The little ghost who gifted Coltrane, Parker, Getz, Coleman, and Rollins

Antoine-Joseph Sax was born on this day in 1814, in Dinant (Netherlands, today Belgium) to Charles-Joseph Sax, and Marie-Joseph Masson, both instrument designers of traditional instruments. 

Adolphe, as he was called, began making his own instruments, entering two flutes and a clarinet into a competition by the age of 15. Subsequently he studied both instruments, and voice at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels.

Alto saxophone in E-flat, ca. 1855 / Antoine-Joseph Sax / Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Being that he suffered a number of accidents as a child (falling from a height of three floors, drinking a bowl of acidic water, thinking it was milk, swallowing a pin, being burnt by a gunpowder explosion, having fell onto a hot cast-iron pan, and avoided accidental poisoning and asphyxiation several times) his neighbors called him “little Sax, the ghost”. Later in life he also suffered from lip cancer (1853 to 1858) but recovered fully.

Once he left the Conservatory, he continued experimenting with new instrument designs:

  • improvement of the bass clarinet design (patented at the age of 24)
  • new set of valves bugles (known as saxhorns, made in several sizes, leading to the creation of the flugelhorn) resulting in Hector Berlioz arranging one of his pieces entirely for saxhorns
  • developed the saxotromba family
  • invented the clarinet-bourdon (contrabass clarinet)
  • patented the saxophone in 1946 (ranging from sopranino to subcontrabass) resulting from his efforts to improve the tone of the bass clarinet
  • he discovered that the proportions given to a column of air vibrating in a sonorous tube determine the timbre

His idea of using a system of six independent valves (mostly applied to saxhorns and trombones) was to correct intonation problems of typical three-valve instruments. Despite his efforts, players were reluctant to learn a different fingering system.

Tenor valve trombone / ca. 1863 / by Antoine-Joseph Sax / Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Sax continued making instruments, while presiding over the new saxophone program at the Paris Conservatory. However, legal troubles with rival instrument makers drove him into bankruptcy in 1852, 1873, and 1877. By the time he was nearing 80, he was living in poverty, at which point Jules Massenet, and Camille Saint-Saëns petitioned the minister of fine arts to come to his aid. He died in 1894.

Saxtuba / Antoine-Joseph Sax

Sources: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York / Encyclopedia Brittanica / Wikipedia

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