Step aside, Professor Harold Hill, and take those 76 trombones with you! Yesterday afternoon, some 250 saxophonists from 14 nations stood on the west steps of the Capitol and blew their collective hearts out. They also blew the minds of a sizable crowd perched on the walls, pavement and grass.

Jo Ellen Dutton, a pianist and singer, heard them all the way from the Mall, where she was sampling the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival. But she didn't know what they were.

"At first I wondered, 'How could they have set up chairs for all those string players?' But as I drew closer, I realized that it wasn't strings at all. What a neat sound!"

The sound was nasal and harmonious, and left more than a few spectators gaping. The music was understandably ragged but recognizable, including "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" and "The Water Music," tributes to Bach and Handel, the tricentennial birthday boys. At its worst, the music was loud and spirited; at its best, it evoked unimagined possibilities for an instrument too often relegated to the smoky confines of jazz clubs.

Gold glinted across the width of the massive staircase, adding an elegant touch to the uninspiring scaffolding being used for renovations on the Capitol building. Burly guys in T-shirts wielded tiny sopranino saxes. An elderly gentleman's bass saxophone began at his mouth and extended well below his knees. Women in striped pantsuits and cherubic lads honked their altos and baritones like so many migrating geese. They are all participants in this week's Eighth World Saxophone Congress at the University of Maryland.

At times yesterday it seemed like a musical conversation was in progress -- now animated, now hushed. The crowd discovered that hundreds of saxophones could create almost as many different textures and evoke many varied images.

"The sound we made was just awesome!" exclaimed Donald Stapleson of Waldorf, who plays sax in local jazzman Danny Gatton's band, after the horde had completed the concert. "I think jazz great Dexter Gordon would be proud to know that the sax was capable of this kind of thing."

"It was exhilarating! Truly unique!" exulted Richard Ingham, who had journeyed from Yorkshire, England, for the saxophone congress. "I have never before played in a band this big."

Mississippian Lawrence Gwozdz, a member of the celebrated Saxophone Sinfonia, was equally ecstatic, but made it clear that his instrument has not yet gained the respect it deserves.

"I love jazz, and I've played with jazz ensembles," he said. "But you've also got to realize that the saxophone is the only woodwind that can be this flexible! Its inventor, Adolphe Sax, was a genius who managed to put together three tone colors into one instrument."

It will be a long time before the saxophone becomes a legitimate member of the symphony orchestra, he conceded, "but we're definitely making strides."