Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The Baritone Saxophone

A student of mine has just lent me a baritone sax and I got it out today for the first time to have a blow. The case is the size of a small car and I can't see myself peddling around with this beast under my arm like I did with the tenor. It takes up a deal of space and I can appreciate why its owner, who had another one at home, was so happy for me to take it off his hands for a while. The fruit in the picture was to give a sense of scale but I got carried away with the theme and so it's 'Still Life with Saxophone' in tribute to Tom Robbins.

This sax inevitably made me think of other big saxophones. I have come across three memorable bass saxes in my time. The first was played by Rodney Slater of the Bonzo Dog Band but I had no idea what it was when I saw them on the telly. The next was at a party in an enormous house in Hampstead Heath. There was a nine-piece Dixieland jazz band in one of the reception rooms and they found it impossible to resist the wine - plentiful and free-flowing - that the host had provided for his guests. I got talking to the player of a magnificent bass sax and discovered he was drunk enough to let me have a go (but sober enough to insist I kept in on the stand while I played).

The third bass sax that made a big impression was in a novel by Josef Škvorecký. Set in Czechoslovakia during and after the Second World War it concerns itself with the efforts of the instrument's player to keep the thing alive but hidden. Neither the Nazis nor the Soviets were big on jazz, believing it to be a symptom of a degenerate Jewish/Capitalist mind-set. In the introduction to 'The Bass Saxophone' Škvorecký recounts a list of rules drawn up by a German Gauleiter and binding on all dance bands. I have written them out in full so you can see which ones you agree with:

1 Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands;

2 in this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics;

3 as to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones (so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negro excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated;

4 so-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the music of the barbarian races and conducive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs);

strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cow-bells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-was, hat etc.);

6 also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylized military marches);

7 the double bass must be played solely with the bow in so-called jazz compositions;

8 plucking the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden;

9 musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal improvisation (so-called scat);

10 all light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violoncello, the viola or possibly a suitable folk instrument

To get the full flavour of times you really need to read Škvorecký's book but the above is a reminder of how lucky we are in the freedoms we enjoy. Or how unlucky we are to live in such undisciplined times. Take your pick.


  1. I'm for freedom of expression. Legislate musical content?? Tastes bad.

    Love the still life with sax, I had figured you put the fruit in for scale, but you're right, it works better as a still life. The fruit is trying to snuggle up to the sax, but is scared to get too close cos it's such an awesome instrument.

  2. oh fun! My brother played bass clarinet and saxophone and I always loved listening to him play!