Why is there no saxophone in the orchestra? Saxophonist Jess Gillam explains

27 June 2018, 15:36 | Updated: 28 June 2018, 13:48

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

The saxophone can be as beautifully melodic as a violin or a clarinet – but the classical music world hasn’t always seen eye to eye with the instrument. We asked saxophonist Jess Gillam to explain why…

Jess Gillam is an award-winning 20-year-old saxophone player, who recently picked up the Sound of Classical Award at the 2018 Classic BRITs. Here she is, playing Pedro Iturralde’s ‘Pequeña Czarda’ with lots of incredible character and musicality:

But it’s fair to say that not everyone is used to hearing the saxophone outside of a smoky jazz club.

When was the saxophone invented?

“The saxophone was invented much later than the violin, piano, or other traditional classical instruments,” explains Jess. “It was designed originally to be used in military bands, to be a loud, outdoor instrument.

“Then, it was adopted by jazz. So that’s why people associate it with jazz, because where it grew up and had its history and roots.”

Here’s the awesome jazz saxophonist Barbara Thompson, playing her original track ‘Little Annie-Ooh’:

Barbara Thompson's Paraphernalia - Little Annie-Ooh

Then, the classical music world adopted it.

Classical composers like Mussorgsky started to write the saxophone into orchestral repertoire. ‘The Old Castle’, for instance, uses an alto saxophone.

Berlioz even said of the instrument: “It cries, sighs and dreams. It possesses a crescendo and can gradually diminish until it is only an echo of an echo. I know of no other instrument that possesses this particular capacity to reach the outer limits of audible sound.”

“But it still isn’t so widely used [in orchestral repertoire],” says Jess. “Some people see it as a bit of an outsider instrument, because it has this history in the jazz world.

“I don’t think that’s something we should try to forget, because that’s where it grew up. It’s something that can be changed, and we can see more classical saxophone.”

M. Mussorgsky - "The Old Castle" from "Pictures at an Exhibition" | Saxophone Roberto Armocida

Do you see yourself as a champion for the saxophone?

“Definitely. I love the saxophone so much, and I want as many people as possible to hear just how versatile it is.

“People often associate it with jazz or pop, and they don’t even think about its capacity to be a really melodic, beautiful, singing instrument. I think it has a place in classical music.”

How does it feel to be one of the only saxophonists in the classical music industry?

“It is a bit odd – but I feel privileged in a way. The thing I love about the saxophone is that there’s no set career path you have to follow. Everything is quite new: the music is new and at every concert you do, it’s quite often the first time a saxophonist has been there.

“That’s one of the reasons why I love the saxophone, because it’s always new, exciting and fresh.”

Find out more about Jess Gillam’s upcoming concerts on her website.