The Saxophone’s Unlikely Journey Out of Meme Hell

The Saxophone’s Unlikely Journey Out of Meme Hell

In the three years since his sprawling 3-hour debut album The Epic, jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington has achieved a level of crossover and mainstream appeal that straight-ahead jazz artists of the last generation can only dream of.

While the largest platform other jazz artists have might be the Newport Jazz Festival, Washington shares a stage with the biggest music acts in the world at festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo. His tours don’t book a string of aging tiny jazz clubs filled with Baby Boomers. Instead, Kamasi plays the same venues that host pop artists, metal bands, and rappers.

With his second album Heaven and Earth garnering rave reviews, Kamasi has gone from complete unknown to the face of jazz, which is enjoying a mini-revival right now thanks to the vibrant scenes in Chicago and Los Angeles. Kamasi deserves his share of credit for that, but the most dramatic turnaround he’s orchestrated is not on the type of music he plays, but on his instrument: the saxophone.

The instrument has been largely invisible for the last 30 years after the disastrous 1980s, when saxophones in pop music could best summed up by the viral Sexy Sax Man video and jazz was taken over by Kenny G, someone who other sax players wish people would forget. A number of shifts in music allowed this one-two punch to knockout the sax.

At the time, the young African Americans who fueled creativity in jazz since the beginning took their talents to hip hop. The institutionalization of jazz was already well underway before the 80s, but the birth of rap led to jazz being abandoned to high school band directors, university professors, and Radiant City cultural institutions like New York’s Lincoln Center.

In the hands of these institutions, jazz began putting more emphasis on its past than its future. In the 80s, a young Wynton Marsalis crowned himself jazz’s chief ambassador and made the unilateral decision to embalm jazz in the museum that is the Lincoln Center so as to preserve the sanctity of its cherished past. Every jazz musician henceforth had pay direct homage to its lineage, according to Wynton.

Given how jazz is taught in high school band, it’s a wonder Marsalis believed he even needed to embark on this crusade in the first place. Charlie “Bird” Parker—the messiah to sax players—honed his craft in the 1940s by trying out new ideas in front of audiences in the small clubs along 52nd Street in New York City, incorporating their feedback along the way.

But today’s young sax players learn jazz by literally transcribing Charlie Parker solos and those of other greats from the past. Their primary audience is competition judges, who grade them on precision and technical prowess more than creativity. Their focus isn’t on pleasing audiences and making hit records, but winning competitions with pristine performances and getting a seat in the all-state jazz band. In many states, band competitions are every bit as intense as sports.

This seemingly intentional assault on new ideas and over-emphasis on technical mastery provided the conditions by which a pariah like Kenny G, whose work repelled damn near everybody who actually cares about music, could completely take over a music genre. But hey, at least he was playing something new.

In pop music and rock in the 70s and 80s, sax players either adopted Kenny G’s smooth “jazz” style like in George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” or the Alf theme song, or they played the horn with a booming coarseness that could easily be confused with a bleating goat, like the tenor solo in Billy Joel’s “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.”

The saxophone and jazz are inexorably linked. Classical saxophone music is a thing that exists, but odds are that unless you’re actually playing it yourself, you’ve never heard it. While romantic-era composers such as Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner dabbled with it after it was invented, the sax never caught on as a serious instrument in the orchestra with any composer who has present-day notoriety among the masses. It didn’t find a permanent home until big band jazz orchestras developed in the 1920s.

So when Kenny G, David Sanborn, and other smooth jazz evangelists took down jazz in the 80s, the saxophone went down with it. Given how the horn was being used in pop music and rock, it’s understandable that mainstream audiences had simply had enough of the sax. When grunge hit in the early 90s, anything related to the 80s became the kiss of death anyway. The horn virtually disappeared for casual music fans. Mercifully.

It’s not that there haven’t been good sax players since the 80s; it’s just that nobody outside of Baby Boomers, hardcore jazz fans (all three of them), and other jazz musicians actually wanted to listen to their music. Maybe the most amazing thing about Kamasi’s rise is that he’s not necessarily charting bold new territory on the saxophone or in jazz, but merely mixing existing styles in a fresh way that’s accessible and appealing to people who maybe just aren’t really big jazz fans. He’s seized jazz from the institutions and placed it squarely back in the lineage of John Coltrane.

Kamasi is the biggest name in the saxophone’s renaissance, but he’s not alone. Tenor player Donny McCaslin and his band supplied the haunting backdrop for David Bowie’s Blackstar in 2016. Alto player Terrace Martin’s is an essential voice on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, to which Kamasi also contributed.

Lesser known but also making waves in saxophone circles, Ben Wendel and his group Kneebody are making compelling jazz fusion for the 21st century, notably collaborating with Brainfeeder producer Daedelus. Chilean tenor player Melissa Aldana wields her unmatched virtuosity in service an emotive artistic vision, as opposed to being just showy and exhibitionist, like other young players tend to be on the male-dominated instrument.

Colin Stetson turns his bass sax—the most unwield and temperamental of the saxophones—into a one-man band act that has to be seen to be believed, and he might be the most innovative wind instrumentalist of our time. He recently earned praise for his score for the hit horror film Hereditary, and while his solo music somehow varies between styles as differing as techno and metal, his formal background in music education gives him the composition chops that may ultimately make Philip Glass or John Cage a better comparison than any direct influence on his music.

The volume of sax representation in pop music is nowhere near what it was in the 80s, but what’s been sacrificed in quantity has been more than made for in quality. Blood Orange’s 2013 effort Cupid Deluxe was the most tasteful use of the sax in pop music in decades, and the instrument has been heard on mainstream tracks such as Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Run Away With Me,” M83’s “Midnight City,” and even k-pop sensation BTS’s “Dope” (although in fairness, practically everything shows up in BTS). There’s even a new husband-wife band simply called The Saxophones.

In 2016, The Outline published a story detailing the demise of the saxophone, concluding that it was a dead instrument. The story wasn’t wrong; it was just written 5 years too late. By 2016, the saxophone revival was well under way, and with Kamasi’s new album set to be the most anticipated release by a sax player in generations, it’s time to make the instrument’s resurrection official.

The saxophone is back, baby.

Jeff Andrews is a writer based in New York City. He unintentionally plays the sax with a booming coarseness that is often confused with a bleating goat. Follow him on Twitter at @jandrews81.