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The Sound Of Sax’ Fills The Museum Of Making Music

Saxophones on display at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, part of its ...

Credit: Courtesy Museum of Making Music

Above: Saxophones on display at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad, part of its exhibition "The Sound of Sax: How the Saxophone Won America's Soul."

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The blast of music heard at the beginning of each episode of "Saturday Night Live." The driving power of Bruce Springsteen's classic "Born to Run." And the famous riff in the jazz classic "Take Five." All three have one thing in common: the unmistakable sound of the saxophone.

The instrument is the subject of a new exhibition, "The Sound of Sax: How the Saxophone Won America's Soul," at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad.

From marching bands and classical music to vaudeville, jazz and rock, the saxophone has won over music audiences since its invention in 1846 by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian-born flautist, clarinetist and son of an instrument maker. Sax wanted to create an instrument that combined the projection of a brass instrument and the acoustics of a woodwind.

Jazz legend and alto saxophonist Charles McPherson first fell in love with the saxophone at age six in his hometown of Joplin, Mo. "When I was a very small kid (in the 1940s), I would hear the bands playing in the park near my house, during summertime. I liked the way the sax looked and I liked the way it sounded. I was enamored of the horn."

McPherson, 73, didn’t start playing till he was 13, when he played in his school's marching band. A few years later, he discovered jazz. He and his friends were too young to go inside the local jazz club so they would hang outside on the curb and just listen. And then it hit him. "I was set, my whole life was set. This is what I want to do. I want to play sax, I want to play jazz," says McPherson.

McPherson, who is most known for playing alto saxophone with Charles Mingus from 1960-72, continues to play jazz around the world and here in San Diego, where he has lived since the 1970s. And he still loves the sax. "It’s an extension of the human voice so rather than singing, I’m singing through the sax. It's very expressive, and (capable of producing) all of the emotions that human beings are able to feel," says McPherson. "The way the sound is produced, how you use your throat, is very akin to singing, and the sound that comes out is very close to the human voice."

Blaise Garza, a saxophonist and saxophone collector, has been playing and collecting saxophones since he was 12 years old. He played in his school band and bought his first saxophone at a pawn shop. A child actor ("Another World") at an early age, Garza used his earnings to fuel his "quest to purchase these horns. I would go on EBay and search the classifieds to find them," says Garza.

Now 23, he owns about 50 of the instruments, including the only subcontrabass saxophone in the U.S. (there are only four of these instruments in the world). This subcontrabass saxophone is showcased on his new album, "Low Standards," which features covers of jazz standards played on this extra low, quirky-sounding horn. The rare instrument also is on view at the Museum of Making Music, along with other instruments in his collection.

KPBS Midday Edition speaks with Charles McPherson, Blaise Garza and Carolyn Grant, executive director of the Museum of Making Music, about the history of the saxophone and what makes it such a fascinating instrument.

"The Sound of Sax" is on view now through January 2013 at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad.


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