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Sousa Archives New Online Saxophone Exhibit Opens Today

Photograph of Tom Brown, ca. 1910
Bruce Vermazen Research Papers on Tom Brown

For those folks who missed the Center’s saxophone exhibit, The Imperfect Saxophone: Not Just a Clown’s Instrument, we have created a new online version of it that we’re unveiling today.  Like the onsite exhibit that closed in January, the online display examines America’s complex social and cultural relationship with the saxophone during a period known as the “saxophone craze.”  Originally developed by Adolphe Sax to blend the distinct tonal qualities of the woodwind and brass instruments commonly used by Europe’s military bands, the saxophone’s unique sound made it difficult for professional musicians and composers of that time to embrace the instrument.

Despite Sax’s initial hopes that both symphonic orchestras and wind bands throughout Europe would eventually utilize the saxophone, the horn initially became an exotic novelty and was treated more like a musical clown than a fine-art instrument.  America’s minstrel and vaudeville circuits were much less hesitant to accept Sax’s novel instrument in their performance routines.  By the 1910s, the Five Musical Spillers, a vaudeville act, began incorporating saxophones into their performances with great success. They often used comedic humor and popular ragtime melodies to keep their audiences engaged with their performances.

The breakout saxophone ensemble during the 1910s was the Brown Brothers led by Tom Brown. Performing first as a trio on the minstrel circuit and later as a quintet and sextet on the vaudeville circuit, they were the first major saxophone ensemble to profit from making commercial audio recordings.  By the early 1920s they were among the most popular and highest paid ensembles, earning nearly $1,000 per week.   Up to 1914, the Brown Brothers wore military band uniforms.  Once they began performing in the Broadway production Chin Chin, they instead began dressing as clowns.  During this period, ensembles like the Brown Brothers helped popularize the instrument while embracing a musical clown mystique by performing popular ragtime works dressed as clowns.  Despite appearing as a musical clowns, the repertoire that the Brown Brothers played required serious technical and musical skill.

Music instrument manufacturers of the time designed their saxophones around the needs of these top performers, but also capitalized on the growing popularity of the instrument among amateur musicians.  These manufacturers also took the opportunity to improve Sax’s imperfect instrument, adding new keys and improving their methods of construction. As these innovative improvements were made to the horn’s original design and performers refined their ability to play this new family of music instruments, audiences quickly embraced the saxophone’s many unique musical qualities.  This online exhibit highlights the saxophone’s imperfect musical beginnings and musicians like the Brown Brothers’ performances that made it a truly unique instrument.  For further information about this new online exhibit call 217-333-4577 or email schwrtzs@illinois.edu.

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