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The Alto Saxophone
ized form, in his 1957 performances, Brown's name, though never nationally prominent, was a familiar and beloved one among musicians during his tenure in the John Kirby band (1938), off and on with the late Frankie Newton, and with many recording groups.
Akin to the Pete Brown approach was the soaring jump-groove alto of Louis Jordan, leader of his own small band since 1938 and later so popular as a comedy vocalist that his saxophone work became secondary. Many of Jordan's records on Decca revealed him as an expert instrumentalist, specializing in the blues.
Far better known than Brown, less celebrated than Jordan, and chronologically overlapping both was Willie Smith, heard with the Lunceford band (1930-41) and chiefly with Harry James since 1944 (he also spent a year with Ellington, 1951-2, in Hodges* chair). Smith's alto, buoyant and flexible, had a light sound and gave the impression of being deployed most tellingly around the instrument's upper register. A careful study of Smith's records, before and since the Lunceford heyday, will convince even the youngest and least initiated of listeners that along with Hodges, Carter and Brown he was one of the most personable and distinguishable of the first great alto stars.
The alto saxophone happened to be the vehicle with which Charlie Parker elected a total change in the approach not merely to the instrument but to improvisational concepts in all jazz media. First in 1941, when he played at New York's Savoy Ballroom with Jay McShann, and more significantly in 1944, when he began to wander in and out of jobs along 52nd Street, Parker spoke through his horn like a man who, after getting along for years on a diet of basic English, had suddenly swallowed the dictionary, yet miraculously managed to digest every page. Where others had played in and around arpeggios on a single chord for four beats, he would involve two, three or four; where they had given an impression of brisk motion with their little flotillas of eighth notes, Parker would play sixteenths. Where tonal discretion had been the better part of their technical valor, Parker threw conventional tonal beauty out the window to concentrate the more fully on matter rather than manner.