Listening to the History of Recorded Jazz: 2nd Generation of the Tenor Saxophone

Listening to the History of Recorded Jazz: The First 50 Years

“Second Generation of the Tenor Saxophone”

By Mark Montesano

Last month we listened to the beginnings of the tenor sax as a solo instrument in jazz. Coleman Hawkins was the first major tenor sax soloist. Later, Lester Young brought a very different approach to the instrument which influenced a whole new generation of musicians.  This month we’ll listen to three of the great, Hawkins-influenced tenors. They had very different careers and unique contributions to the way the tenor is played. I will focus on two tenor sax settings: the warm ballad where the musician expresses deep feeling through tone and phrasing, and the uptempo “cooker” where he shows his technical virtuosity and adept rhythmic flow at a fast pace.large_cmjsdbios_cberry02

Leon “Chu” Berry:

Born September 13, 1908. According to Coleman Hawkins, Berry was the only disciple that he felt that was his equal in technique and creativity. Berry played with Cab Calloway’s big band and made a number of astonishing small group records with trumpeters, Roy Eldridge and “Hot Lips” Page. His popularity was soaring when he died in an auto accident in October of 1941 at the age of 33.

Ballad: “Stardust”

Up-tempo: “Sittin’ in (w/Roy Eldridge)”

220px-ben_webster_ca-_october_1947_william_p-_gottlieb_08931Ben Webster:

Born March 27, 1909. Webster originally played piano, began playing saxophone in Lester Young family’s band. Influenced by Hawkins, he also learned to play ballads from altoist, Johnny Hodges while in Duke Ellington’s orchestra, where he gained great popularity. He is known for both his deeply warm and emotional ballads as well as his rough edged tone on up-tempo pieces. After being with Ellington off and on from 1935-1943 he spent time performing and recording in Europe and in small groups with modernists such as Gerry Mulligan and Oscar Peterson. He died in 1973, at the age of 64.

Ballad: “Ill Wind” w/Oscar Peterson trio:

Up-tempo: “Cottontail” w/Duke Ellington’s Orchestra:

donbyasDon Byas:

Born October 21, 1912 in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Though his tone and style was influenced by Hawkins, but he claimed not to have a style. He insisted that he was just trying to play with the speed and harmonic sophistication of the great pianist Art Tatum. Byas played in a number of swing orchestras and small groups with some of the more experimental musicians of his time, like Dizzy Gillespie. His style, straddled both swing and bebop, however, is mostly identified as ‘swing’ in terms of his rhythmic approach. He spent the last 26 years of his life playing mostly in Europe. This both gained him a great following in Europe, but hurt his popularity in the U.S. He had a tremendous sense of swing. He could play both at a blazing speed, sinuous sense of rhythm and technique and with great depth of feeling that gave him his unique approach and made him a great influence among younger tenor players.

Ballad: “Laura”:

Up-tempo: “How High the Moon”:

Next month we’ll continue looking at the evolution of the tenor sax style in the 1950’s transition from swing to bebop and beyond.


Mark Montesano is a retired professor at Arizona State University. While at ASU, he developed a one-credit honors course called “Listening to the History of Jazz: The First 50 Years of Recorded Jazz (1917-1967)”. Montesano plays amateur woodwinds and percussion, and is currently the host of KMHD’s hard bop show “Hard Choices” on Saturdays from 11 am to 1 pm where he has fun sharing his favorite jazz from the 50’s and 60’s.