Most general reference books of music relegate mention of the saxophone to its invention by the Belgian Adolphe Sax in the 1840s and add a sentence or two to the effect that its use has been almost exclusively in jazz and in military bands.
Not so, says James Houlik, professor of saxophone and assistant dean of the School of Music at the North Carolina School of the Arts. "We are dealing with a literature of saxophone works that is really far larger than the literatures of any of the other wind instruments save the flute, which has had a long history. People say to me, 'What kind of music do you play?' and I say, 'The big problem is deciding what not to play.' "
Houlik, who plays all the saxophones and specializes in the tenor, will be featured Friday with the U.S. Navy Band in the initial event of the Ninth International Saxophone Symposium at the Washington Navy Yard Sail Loft.
Saturday's 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. symposium program includes a morning master class by Houlik as well as workshops, performances by a 15-piece saxophone ensemble and other groupings of saxophones and woodwinds, and a tribute by alto saxophonist Reg Jackson of Howard University to the late composer Paul Creston.
All the major saxophone manufacturers will have displays in the loft. Saturday evening's concert by the Commodores, the Navy Band's jazz ensemble, will feature saxophonist and clarinetist Eddie Daniels, who worked with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra in the 1960s.
Others taking part in the two-day symposium include John Mossblad, professor at James Madison University, and Towson State University Prof. Joseph Briscuso. Concert time Friday and Saturday is 8 p.m., and all events are free and open to the public. The Sail Loft is Building 112 at the Navy Yard, just inside the Isaac Hull Gate on M Street, between Fifth and Seventh streets SE. For more information, call 433-2394.
"Sax himself taught the instrument at the Paris Conservatory for a while, but they fired him when they had a financial crunch," says Houlik of the instrument's early history. Berlioz was one of the first prominent composers to express interest in the saxophone's potential and Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff also wrote for it, though not as a solo instrument.
Houlik cites Ravel's "Bolero," with its solos for tenor and soprano saxophone, as an early and important example of the saxophone becoming established "with a life of its own as a solo instrument." Two major composers for saxophone early in this century were the Frenchman Marcel Mule and Sigurd Rascher, a German who settled in this country. Then, with the 1930s, came the deluge -- Houlik guesses there are now more than 10,000 compositions for saxophone.
At about the time Mule and Rascher were launching the first wave of "serious" writing for the saxophone, the instrument was catching on here in military bands, minstrel and vaudeville novelty acts of saxophone choirs, dance bands and, by the 1920s, in jazz. The early jazz saxophonists included soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini, C-melody saxophone player Frankie Trumbauer and the man who taught all who followed how to swing on the instrument, tenorist Coleman Hawkins.
Today, saxophone soloists such as Houlik and Dale Underwood, the Navy band's senior chief musician, say they have had increased demand for guest spots with other orchestras.
"I couldn't be happier," Houlik confesses. "What I'm finding is that orchestras are looking for something fresh for their programs. There are saxophonists around who can do it and audiences enjoy it. I just played a concert here in town with the Winston-Salem Symphony and they've reengaged me to play the piece next season because the interest won't die down. You know what this is? This is called crossover in the other direction. The classical audience has developed a sense of the instrument from its popular life and all of a sudden they're ready to hear it in another vein. So it's very good for us."