Listening to the History of Jazz: “Bird’s Ax: The Alto Sax”

Charlie "Bird" Parker

170px-Jimmy_dorseyBy KMHD Radio’s Mark Montesano

Though the tenor is the more popular sax in jazz, some of the greatest innovators in jazz have played the alto sax. Probably the most influential was Charlie “Bird” Parker. Everyone who played jazz on any instrument has had to come to terms with the way Parker played. As you listen to the evolution of alto styles from the 30’s through the 60’s, notice the changes in tone, rhythm and feeling that the alto has gone through up until Parker and then after.

Jimmy Dorsey: mainly as a famous bandleader, Dorsey was also an early influence on the alto sax. Watch and hear his virtuosity on this difficult piece.




Johnny Hodges: was one of the first great alto soloists. He first became famous for his work with Duke Ellington, but also had a long and successful solo career. His lovely tone, deep emotion, and sure sense of rhythm made him readily identifiable and universally admired. Here are two examples of him playing fast and then a ballad for which he was most famous.

“All of Me”:“Passion Flower”:




Benny Carter: was not only a major influence on alto, but was a band, arranger, composer, and played trumpet.  Contrast his more aggressive style with Johnny Hodges’.

“Arlequin Bounce” and “Congero” (with Nat King Cole):




Charlie Parker:

Parker burst on the scene in New York City in the early 40’s. He met up with Dizzy Gillespie and opened up jazz to new ways of playing rhythm, harmony, and tone. Notice the radical change from those players that went before and after him.

Ballad: My Old Flame:

Uptempo: Confirmation:




Cannonball Adderley:

One of Parker’s greatest disciples brought the blues and gospel of his southern heritage to the alto. Along with blazing technique, deeply soulful feeling, he bridged the gap between bebop and soul, gaining much popularity along the way. Here are some of his earlier efforts

“Stars Fell on Alabama” (ballad):

“What is this thing called love?” (uptempo):



Paul Desmond: took more of a cue from Lester Young’s lighter tone and languid phrasing to develop an alto style that was about as different from Parker’s as could be. He had the quintessential ‘cool’ sound.

“Take Five” (his solo in a live performance):

“When Joanna Loved Me” (ballad):



Art Pepper:, also blending Parker’s technique with Young’s sound into another alto style. He and Desmond often won jazz polls over Parker and his more African American disciples.

“Straight Life” (uptempo):

“Round Midnight” (ballad):





Ornette Coleman: his Texas blues roots, he jettisoned the traditional use of chord changes and playing ‘in tune’ and rhythm. Coleman’s emergence on the jazz scene in the late 50’s caused heated controversy about the future direction of jazz and his abilities as a musician. History has shown that his influence has been lasting and profound. Contrast his playing with those that went before.

“Lonely Woman” (Ballad):

“Proof Readers” (uptempo):




Eric Dolphy: started playing in traditional jazz surroundings. Using classical training and tireless experimentation he extended the sound of the alto beyond what was ever played before. The first piece he is playing solo and the next on an uptempo piece where his ‘torch mouth’ sound blazes through.

“Love Me” (solo ballad):

“Les” (uptempo):


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.