Commentary: Bass Saxophone

Mike Lawson • Commentary • October 18, 2014

Making a Case for the Bass… Saxophone

Sax pioneer Colin Stetson. Photo by Keith Klenowski.

The bass saxophone, one of the most unique, multipurpose low woodwinds available, has been off of the radar for most music educators for the last half-century. However, the instrument is making a comeback. It’s time for everyone to learn a bit about the history – and future – of this great instrument.

The Bass Sax Throughout History

While many are unaware of this fact, the saxophone was originally conceived as a low-voiced instrument. The available winds that filled the role in the early 19th century, the serpent and the ophicleide, were considered inferior in both tone and intonation. Adolphe Sax’s prototype (a bass voice in B-flat, just like the modern instrument), however, was judged by such a figure as Hector Berlioz to be “the most beautiful low voice known to this day.” [i]

As Sax’s instruments were further developed throughout the coming decades, more voices were added to the instrumental family, including the familiar sopranos, altos, tenors, and baritones of today. However, the bass continued to be an integral member of the saxophone section, being incorporated into bands and orchestras throughout Europe and North America. In fact, some of the most famous American bands of the era utilized the instrument prominently.

Patrick Gilmore, one of the first bandmasters to fully incorporate saxophones into his ensembles, utilized a bass saxophone by the 1880s. [ii] Following in his footsteps, the great John Philip Sousa regularly used the instrument in his civilian band, [iii] later indicating that he felt the instrument to be an integral and entirely necessary component of his group’s instrumentation. In addition, Sousa utilized the bass in one of the more interesting side-ensembles associated with his act, the “Saxophone Corps.” The Corps was a saxophone ensemble (at first a sextet and later an octet) that performed encores during Sousa Band concerts of the 1910s and ‘20s. [v]

The bass saxophone also found its way into the symphony orchestra, its originally intended home. Despite the invention and adoption of the tuba, the former instrument still filled a much-needed want among composers for a low woodwind voice with more power, dynamic range, and tonal flexibility than the bassoon or bass clarinet. Such disparate composers as Puccini, [vi] Grainger, [vii] and Schoenberg [viii] included important parts for the bass saxophone in their scores in the first hundred years of the instrument’s life.

Adrian Rollini

Along with its ubiquity in prestigious concert organizations, the bass saxophone was also a popular component of groups in other musical genres. The Brown Brothers Sextet, one of the leading pop acts of the 1910s through early 1930s, was a saxophone group that regularly featured crude humor in their act, often centering around the bass saxophone and its performer. [ix] The instrument also featured somewhat prominently in early jazz of the 1920s in the hands of such performers as Adrian Rollini. [x]

As a result of many of the above precedents, the bass saxophone quickly found its way into the burgeoning college and grade school bands of the early twentieth century. For example, the National Solo and Ensemble Contest, held under the aegis of the National Band Contest from 1930 to 1937, [xi] included competitions for both saxophone quartets and saxophone sextets. [xii] The instrumentation of the sextets was to include two altos, two tenors, one baritone, and one bass.[xiii] Interestingly, this is the same configuration as Sousa’s earlier “Saxophone Corps” sextet, showing the influence of the bass’s use in professional groups. [xiv]

The bass saxophone made an early appearance in collegiate bands, as the University of Illinois’s Albert Austin Harding (one of the earliest college band directors) utilized one prominently in his huge symphonic band. [xv] Likewise, Harding’s famous successor at Illinois, Mark Hindsley, also believed that the instrument made a positive impact to the sound of the band. [xvi] Many other college bands soon followed suit.

Several lists of standard or recommended instrumentation for school and collegiate bands included the bass as a necessary voice throughout the first half of the twentieth century. In 1943, the National High School Band Association included the instrument in its recommended instrumentation for “Class A” high school bands (the largest ensembles included in its considerations). [xvii] Likewise, a College Band Directors’ National Association conference report on band repertoire and instrumentation from December 1960 identified the bass saxophone as a highly desirable component in standard band scoring [xviii] for its “agility and weighty, warm tone color.” [xix]

Much standard literature for the concert band or wind ensemble utilizes the bass saxophone. Bands without the instrument today must substitute for the missing part or miss out on the important, unique sonority provided by the instrument. Just a sample of the seminal scores that call for it include the Holst First Suite [xx] and Second Suite, [xxi] the Vaughn Williams Folk Song Suite, [xxii] the Grainger Lincolnshire Posy, [xxiii] and Husa’s Music for Prague (1968). [xxiv]

The bass saxophone continued to appear in jazz ensembles and solo recordings throughout the twentieth century, into today. Stan Kenton utilized a bass saxophone in his acclaimed “Mellophonium Orchestra” of the early 1960s. [xxv] Other experimental or progressive jazz bands and players utilized the instrument, as well.


The Bass Sax Today

Sigurd Rascher.

The bass saxophone has perhaps thrived the most in recent years through the agency of the large saxophone ensemble. Many pioneering saxophone pedagogues of the twentieth century have advocated forming groups larger than quartets (with between six and two dozen performers), but Sigurd Rascher was one of the most active saxophonists involved in the formation of such groups. [xxvi] Likewise, Jean-Maire Londeix was an early proponent of these ensembles. [xxvii] A huge body of original literature (and an even larger number of transcriptions) is available for various combinations of soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass saxophones, much of which is accessible to students. [xxviii] For those interested, this author advocates a 14-person ensemble of two sopranos, five altos, three tenors, three baritones, and one bass, yielding an ensemble that, through various permutations, can play the vast majority of original and transcribed works.

To show that the bass saxophone is still an instrument full of promise, instead of an item relegated to the past, the saxophonist Colin Stetson serves as a wonderful example. Trained as both a classical and jazz performer, his career has included recordings and tours with many of the world’s most adventurous popular musicians, including Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, The National, LCD Soundsystem, David Byrne, and Lou Reed. In his own solo records, however, Stetson utilizes contemporary, avant-garde performance techniques on the bass saxophone to create otherwordly, beautiful, and visceral independent popular music. [xxix]

All of the aforementioned examples and historical precedents are offered in the simple hope that people will once again take a look at the incredible instrument that is the bass saxophone. Through its gradual reintegration into the collective knowledge of our country’s music educators, we can once again rediscover its potential, from wind ensembles to saxophone ensembles to every other style and genre. We’ll be rediscovering what Berlioz rightly called “the most beautiful low voice…” [xxx]

 Dr. Andrew J. Allen is an assistant professor of Music at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas.  He has commissioned more than a dozen new works for the saxophone and has performed throughout the United States and Great Britain.  He holds degrees in music education and saxophone performance from Tennessee Tech University, Central Michigan University, and the University of South Carolina.


[i] Liley, Thomas, “Invention and Development” in The Cambridge Companion to the Saxophone, ed. by Richard Ingham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998: 14.
[ii] Cottrell, Stephen, The Saxophone. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012: 18.
[iii] Fennell, Frederick, Time and the Winds. Huntersville, NC: Northland Music Publishers, 2007: 44.
[iv] Goldman, Richard Franko, The Concert Band. New York: Rinehart and Company, Inc., 1946: 59-60.
[v] Hester, Michael Eric, A Study of the Saxophone Soloists Performing with the John Philip Sousa Band: 1893-1930. DMA diss., The University of Arizona, 1995: 79.
[vi] Hemke, Fred, The Early History of the Saxophone. DMA diss., The University of Wisconsin, 1975: 311.
[vii] Hemke, 309.
[viii] Cottrell, 239.
[ix] Ingham, Richard, “The Saxophone Quartet” in The Cambridge Companion to the Saxophone, ed. by Richard Ingham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998: 71-72.
[x] Cottrell, 192-193.
[xi] Meyers, Brian D., “The National Solo and Ensemble Contest: 1929-1937.” Journal of Research in Music Education 60, no. 1 (April 2012): 46.
[xii] Meyers, 47.
[xiii] The C.G. Conn Corporation. “National Champion Ensemble.” Advertisement. Music Educator’s Journal 23, no. 5 (March 1937): 71.
[xiv] Hester, 79.
[xv] Fennell, 55.
[xvi] Hindsley, Mark, “Band Instrumentation: A Symposium—II. The Concert Band” in The Instrumentalist Conductor’s Anthology, Vol. 2. Northfield, IL: The Instrumentalist Company, 1993: 406.
[xvii] Goldman (The Concert Band), 91-92.
[xviii] Goldman, Richard Franko, The Wind Band: Its Literature and Technique. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1962: 166-168.
[xix] Oelrich, Jean, “Straight Talk from Vincent Persichetti” in The Instrumentalist Conductor’s Anthology, Vol. 2. Northfield, IL: The Instrumentalist Company, 1993: 868.
[xx] Holst, Gustav, First Suite in E-flat for Military Band. Musical Score. London: Boosey and Hawkes, 1921: 1.
[xxi] Holst, Gustav, Second Suite in F for Military Band. Musical Score. London: Boosey and Hawkes, 1922: 1.
[xxii] Vaughn Williams, Ralph, Folk Song Suite for Military Band. Musical Score. London: Boosey and Hawkes, 1924: 2.
[xxiii] Grainger, Percy Aldridge, Lincolnshire Posy. Musical Score. Cleveland: Ludwig Music Publishing, 1987: 3.
[xxiv]Music for Prague (1968)” Hal Leonard. Accessed August 21, 2014.
[xxv] Corey, Wayne, “Stand Kenton’s Mellophonium Sound Reborn: Kenton alum Joel Kaye revives a ‘60s sound” Jazz Times. Accessed August 19, 2014.
[xxvi] Wagoner, Paul, “Recommended Rocrdings,” The Saxophone Journal 27, no. 2 (November/December 2002): 54.
[xxvii] Ingham, 72.
[xxviii] Ronkin, Bruce, ed. The Londeix Guide to the Saxophone Repertoire: 1844-2012. Glenmore, PA: Roncorp, 2012.
[xxix] “About” Colin Stetson. Accessed August 22, 2014.
[xxx] Liley, 14.
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