If you think of the saxophone nowadays, you think of jazz musicians, perhaps John Coltrane and Stan Getz if you’re of a certain musical inclination, perhaps Lisa Simpson and Kenny G if your knowledge of the instrument tends more towards mainstream pop culture like my own does. But the saxophone has a long and storied history that springs from across the Atlantic in Belgium and the life of perhaps the unluckiest man in the world.
Born in 1814, Adolphe Saxe was so unlucky that his nickname was “Ghost Child” because no one, not even his own mother, believed that he was long for this world. By the age of ten, he’d been in any number of scrapes that would have killed a far less resilient kid, including accidentally drinking poison no less than three times. But he was also smart, curious and often bored. His parents were instrument designers and makers who allowed him to tinker in the family shop. Adolphe soon learned how to play any number of musical instruments, both of his own and other’s devising.
But young Adolphe had in mind a particular sound. He wanted an instrument that could play as sweetly as a clarinet, as deeply as a trumpet and as delicately as a violin. When he finally unveiled his new invention, later to be dubbed the saxophone, a rival at the Belgian National Exhibition was so incensed that he kicked it across the floor, in only the first of many, many overreactions from heated opponents.
Adolphe may have been unlucky, but he was also pretty darn smart. He packed up his dented instrument and took it to where the money lay: the French military. The French did not embrace him at first — with the notable exception of Hector Berlioz — but as this absorbing children’s book continues, Lesa Cline-Ransome maps out Adolphe’s ultimately successful struggle to put the saxophone on the world stage. It was not an easy process, and if it weren’t real, you probably wouldn’t believe it. Ms Cline-Ransome adapts this larger than life story for a young audience with aplomb.
In this, she’s more than ably assisted by James E Ransome’s terrific illustrations. Whether depicting the whimsy and might of early 19th century Europe or the dark glamour of a more modern jazz scene, his watercolor illustrations capture the verve and spirit of the instrument and the tumultuous times and extraordinary people who ushered it into the world. The resulting book is a fascinating, age-appropriate tale of the origins of one of the world’s most popular instruments.
My eldest kid started reading this over my shoulder and became totally engrossed in the story and illustrations, which is about the highest praise we could give any picture book. It’s a wonderful non-fiction addition to any child’s library, and will hopefully spur plenty of music lovers to learn more about their favorite instruments and the people behind them.
The Story Of The Saxophone by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E Ransome was published yesterday March 28 2023 by Holiday House and is available from all good booksellers, including