Ideas·IDEAS AFTERNOON

The saxophone and the spirit: The sax's forgotten spiritual roots

The shiny, handsome and undeniably cool saxophone has been a staple of jazz music and popular culture for nearly a century. But some music historians say that what’s often been overlooked are its deep roots in spiritual beliefs and religious ritual.

Its rich, profound sound has been seen as a vessel for the transcendent

Some music experts say the saxophone's deep spiritual roots have often been overlooked. (Alenavlad/Shutterstock)
Listen to the full episode53:58

* Originally published on March 3, 2020.

The shiny, handsome and undeniably cool saxophone has been a staple of jazz music and popular culture for nearly a century. But some music historians say that what's often been overlooked are its deep roots in spiritual beliefs and religious ritual.

Bradley Strauchen-Scherer, curator of musical instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, tells IDEAS that spirituality has always been part of the instrument's DNA. 

In the early 1840s, the saxophone emerged from the Paris workshop of its Belgian inventor, Adolphe Sax. His father made band and orchestral instruments, including the tuba-like instrument the ophicleide.

"He put the mouthpiece of a bass clarinet on an ophicleide, and it's from these origins that the saxophone is born," Strauchen-Scherer told IDEAS. "The link with spirituality is that the ophicleide was a replacement for a much older instrument called the 'serpent.'"

That large and winding brass wind instrument was developed in the late 1500 and was used in France to accompany plain chant singing in the Catholic Church. 

For hundreds of years, the serpent was identified with the church, religious worship and spiritual practice.

Virtually blacklisted

But in the early 1900s, the saxophone, a distant relative of the "serpent," was virtually blacklisted from the Catholic Church. 

"Pope Pius X issued a papal edict that wind instruments, which included the saxophone, should not be used in Catholic worship," she said. "And even though the edict addressed all wind instruments, it was quite noteworthy that the saxophone was also included." 

The saxophone's rich, deep profound sound has been considered a vessel for the transcendent. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

She notes that right around that time, we were also starting to see the beginnings of jazz, which was regarded with suspicion and fear: its name carried sexual connotations, and it was often played with wild abandon. 

Jazz was the saxophone's ideal medium, and to some extent, this made the horn "mad, bad and dangerous to know." But, as history has shown, jazz and the saxophone were not easily suppressed or dismissed. In fact, jazz itself was never merely a scandalous music. 

"It's another conflict because where does lots of the material from jazz come from?" she said. "It grows out of the African-American spiritual. So you've got this intertwined relationship with the spiritual there and that tension already."

Over the course of the 20th century, as jazz evolved, the spiritual elements of the horn and of the tradition became richer and richer. 

A watershed moment for jazz, the saxophone, and spirituality was John Coltrane's 1964 album A Love Supreme, which made explicit what so many artists were already doing with the sax and with jazz — reaching for the transcendent. 

John Coltrane’s 1964 album A Love Supreme was a watershed moment for jazz, the saxophone and spirituality. (Copyright Chuck Stewart Photography)

Saxophonist, producer and recording engineer John Maclean told IDEAS that John Coltrane's openness to the transcendent was part of what made his music so special. 

"He said he believed in all religions. So I take that to mean that he believed in the struggle of all religions and the struggle that unites them all. So there's a striving quality that I think he recognized."

Guests in this episode:

John Maclean is a saxophonist, composer, producer and recording engineer, based in Toronto. 

Bradley Strauchen-Scherer is curator of musical instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Su Terry is a composer, saxophonist, and author, based in Cuenca, Ecuador. She's also a founding member of Ecuadorian jazz-fusion band Jazz de Barro.

Ben Koen is a saxophonist and associate professor in the Department of Music at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU), in Hong Kong. His research focus is Medical Ethnomusicology. He's also the author of Beyond the Roof of the World: Music, Prayer, and Healing in the Pamir Mountains (Oxford University Press, 2009).


Written by Dexter Brown and Sean Foley. Produced by Sean Foley.

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