The Life of a Saxophone
By Alan F. Bland
My life began on the battlefields of France. I was cast from copper and zinc into brass, filled with lethal explosives, and fired in anger at “the enemy.” I was reworked and made to destroy again and again until finally the war to end all wars was over and I became just so much scrap.
That scrap was made into a musical instrument by Selmer, the instrument manufacturing company, in Paris. An Alto saxophone with some nice scroll work on the bell, a complex instrument that has some eight hundred parts. Like all of my alto brothers and sisters, I was pitched to E♭. I swore that I would only play at my best for those who would use me to do no harm.
Some people said that Selmer horns—trumpets, trombones and saxophones—sounded better than other brands because Selmer had bought up so much discarded brass after the Great War. Brass shell casings had been made with the best quality brass that could be refined. And brass was perfect to hold explosives as it had low electrical conductivity.
I played at some of the best jazz clubs in Paris and I was known for the sweetness of my sound. My player became famous and his records sold in huge numbers. And then the Second World War came and Paris was occupied by the Germans. Jazz musicians came under scrutiny because most of the occupiers thought that such music was decadent and belonged to a sub-race. Many musicians stopped playing and sold their instruments. I was confiscated and given to a German marching band, but none of the saxophone players could get the tones that were needed for their martial music.
I was played by Fritz and then by Gunther, but they couldn’t bring forth my magic, which I held back. Finally, I was given to young Hans, who at least had some musical ability that went beyond marches, polkas and Wagner. Hans had none of the arrogance of most of the band members and seemed a shy fellow who would have been happier not having to wear the uniform of the oppressors. For nearly a year we were partners, and we managed to find small backstreet cafés which few German officers frequented and where jazz was tolerated.
But as the war ground on, the occupiers began stripping Paris of anything of value and shipping it back to Germany. The band instruments were collected and thrown roughly into a transport; it was obvious that the brass instruments would be melted down and used to make shell cases. So, I very nearly went full circle back to the battlefield. But Hans had other plans for me, and in the confusion of loading the trucks, I was “accidentally” left behind with one of his jazz-club friends. After the Germans withdrew from Paris I was passed around in the clubs with no one keeping me for long, for there was still too much anger among the local musicians for what they had endured during the occupation; anger that came out in their playing.
Then on August 24th, 1944, the Allies entered Paris, with General Charles De Gaulle strutting in front of the parade on the 25th, as if he had liberated the city all by himself.
I had been in the window of a second-hand store off the Boulevard Saint-Michel, and a soldier, soon to be on his way back home to Canada, took a shine to me. He’d played a bit before the war and thought he’d try it again. He was told that I had once belonged to a famous jazz player who had passed away during the occupation. But by then, who really knew? I was unable to tell him.
Back at camp, he blew a few notes and was surprised at how quickly I responded with a clear sweet tone. On the troopship carrying me to my new home, he would go up on deck and play a few of the tunes that he’d played before the war, and then a few that just seemed to come into his head. Tunes that I’d played in years gone by. He was surprised at how I seemed to anticipate the next notes of the tunes he tried.
Back home, he found a few like-minded musicians and was soon playing with a rhythm section at bars and clubs in his hometown. With the war over and people getting back to enjoying nights out, there was no shortage of venues for good bands that could get patrons up and dancing. And when he played a blues number, I responded with sounds that had audiences sitting up and paying attention.
Very soon the band had a following and expanded from the piano, drums, and bass, adding tenor, baritone, trumpet, and trombone. I, the Selmer alto, led the combo. Other members would come and go as the band grew older, but my player and I were always at the front. Until one day we weren’t. My player, now well into his eighties, suffered a stroke and was unable to play.
The band tried to keep going but could never find the right sound. The other instruments seemed to sense the loss of their leader, and gradually they too dropped out. First the trumpet and the trombone; they always seemed to be playing off key and the tones were dead. And then the remaining saxophones, the baritone and the tenor, began to have problems with reeds that wouldn’t work, that split or played flat. That left just the piano, drums, and bass. They tried to keep going as a trio, except now nobody was coming to the clubs they played at, so in time they stopped being booked.
Of the trio, the bass dropped out first. Its strings twanged and vibrated and when it was bowed it sounded mournful. It was zipped into its giant carrying bag, taken home, and placed in a closet. The drums played quietly while all this was happening. The sticks had been put aside, leaving the brushes to caress the snare and the high-hat cymbal until even that faded away and the set was packed up to receive the same fate as the bass.
Alone now, the piano played to near empty rooms where nobody was listening. The keys barely struck the strings as it played one note at a time until the lid was closed and a large black sheet was placed over it.
As the band was dwindling away, the clubs along Main Street and its side-streets had seen their patrons coming by less frequently. Some turned out their lights earlier each week and some stopped turning them on at all.
When my player passed away some months later, I was sold to a music shop. Although the wear and tear I’d received over the years was evident, I was cleaned and serviced and put on display in the front window.
I languished in the display window of the music shop for many months. A few prospective buyers tried me and turned away, disappointed that the horn just didn’t sound the way they expected. Gradually the price was dropped. And so, I waited.
One day I noticed a young woman who had been by the window several times looking at me, the old Selmer. Finally, she came into the store and asked if she could try “that old Selmer in the window.”
The store proprietor offered to set her up with a mouthpiece and reed, but she had her own. She didn’t just grab me and start blowing. Instead, she looked over my whole body and gently worked my keys, ignoring the patches where the shine had been worn away over the years. The proprietor watched, silently nodding his approval, as she played her way up the scale, from the low register to the high and then back down again. She blew gently, seeking to find the correct pitch for each note, understanding that it wasn’t just fingering the keys and blowing that made the sound, it was how the wind was put to the horn that made the difference between just a note and one with feeling.
And I knew then that I would get to live on again.
About The Author
Alan F. Bland is an insurance executive and expert witness (Superior Court), a saxophonist, a photographer, a writer, a kayaker, and a cook. He writes short fiction and has had several of his short stories featured on a Cobourg community radio show. Someday, he hopes to unleash some of his longer works on the unsuspecting public.
What Readers Are Saying about The Life of A Saxophone
"I found this story attention-grabbing and skillfully written. Clever to weave saxophone history into a compelling narrative." L. Huttsell-Manning
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