The Instruments That Made Jazz

It’s Jazz Part 9


Is there such a thing as a jazz instrument? This question will most assuredly start an all-night, heated discussion among jazz musicians and fans.

The strongest case can be presented for the saxophone, invented by Adolphe Sax in Paris in the 1840′s. Although he intended the saxophone for military marching bands, it is in the jazz idiom that the instrument really came into the spotlight.

Why the saxophone as truly the jazz instrument? It’s difficult to say, but perhaps it is the instrument’s siren-like quality. Perhaps it is the resemblance of the saxophone sound to that of the human voice — reedy, breathy, capable not only of loud, clear melodies, but also of the sobs and moans that are so much a part of the heartfelt music that is jazz.

Another instrument in contention for being the jazz instrument is the piano, the only instrument which, by itself, can sound like a whole combo, rhythm section and all.

Others would pick out the trumpet, the horn of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Miles Davis, Chuck Mangione and Wynton Marsalis. The trumpet is usually awarded the leading role in a band, just as the sopranos most often sing the melody part in a chorus of voices.

Still others will defend the string bass of Ron Carter and Richard Davis, the trombone of Tommy Dorsey, the clarinet of Benny Goodman or the guitar of Wes Montgomery.

Obviously, each of these instruments has made jazz richer and has a well-defined role in the music that is jazz. The piano is everywhere in music — rare is the singer who will take the stage without at least a piano for support, whether to sing jazz or Schubert Lieder. To a lesser extent the guitar, trombone, trumpet and clarinet can all be called jazz instruments, but they are also found in symphony orchestras, concert bands, marching bands, even polka bands and groups playing other ethnic music. And, of course, drums are omnipresent in music, providing a new and varied approach to rhythm.

But it is the saxophone which alone carries the torch for Jazz. The instrument is almost never heard at a symphony concert, and while the saxophone does play a part in the concert and marching bands, the clarinets are awarded the role that violins play in the symphony orchestra, the same as sopranos sing the melody. In Jazz, it’s the breathy and soulful saxophone which is often the lead instrument.