If the name of James Houlik is not a household word -- and it is not in most households -- the reason may be that he is a victim of sax discrimination.
In the opinion of his peers, or almost-peers, who held a sort of convention in Washington this past weekend, Houlik, 38, is the Andres Segovia of the tenor saxophone -- the man destined to take a superb but neglected musical instrument out of an unfortunate environment and make it a recognized vehicle of classical music. He has had about 60 words dedicated to him by serious composers, and he gives 40 to 50 performances on tour each year: solo recitals, appearances with concert bands or chamber ensembles and programs (serious or pops) with symphony orchestras.
Friday night, at the Washington headquarters of the U.S. Navy Band, he joined that ensemble (whose standards of musicianship are something like those of the Berlin Philharmonic) in a concerto performance that might exhaust one's supply of superlatives. He thinks of his instrument as "a brass cello," and that's how he plays it: flawless in control, liquid gold in tone, precise and thoughtful in detail work on such matters as phrasing and vibrato. An audience of several hundred was wildly enthursiastic, and the rest of the world remained unaware. Who listens to saxophone concertos? Sax fiends; that's who.
There were quite a few of them at the Navy Yard last Friday night and Saturday for the Fourth International Saxophone Symposium, sponsored by the Navy Band and held in its headquarters, which is colorfully titled "The Sail Loft." They came to hear the world's greatest artists on the instrument perform and conduct workshops -- not only Houlik, but Reginald Jackson, who is the Rampal of the soprano sax and Senior Chief Dale Underwood, a member of the Navy Band, who is the Heifetz of the alto sax.
The crowd was hard to categorize. In the daytime workshops, there were a lot of children of grammar school age who would shyly approach Houlik for his autograph and ask him questions about such arcane matters as mouthpieces, control of vibrato, fingering and the selection and care of reeds, Some visitors wore the uniforms of military band members -- including the Hudson Valley Saxophone Quartet, who came down from West Point.And others wore the equally distinctive air of jazz players: cool, quiet men with a self-contained air who communed with one another and mingled in the crowd with a special dignity like the bearers of a secret, important message.
Harvey Phillips, the Casals of the tuba, was there. The saxophone is not his instrument in any of its incarnations, but he thinks it is "a very worthy instrument" and says that "some of my best friends play saxes." Also present was Eddie Sauter -- composer, legendary arranger for the big bands in their heyday, and co-founder and leader of the great Sauter-Finnegan band. "We don't charge admission or require registrations, so we don't know exactly how many people came or how far they traveled," said Underwood, who organized the symposium in addition to providing some of its finest musical moments."But we did get inquiries from as far away as California."
The instrument that evoked all this interest was invented in the 1840s by a Belgian, Adolphe Sax. It was praised by such composers as Berloiz and Rossini but not generally accepted either by composers or by the general public. Sax went broke trying to promote the saxophone, and the instrument went into eclipse. Then, after the turn of the century, it had a rebirth in America, where it became the voice of jazz. It attracted the interest of some classical composers; Prokofiev gave it a haunting solo in "Lieutenant Kije"; Ibert Glasounov, Milhaud and Creston, among others, have written concertos for it, accumulating a serious repertoire of more than 2,000 pieces. But it still remains in the public mind what the guitar was when Segovia took it in hand: an instrument heard in dark places where people consume alcohol, fill the air with smoke and engage in socially questionable behavior.
Even this role is overshadowed today, Eddie Sauter lamented, by the ascendancy of the amplified guitar.
"The classical thing is starting to happen," says Houlik hopefully, "but it moves slowly. The thing that haunts me is that Brahms died in 1897 and Sax in 1894, and Sax never approached Brahms and sold him on the instruments, which would have been a natural for his music. We missed out on Britten and Poulenc; but someday the right zealot will connect with the right composer, and it will take off."
As a tenor saxophonist, he is a neglected minority within a neglected minority; the two greatest players on the instrument, earlier in this century, were Sigurd Rascher and Marcel Mule, both of whom played alto. As a result, most of the big-name concertos -- Ibert's and Glazounov's, for example -- are for alto, and the tenor repertoire is less prestigious. "I'm the only tenor player in the world who's doing what I'm doing," says Houlik, "but there will be a lot more in the next generation. More than 360 American universities have saxophone programs, and now nearly all of them include the tenor -- though I couldn't get a tenor program when I went for my degree. The students are more disciplined now, the teaching is better, and the repertoire is growing. This instrument is heading for a golden age."
It has to happen. The instrument has sax appeal.