The Saxophone: Pop Culture Survivor

At many times in the 175 years since its invention, the saxophone’s days have appeared to be numbered. Musical styles came and went, pop culture lived through one sea change after another, and tastemakers generally agreed that the instrument, when played poorly, sucked. And yet, despite it all, the saxophone kept on blaring.

Plenty of writers have approached the saxophone, and generally they say either love it or kill it. But neither of these positions seems to appreciate what we can learn about the evolution of popular music by viewing it through the deceptively narrow opening of an Otto Link 8* mouthpiece … I mean, through a saxophone. So let’s do it.


The saxophone was invented in 1843. It was loud and obnoxious and hated by composers and performers alike. Naturally, it caught on across the Western world. While always a problem child for symphonic orchestras, it found its place in John Philip Sousa marches, Tin Pan Alley sheet music, and 1930s swing bands. As jazz music moved away from the big band sound and focused on virtuosos in small groups, the saxophone took center stage, in the hands of heroin addicts like Charlie Parker.

Bear in mind, this was not a nice instrument. People of fine, upstanding moral character found its tone insolent and its performers perverse. It was banned from numerous venues. I could go on, but suffice it to say there’s a whole book and documentary about the hate it generated in its first 80 years or so.

Don’t Stop Rockin’

As the style that would become rock music took over in the 1950s, it brought the saxophone with it. I can’t say how that happened—it’s probably the case that there were simply a lot of saxophones floating around among young people at the time, and a lot of those guys wanted to be in rock ’n’ roll bands.

The saxophone and the doo-wop/rockabilly/proto-R&B song are perfect for each other. A sax is way more expressive than similar melodic instruments like trumpets, and closer in timbre and range to a human voice than anything else can claim to be. It’s loud and clear enough to go up against an electric guitar and drum kit at the same time. It’s kind of a perfect fit.

It’s also, like rock music itself, a crossover from African-American musical tradition. While it’s true the sax was invented by a white Belgian, it reached its highest form of expression in American jazz acts, in the hands of African-American musicians like Parker, Dexter Gordon, Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Johnny Hodges. So as rock and roll developed, amalgamating influences from jump blues, R&B, boogie-woogie, country, gospel, and traditional blues music, it’s not surprising that the white people who made up those bands picked up the sax as well.

But the sax wasn’t yet a star. It was just one instrument in the band, and it often didn’t show up until the middle of the tune for a solo. Which seems normal; rock music at this time is about the singer and the words. But you could start to see inklings of what was to come.

Some Like It Hot, 1959

In the mid-1960s, the saxophone starts to disappear from rock music, as, post-Beatles, rock turns toward the psychedelic. It’s also where popular music diverges again based on race: hardly any acts labeled “rock” included people of color, while African-American musicians increasingly appeared only in music labeled soul or R&B. True, this is an artificial distinction that doesn’t recognize the fluidity of musical stylistic intermingling or other kinds of genre disruption (for instance, Jimi Hendrix). But as a heuristic for discussing western popular music of this era, you could do worse.

Anyway, R&B kept using the sax, well into the end of the decade, as did the soul and eventual funk acts that followed. Maceo Parker was generally the face of that sound—he played for James Brown and the various incarnations of Parliament Funkadelic.

^ Solo starts at 1:45

^ Solo starts at 3:42

But somehow, the sax came back to rock. In fact, the 1970s is where, as far as most of us can remember, the rock-music saxophone heads into dangerously expressive territory, a move that will complicate its pop culture legacy for decades to come.

Did you know that David Bowie was a sax player? He plays it on some of his own tracks, and included sax parts on his records, all the way up through Blackstar. He hired his own sax teacher to play the solo on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” off of 1972’s Transformer, which Bowie produced. The sax part itself wasn’t that sultry, but the song is about prostitutes and sex and drugs—you know, naughty stuff.

The same cannot be said for Gato Barbieri’s sax playing on the soundtrack to 1972’s Last Tango in Paris. Gato’s sax growls and wails, like an older man chasing a younger woman for a weekend of dirty sex that probably goes too far and leaves everyone scarred. Clarence Clemons’s playing on “Born to Run” in 1975, meanwhile, can only be described as muscular, and not just because of the sax player’s guns. It takes something powerful to keep up with Bruce and his personal Wall of Sound, and Clemons wasn’t sitting on the sidelines. He plays throughout the whole song, adding color, taking a ballsy solo, strutting around the stage. The sax is at least as assertive and crucial as the drums, if not more.

Fast forward to 1976 and Tom Scott’s sax solos on the Taxi Driver soundtrack. Like Barbieri’s playing before, Scott’s horn is sinuous and moody, its neo-romantic melody soaring over the film’s dark and grimy set pieces. Some critics have compared it to Travis Bickle himself, yearning to be the hero who rises above the violence and despair of New York’s pimp- and child prostitute-infested streets, unaware that he’ll never escape that fallen world, because that’s where he’s from, too.

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Once, as a young saxophonist myself, I found a website purporting to catalog famous saxophone solos. It’s long since lost to the sands of time and GeoCities, but I recall one tidbit from its FAQ’s:

Q: What’s that one sax solo from that one song?
A: You must be referring to “Baker Street.”

The solo from this 1978 single is the apotheosis of ’70s saxophony. It’s far and away the most memorable piece of the song, despite being musically uncomplicated—it succeeds because of Raphael Ravenscroft’s sweaty, insistent performance, plus a healthy dose of reverb effects. Also, let’s be fair, this riff is awesome. I know you’ve heard it. Lisa Simpson played it (Season 9, Episode 3, “Lisa’s Sax”). It’s Jerry on Rick and Morty’s swagger song. Slash says it inspired his solo from “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” YouTube is full of high school band dorks trying to do it justice. If you played saxophone, this song proved it: you were cool.

The 1980s: We Went Too Far

And now the era when the saxophone became uncool. Throughout the ’80s, producers, filmmakers, and video directors hammered us over the head with the sax as a sex symbol, both in pop songs and TV and movies. Before long, we couldn’t take much more. The sax became a victim of its own success.

There was so much sax in 1980s pop music that I can’t possibly provide videos for even the most prominent examples. That would include Men at Work, Tina Turner, Richard Marx, Glenn Frey, Foreigner, INXS, Sade, Billy Ocean, Phil Collins, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, Huey Lewis & The News, George Harrison, Paula Abdul, Pink Floyd, The Beach Boys, Hall & Oates, Chaka Khan, Duran Duran, and countless others. The ’80s were such a fruitful time for sax players that legit jazz stars like Sonny Rollins, Michael Brecker, Grover Washington Jr., Gerald Albright, and Branford Marsalis found paying gigs in the studio backing up the likes of Kenny Loggins, Billy Joel, Jimmy Buffett, Olivia Newton-John, Sting, and even the Rolling Stones. At the movies, David Sanborn’s impersonation of Tom Scott defined the Lethal Weapon series’ soundtrack.

So let’s focus on the touchstone moments when, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the sax was headed off a cliff. To begin with, too many filmmakers used it to make people look cool—but, you know, ’80s cool.

St. Elmo’s Fire, Better Off Dead, Moscow on the Hudson

The few complex portrayals from this time still centered on the same sort of sexy rebellion. In 1986’s Crimes of the Heart, Sissy Spacek’s saxophone is a symbol of her selfishness and promiscuity, but it’s also about her taking control, as she obsesses over an instrument mainly employed by men at the same time she asserts her independence (and, you know, shoots her abusive husband).

But most takes were not as nuanced. Outside of film, musicians continued to overplay the saxophone’s alleged sexiness.

Let’s remember some TV theme songs!

(Don’t be fooled — Law & Order has a clarinet.)

Sooner or later, it all fell apart.

Incredibly, hip-thrusting, oiled-up, beefcake sax man Tim Cappello in The Lost Boys wasn’t even the nadir of ’80s saxophone stylings. That honor goes to Dutch sax heartthrob Candy Dulfer, for her appearance in “Partyman,” the second-most notorious video off of Prince’s 1989 Batman soundtrack.

… or maybe it was second-string Chicago Bears running back Calvin Thomas molesting a saxophone in “The Super Bowl Shuffle.” Dude, you have your hands on the wrong sides.

The Dead Years

By the ’90s, playing saxophone was just another way of labeling yourself a lame try-hard. Did Bill Clinton really impress anyone with his high school band theatrics? Should I care that Dave Matthews has a sax player in his jam band? Does anyone even remember Dave Koz?

And Kenny G. When he released 1992’s Breathless, which sold 12 million execrable copies, he did the impossible. He took the saxophone — the widely derided Devil’s Horn, bane of orchestra conductors, musical middle finger to the establishment, Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat talisman, symbol of back-alley-dive-bar foreplay — and turned it into a suburban mom’s cool sip of chardonnay on a warm summer evening.

So, fuck that guy, but also admit that saxophones as sexy solo instruments were basically dunzo for the moment. They did pop up now and then, mostly in an adorkable context, such as Lisa Simpson’s occasional sax-related episodes. (David Lynch still got it, judging by Bill Pullman’s unsettling sax antics in Lost Highway.) By the time noted jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman appeared, unannounced, with Jewel when she was the Saturday Night Live musical guest in 1997, it was kind of like spotting an Energizer Bunny toy at a garage sale. “Remember when that thing was everywhere?”

If anything, it was horn sections (like on SNL or other late-night shows’ bands) that kept the saxophone alive in the 1990s, especially the ones that populated the third-wave ska bands and swing revival acts flitting like perseid meteors across the sky of our collective pop-music consciousness. Sadly, they reduced the sax to just a cog in the machine, one often outplayed by the louder and punchier trombones and trumpets. The saxophone’s days as a star were over.

The Catchy Rebirth

As the 2010s dawned, things did not look good. Parks and Recreation’s Duke Silver persona was a reliable punchline. On YouTube, “Sexy Sax Man” racked up 40 million views of himself vamping “Careless Whisper” in shopping malls and laundromats. And when Jon Hamm hosted SNL, guest digital-short director Jonathan Krisel turned him into a shirtless, longhaired sax player who torments a cursed yuppie. The saxophone is literally damned.

But around the same time, the ice started to crack. You’ve heard of Ibiza? Well, their DJs have heard of the saxophone. I can’t tell when they first started using sax samples in their tracks, but I have traced it back to at least 2003, a few years after the Spanish government started cracking down on Ibiza’s trashier influences and turning it into a high-class rave destination. The sax riff from “Calabria” was a popular sample for DJs to rip off and reuse, and one version made it stateside in 2007. Here’s a rundown and video compilation of how the trend went from clubs to Europop to hip hop and back:

mid-2007 – ENUR feat. Natasja, “Calabria 2007”
Feb. 2010 – Yolanda Be Cool and DCUP, “We No Speak Americano”
Jan. 2011 – Alexandra Stan, “Mr. Saxobeat”
April 2011 – Dev, “In the Dark”
August 2012 – Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, “Thrift Shop”
Jan. 2014 – Jason Derulo, “Talk Dirty”
Oct. 2014 – Flo Rida, “GDFR”
March 2015 – Fifth Harmony, “Worth It”

It’s worth noting this trend didn’t come out of nowhere; as long as there have been samples, there have been sax samples in some of hip hop’s biggest hits. These early instances date back to 1992, for instance.

At the same time as the sax’s hip hop/europop resurgence, a handful of other prominent pop artists were working hard to bring back the ’80s, and you know what that means: diesel-fueled sax solos. In 2011, Lady Gaga dragged the E Street Band’s Clarence Clemons, six months before he died, to New York so he could cut the solo in “The Edge of Glory”; Katy Perry got SNL’s Lenny Pickett to play and Kenny G to appear in the video for “TGIF Last Friday Night”; and M83 borrowed James King from Fitz and the Tantrums for “Midnight City.” In a more niche ’80s style, synthwave stars Perturbator, Carpenter Brut, VHS Dreams, and The Midnight have all dropped sax solos next to their gated drum tracks and Sega soundtrack fever dreams.

The thing is, the sax can’t last much longer in popular music if it’s nothing more than a throwback or an EDM producer’s loop. If this continues, pretty soon we’ll have to put the saxophone out to pasture with the accordions and barbershop quartets, and only dust it off for ensemble work in the inevitable reboots of Drumline and The Commitments.

Not everyone sees it that way. Take Kendrick Lamar or Blood Orange, the public faces of hip hop and R&B artistry. To Pimp a Butterfly prominently featured jazz saxophone young guns Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin, who also produced several tracks; Blood Orange plays sax himself on this year’s Negro Swan, and he also hired session man Jason Arce for a few additional tracks. Flying Lotus, the almost un-categorizable hip hop/electronic/jazz producer, put Washington on his last record and his own cousin, Ravi Coltrane (yep, John’s son), on 2010’s Afrofuturist epic Cosmogramma.

Now, I’m aware that Flying Lotus isn’t blowing up the charts, nor does Kendrick Lamar get the radio airplay that his status and ability should command. But the fact that leading artists in hip hop and electronic music are eschewing samples and hiring live saxophonists to be on their tracks is a good sign as far as I’m concerned. Even dubstep bros GRiZ and Dominic Lalli of Big Gigantic have played sax on some of their own songs.

^ Sax starts at 3:20

In fact, that could be enough. In our post-album and post-Top 40 world, the once-monolithic music world has splintered into a thousand niches. Bandcamp and Pitchfork have as much influence as Rick Dees or Casey Kasem 30 years ago, and teenagers who’ve never cut a record can rake in six figures singing covers and shilling dumb products on YouTube. The saxophone just might survive popular music’s next incarnation by doing what it’s always done: being versatile enough for any style.