Quick question – if your house was burning down what would you grab first?
Would it be your prized photographs, personal papers, passports, computer hard drive or vinyl record collection? After family and Jimmy, our cat, high on my rescue list would be my adored Selmer Mark VII tenor saxophone.
Once I commenced my first teaching position at Geelong East Primary in 1982 the first big-ticket item I purchased was that saxophone. My very first instrument belonged to Deakin University – a Yamaha. My second sax was an old French Dolnet tenor that weighed a ton around my neck. I have clear memories of negotiating a deal at Brashs to trade in the Dolnet and get the brand new Selmer. I went and drew out more than $2000 cash at the State Bank and quickly proceeded to the music store to fulfill the transaction. (I hadn’t heard of a bank cheque!)
The Selmer is a beautiful instrument that still brings a lot of pleasure.
I was in a covers band way back then and I had learnt some sax solos of the era. Playing by ear, I could figure out note patterns and phrases by listening and playing along to Downhearted by Australian Crawl, My Baby by Cold Chisel, Let’s Stick Together by Bryan Ferry, You May Be Right and Still Rock and Roll To Me by Billy Joel and of course Who Can It Be Now? by Men At Work. Stick on a Berg Larsen metal mouthpiece, then add Urgent by Foreigner, Man Eater by Hall and Oates and The Heat Is On by Glenn Frey to the list. I like to think I could blow a good solo in those days.
I learnt some tricks by listening to Joe Camilleri and Wilbur Wilde from Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, John Helliwell from Supertramp and of course Clarence Clemons from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street band. (In 2014 I briefly met Wilbur Wilde. We talked about saxophone mouthpieces and reed strengths. I was pleased to be able to just say thanks and how much his saxophone playing had entertained, inspired and helped me in my beginner years.)
However, in my university music major I had my eyes opened to the art form of Jazz music. John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, title track of the 1959 album, always made me pull my head in. It was a reality check. Yes I could copy the sax solos in the commercial hits but Coltrane was impossible. His music was wild.
Jazz music has a fascinating history. Much of what I have read suggests it is ‘reactionary’.
Traditional jazz is built on blues, ragtime and gospel, and is a reaction to the structure of classical music form. Swing jazz is a reaction to improvised traditional jazz. Bebop and Hard Bop, in the style of John Coltrane, is a reaction to the ‘sweet’ style of Swing jazz, where even the solos were notated, and Cool jazz is a reaction to that style again. ‘White guys’ could not copy John Coltrane’s Hard Bop tenor saxophone playing. The music is rapid, complex, uses notes way outside of the scale and to the inexperienced ear it is harsh to listen to.
I still like to listen to Giant Steps. It takes me back to those uni days where I would have the cassette blaring in the old EJ Holden wagon, windows wound down, showing the world what I had just discovered and perhaps fantasizing about saxophone playing that was way way beyond my beginner’s ability and capability.
© David Oke
Final question: Did you know that Henri Selmer bought the original saxophone patent from Adolph Sax from Belgium? The French ‘Selmer’ company is still a family owned business.