Dave Gelly, author of Masters of Jazz Saxophone

April 29th, 2000


Masters of Jazz Saxophone is a most detailed and revealing survey of jazz saxophonists that begins with early 20th-century origins and continues to the latest musicians on the worldwide scene today.  The book offers clear analysis and beautiful illustrations, probing further than ever before into the vibrant world of sax players and their music.

Editor Dave Gelly is the jazz critic for The Observer and a professional saxophonist.  Named Jazz Writer of the Year in the 1999 British Jazz Awards, he has contributed to many books on jazz and has written liner notes for most major jazz record labels.

Dave helps us easily understand the rich history of this incredible instrument in our exclusive interview.




*All photographs appear in the book, Masters of Jazz Saxophone, and are published as part of this interview with the written permission of the publisher.





JJM  Before starting with the questions, choose one song that you would like to have played in association with this interview. What recording is it from?

DG  Woody Herman – Four Brothers, four great saxophonists – Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward, Serge Chaloff – in perfect harmony.


Four Brothers, by Woody Herman


Dave Gelly’s background

JJM  What is your background?

DG  I was born in the same month that Billie Holiday & Lester Young recorded Back In Your Own Backyard. To save you looking it up, I’ll tell you – it was January 1938!

I learned the clarinet as a teenager at school. When I left school, my father gave me the money to buy an alto saxophone and I became a professional musician for a year before going to university. I have an MA degree in English and Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. I worked half-&-half as a teacher and jazz musician for some years, then worked in publishing and somehow ended up as a writer. I continued playing (tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass-clarinet) throughout. I have recorded with (among others) McGuiness-Flint, Keith Emerson, Arthur (Big Boy) Crudup and Richard Rodney Bennett.

JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

DG  Danny Kaye.

JJM  Was there a book you read during your childhood that had a particular effect on your interest in writing?

DG  No single book, except possibly George Orwell’s essays. As a prose stylist he is the best model for any budding writer.

JJM  There are so many quality coffee table books on every imaginable subject. What did you set out to achieve prior to writing this book, and how does The Masters of Jazz Saxophone compare to other books of this genre?

DG  I don’t think that there is another book on this subject. The idea was to give an overview of the history of the instrument in jazz. It is not aimed specifically at musicians, nor at highly knowledgeable jazz lovers, but it assumes an intelligent interest. I don’t think that it is necessary to possess a coffee table before buying the book.

JJM  The book is packed with fabulous photographs, many quite rare. You must have worked with a barrel full of resources. How big of a challenge is it to find rare photos?

DG  I can claim no credit here. This was the work of Peter Symes, a most diligent picture researcher as well as being a first-class photographer in his own right. Generally speaking, the earlier the subject the fewer the available photographs and the harder the researcher’s job.

JJM  During the course of the research for the book, what most surprised you about one of the saxophone players?

DG  Bud Freeman’s remarkable progress from apparent no-hoper in 1930 to master musician a few years later.

Facts about the saxophone

JJM  Give us some basic facts about the saxophone. When was it invented and how was it primarily used prior to jazz?

DG  Invented in 1840s by Adolphe Sax, a Belgian instrument maker working in Paris. It was first employed in French military bands and sometimes included in orchestral compositions by French composers (eg, Bizet).

It was adopted by US wind-bands in late 19th century and also featured as a novelty instrument on vaudeville stages. From there it found its way into popular dance music, at a time when jazz was beginning to have an influence. There were no saxophones in the earliest jazz bands, as far as we can tell.

Great saxophonists

JJM  Who was the first great sax soloist?

DG  Sidney Bechet (soprano saxophone), from around 1919. Then Coleman Hawkins (tenor saxophone) from late 1920s.

JJM  Which five saxophonists had the most influence on jazz?

DG  Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane – and maybe Michael Brecker.

JJM  Who were the greatest saxophone players of the swing era, and which bands did they play in?

DG  Coleman Hawkins with Fletcher Henderson, Lester Young with Count Basie, Chu Berry with Cab Calloway, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster and Harry Carney with Duke Ellington.

JJM  Which big band developed the most prominent group leaders?

DG  Perhaps Woody Herman’s band, which produced Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. Also Billy Eckstine’s band, which gave us Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons and Budd Johnson.

JJM  Who was the most commercially successful saxophonist of the bop era?

DG  Stan Getz.

JJM  Charlie Parker had such influence on his generation – virtually everyone wanted to play like Bird. During the Bird era, who most successfully developed a style independent of Parker’s?

DG  Art Pepper and Lee Konitz.

JJM  We hear so much about “west coast jazz.” Explain the difference between “west coast jazz” and the jazz that emanated from New York.

DG  In simple terms, west coast jazz is neat, controlled, cool. East coast is more fiery, looser and more passionate, deeply felt.

JJM  Who was the predominant west coast saxophonist, and what is the best west coast CD?

DG  Altoist Art Pepper is synonomous with west coast jazz.  In my opinion, his album Art Pepper + 11, with arrangements by Marty Paich, is the ultimate west coast jazz recording.

JJM  Who was the greatest “hard bop” tenor player and how did he emerge?

DG  Sonny Rollins, who recorded with Bud Powell and Miles Davis while scarcely out of his teens. Then he played with the great Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet and recorded a string of solo albums, including Saxophone Colossus.

JJM  What is the ultimate “hard bop” CD?

DG  Any late-50s album by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

Dave Gelly’s recommendations

JJM  For those who know all there is to know about players the likes of Parker, Hawkins, Young, Coltrane, Gordon and the upper tier players, give them a player to discover whose work may have been overlooked. What disc should they start with?

DG  Wardell Gray. He died in 1955, otherwise would have become a major figure. The greatest of all bop tenor players – Dexter Gordon notwithstanding. Any compilation of his 78rpm singles. Also Hank Mobley, a tenor master. Album of his to discover is Soul Station.

JJM  Who was the most flamboyant musicians among the sax players you wrote about?

DG  Sidney Bechet.

JJM  Whose music was least understood among the musicians themselves?

DG  Lester Young – at first. Later Ornette Coleman.

JJM Which sax player most successfully bridged a career encompassing bebop, hard bop and fusion? In other words, who stayed critically viable during the metamorphosis of modern jazz?

DG  Can’t think of one, although Dexter Gordon managed pretty well. Stan Getz deliberately kept up with trends through the 1960s, but eventually went back to what he did best.

JJM  Who is the predominant saxophonist today and were his greatest influences?

DG  Maybe Michael Brecker. His influences – John Coltrane, R&B (esp King Curtis).

JJM  What albums did you rediscover during the writing of this book?

DG  Soul Station by Hank Mobley – never really lost sight of it, but always exciting to renew its acquaintance.

JJM  Is there a particular jazz solo that stands out as your favorite ever?

DG  Lester Young – Lady Be Good (1936) Stan Getz – Shine (1955).


Sound samples of prominent saxophonists.  Click on the links below to listen.

Ramblin’, by Ornette Coleman

My Favorite Things, by John Coltrane

Body And Soul, by Coleman Hawkins

All The Things You Are, by Stan Getz

Love For Sale, by Dexter Gordon

Twisted, by Wardell Gray

Let’s Fall In Love, by Johnny Hodges

This I Dig Of You, by Hank Mobley

‘S Wonderful, by Gerry Mulligan

Now’s The Time, by Charlie Parker

Straight Life, by Art Pepper

Blue 7, by Sonny Rollins

Pennies From Heaven, by Ben Webster

Jumpin’ At The Woodside, by Lester Young

*All photographs appear in the book, Masters of Jazz Saxophone, and are published as part of this interview with the written permission of the publisher.

Masters of Jazz Saxophone





If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Lester Young biographer Douglas Daniels.



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