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'The Sound of Sax' Fills the Museum of Making Music

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June 20, 2012 1:03 p.m.


Blaise Garza, saxophonist, saxophone collector and saxophone expert.

Carolyn Grant, executive director of the Museum of Making Music.

Charles McPherson, alto saxophonist and legendary jazz musician.

Related Story: 'The Sound Of Sax' Fills The Museum Of Making Music


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The blast of music that starts each Saturday night live, the driving power of Springstein's classic, born to run, and the intricate changes in the jazz classic, take five, all have one thing in common. The saxophone. The sax is the subject of a new exhibition at the museum of making music in Carlsbad. It's a fascinating instrument with a rich and growing history. High guests, Carolyn Grant is executive director of the museum of making music. Welcome to the show.

GRANT: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Charles McPherson is legendary jazz musician. It's an honor. Thanks for talking with us.

MCPHERSON: And thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And Blaze Garza is here, welcome,

GARZA: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Carolyn, the saxophone means like one of the most modern instruments because of the type of music that we associate with it, jazz and pop and rock. Does it have a longer history than we might imagine?

GRANT: Well, it has an interesting history. It dates back to the 1800s. It was started when a Belgian instrument maker by the name of Adolf sax.

CAVANAUGH: I love that.


GRANT: Patented the saxophone in 1846. Of course he had been working on it for years. But this was a time when the first principal sewing machine came onto the scene, and Charles Darwin had just published his third book about natural selection. Well, Adolf sax's goal was to fill the acoustic gap between stringed instruments and brass instruments. So it's got the reed mouth piece which allows for flexibility. Then it has a brass body that widens, as opposed to the cylindrical shape of flutes or clarinets.

CAVANAUGH: Blaze, since you are the saxophone collector, give us a sales pitch for the saxophone. What is so cool about the saxophone?

GARZA: Well, when my parents took me to the pawnshop when I was a kid, I saw the instruments on the wall and thought the sax looked the coolest. Now that I've been playing, I feel that it sounds just sophisticated, relaxed, romantic, and it always adds to whatever style of music is being played.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. And Charles you've been playing the sax since you were 13. What drew you to it?

MCPHERSON: I didn't hear the last part.

CAVANAUGH: That's okay. I'm just wondering, you've been playing the sax since you were 13. And so what was it that drew you first to that instrument?

MCPHERSON: Well, I started liking the instrument way before that, maybe when I was six or 7 years old. And I used to see these big band comes in my home town of Joplin, Missouri, in the summertime. So I was enamored by these shiny, brass, gold looking instruments, and I was intrigued by the sound, as well as the shape. And I did like the sound a lot.

CAVANAUGH: You just loved the whole thing

MCPHERSON: Yeah, I likeded the visual, how it looked, are the shape of it, and I liked the way it sounded. I didn't start playing until I was about 13 years old. And then I started playing in, you know, junior high school, marching band, and from that point on, I fell in -- I was really in love with the instrument.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I can't talk about this anymore without hearing some saxophone. So let's hear Charles McPherson performing Blumdido, by Charley parker.

(Audio Recording Played)

CAVANAUGH: Charles, you have said that the saxophone is a really versatile instrument. Talk more about that to us. How versatile is it?

MCPHERSON: Well, Carolyn pretty much said it earlier. It's a very flexible instrument. And she's right spot on, in terms of what Adolf sax envisioned for the instrument and how he felt it was, and it's right in a great balance. And it's flexible because it has the power of brass, and it has the flexibility and sensitivity of the woodwinds. For me, it is one of the most voice-like -- well, I'd say it has really the quality of the human voice.


MCPHERSON: Well, a few reasons. Physically, a lot of what you do with your throat when you sing is the same kind of physical action required when you blow through the saxophone. And what you do with your larynx and your throat, and how you shape the sound, how you -- for me, personally, I'm aware of -- I think of the saxophone and I think of parts of -- nuance of speech. I think of vowels, I think of consonants. Good saxophone players know how to open their throat to get a certain nuance. Maybe a more O sound, E, so there's a lot of subtleties to it. And that to me has a particular appeal because we're talking about the art and music through the medium of the saxophone.

MCPHERSON: It's very appealing as a musical instrument.

CAVANAUGH: Blaze, I know you're not only a collector, you're a saxophonist as well. Can you agree with what Charles is saying about how you almost sing the sax, right?

GARZA: Right, yeah.

CAVANAUGH: How many saxophones do you own?

GARZA: I currently own 48, along with a contrabass.

CAVANAUGH: When did you start collecting?

GARZA: My first horn wases a 1954 baritone saxophone, the same model as Jerry mulligan. I was really interested in the saxophone, and I was starting on a big horn in middle school, and thought it was the coolest. But I looked online and found out there were bigger instruments. So I think that's what started it. Of the I saw a base sax for sail on E-bay, and I contacted the seller, and I went over to his house, met him, and when I walked into his house, it was like that scene in willy wonka when the kids see all the candy. I saw hundreds and hundreds of instruments, woodwinds, flutes, everything. All over his house. And I ended up being there for about two hours, he played everything, and I asked him if I could purchase the horn and take lessons. I studied with him for a couple year, and during that time, every lesson would be different. I would come in with a different instrument, and his versatility on all of them really inspired me.

CAVANAUGH: You have a new album out, Blaze, low standards, it features you playing jazz standards on the subcontrabass sax. This is blue train.

(Audio Recording Played)

CAVANAUGH: Wow, that is a different sound, isn't it! Are there a lot of these in the world?

GARZA: Yeah, as of right now, there's only four subcontrabass saxophones. Mine is the only one in the United States.

CAVANAUGH: Whoa! Now, Charles McPherson, you travel all over the world playing. Is the saxophone used a lot in world music? Or is it primarily do you think an American instrument?

MCPHERSON: Well, it's used a lot,

Also in all kinds of music. Certainly pop, certainly jazz, and European style of classical music. It is used by more recent, Stravinsky, and Mussorgsky, and Prokofiev. So the instrument is here as part of the global instrumental fabric of the world. And without a doubt, jazz music has certainly adopted that instrument, and it's always -- some of the major innovators were saxophone players as well as Trumpet players.

CAVANAUGH: Carolyn, we didn't usual associate saxophone with classical music. What are people who go to this exhibition in Carlsbad going to see about the saxophone?

GRANT: Well, they're going to see a historical chronology of the saxophone from original Adolf Sax pieces all the way up to what Blaze was talking about. They'll also hear acoustic, interactive samples of the sounds of all of these instruments as well, as well as some experimentals such as the slide saxophone. And in our performance series, they will will hear a wide variety. Charles played for us, and we'll also have a classical saxophonist playing with us later on in the series. So they'll hear all genres.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Blaze, I know that you toured on the saxophone with the violent femmes. You didn't play the contrabase?

GARZA: I did play the contrabass sax. I was 14. One of the guys who worked for the femmes, he came in, saw a picture of me, and said we need to bring that on stage. It'll look great in the background.

CAVANAUGH: Just because of the look!

GARZA: Right. So we put it on stage, and I was watching the stage. It was my first real concert. And halfway through the set, they called me said and said we're going to have an uncompanied solo by Blaze Garza. So I went up, played blister in the sun, they loved it, and the following night, they invited me to playhouse of blues, Anaheim. After that, they invited me to play with them full time. Because I was under aged, my mom had to go to shows with me. So I ended playing mostly west coast shows.

CAVANAUGH: I love that! I want to thank you all so much.