The history of the saxophone is pretty short. It was invented in the early 1840's by a Belgian instrument maker named Adolph Sax. The saxophone was first included in military bands, classical music in the French tradition, and later, jazz which was the pop music of the early 20's.
1873 marks the first military band in the US with saxophone players.
1885 the first saxophone was built in U.S. Buescher
1901 is the year we find Elise Hall's first recording in the classical tradition.
The saxophone had deep roots by the 1920's with a popular sensation, Rudy Wiedoeft and Sidney Bechet in the US, and classical icon, Marcel Mule, propelling the saxophones popularity in classical music. By the mid 1920's the saxophone was heard in wind bands, classical, chamber and orchestral compositions began to grow in popularity and rival the popular sounds of the music world.
We can all thank Rudy Wiedoeft and Kenny G for being current bookends in the saxophone player hit parade. But, there are so many others that helped raise awareness along the way and became musical heroes in their own right.
The big band era in the 30's brought many sax players to the forefront. Johnny Hodges played alto sax with Ellington for years and is considered to be one of the greatest section and solo saxophonists of that era. His big fat sound was featured on many prominent recording with Ellington and many of his own recordings. And Coleman Hawkins developed a more aggressive sound on his tenor sax, carving out interesting solos with a little more advanced harmonic vocabulary thru the swing era and into bebop.
Lestor Young was a great transitional saxophonist as well. Saxophone became the sound of jazz in the 40's. Lestor had a big sound and a sweet, swing ease about his playing. He influenced so many of the new bebop players like Parker, Cannonball and beyond.
Charlie Parker was probably my first real influence. Parker was lightning fast in his approach and the lines he created when composing and taking solos were interesting and harmonically advanced. Much of jazz today has been affected by Parker’s creativity and virtuosity.
The 50's marked a very different set of changes in American music. The Rock and Roll era had begun and jazz left its rule on what was considered pop and dance music in our culture. The sounds that began coming out of the saxophone really changed a lot too, and much of this can be attributed to John Coltrane. His cascades of sound took jazz to a new level of complexity and followed the jazz tradition with a harmonic complexity that was revolutionary in jazz. I believe Coltrane was the most significant sax player of his time and influenced more modern jazz musicians than any other saxophonist.
Many of today's jazz musicians include John Coltrane as a primary influence. Sax greats like Bob Berg, Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Kenny Garrett, Jerry Bergonzi, and Michael Brecker all have clear musical roots back to Coltrane and even Parker. Today’s modern saxophonist have simply extended and built upon the traditions of all that preceded them.
The late, great, Michael Brecker is probably the most influential saxophonist of our era. Brecker infused hard bop, post-bop and modern pop music into a exciting blend of aggressive, highly advanced music, that integrated today’s electronic instrumentation, without leaving all the decades of tradition that preceded. He covered all styles with a level of saxophone virtuosity that was beyond what anyone else had developed. Brecker left behind a legacy of jazz and commercial pop music.
There are so many sax players that should be mentioned, but these are the few that have had great impact on many. The modern pop or smooth jazz guys are many. Grover Washington Jr., John Klemmer, David Sanborn and Kenny G continue to inspire a new generation of contemporary jazz players in a tradition that goes back thru so many greats on the saxophone. We all have benefited from the investments and advancements these 'greats' have given.