He was speaking in tongues and communicating more with waves of sound than with notes.  It is extremely important to acknowledge that these  avant-gardists had an important influence on many of the other "bests" on the list, including John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.  That influence did not involve any of my suggested measures of musical greatness because Free Jazz transcends the sum of its parts.  In other words, some music doesn't necessarily require perfect intonation or purity of tone.


My first google hit for classical saxophone demonstrates source-generated bias.  Half of this list was British saxphonists, and while I agree that all three listed are excellent musicians.  It was a little hard to imagine that Cecil Leeson, Donald Sinta, or Fred Hemke (for example) would not be on this list.  Remember, this list came from the BBC, and one person on the list works for the BBC.  As with most lists of "bests," whether we are talking about musicians or phone apps, the list has an agenda.

Another curiosity that I encountered is that the classical list included Mule and Rascher, the pioneers of the style.  As a student of the saxophone, one must study both of these founders.  The jazz list, however, completely ignored Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Lester Young . . . even though they are the founders, and Hawkins is arguably the inventor of the extended improvisation in jazz.  Every single saxophonist on the jazz list would be impossible without those founders.  I believe that they are not included because Sonny, Trane, and Bird sold more records.  They were commercially more popular, and that seems to be a metric that is hidden just below the surface of what is means to be "best."


When I was a young man, my goal was to be "the greatest saxophonist in the world."  I practiced myself into physical and mental illness that endured for several decades.  I practiced furiously, I continued to win awards and garner professional accolades, but I realized that I would never be able to break into "the club."  The idea of being "the best" was very damaging to my personal happiness, and wellness.  I started to get better when I made peace with the fact that "best" is an illusion that is generated by those with power.  When we allow ourselves to believe that only a certain number of elite artists are the exclusive top of field, we are being manipulated into buying products.  Worse still, as the echo chamber increases in amplitude, there is even less room for others to be recognized.  This is how record companies, concert promoters, and product manufacturers invent an imaginary club called "best in the world," but I have concluded that the real club is almost everyone else in the profession; not being in the club is the club!


There are some very real things that saxophonists can do to heal our community.  Firstly, I think that we need to stop using the language of superlatives.  Coleman Hawkins and Marcel Mule are essential, but there is no reason to rank them, and even if you could, what would be the point?  Second, we must stop believing in the idea of "best in the world."  This is difficult because there are powerful forces that are purposefully and/or unintentionally reinforcing the idea of "best."  I honestly believe that the company that started this controversy did not realize that they were believing their own list, the list that they created.  That is how echo chambers operate, after all.  Finally, we need to look for new artists and make our own determinations, and we need to support those artists.


When I was starting my career, I went to work for Saxophone Journal.  I was told on the day that I was hired
  1. We don't review, we only recommend (positivity and support)
  2. We always feature classical, jazz, and rock/pop/smooth jazz artists
  3. We always include racial and gender diversity because it reflects the real world
I remember Dave Gibson, editor of the magazine, said that featuring women was important because they are literally everywhere in the profession.  The approach was not to require token this-or-that every so often.  The magazine strove to include everyone.  I had no idea how ahead of their time they were.  That approach continued with Saxophone Today, and I see a similar philosophy at The Saxophonist.  It is easy to support diversity in the saxophone world because it exists.

[Did you notice that Google didn't show me any rock or smooth jazz saxophonists?  No Junior Walker? No Clarence Clemmons?  No Candy Dulfer?  No Kenny G?]

Every facet of my professional life improved when I stopped trying to be the best, when I saw the club as an artificial construct.  No matter how one tries to measure musical greatness, the bottom line is that we make beauty in the air, and if we try to measure beauty, we damage the music, and ourselves.  There is room for everyone, but before we can invite people into the space, we have to make room in our own heads.

Practice well, and share the light.


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