Titans of the Tough Toned Texas Tenor

In the 1920’s, before New York City was the bona fide epicenter of the American jazz scene, the community of musician’s creating this still very young music was spread throughout the Southern and Midwestern parts of the country. Dance bands consisting of 8 to 12 musicians were able to maintain semi-stable professional employment playing regional […]

In the 1920’s, before New York City was the bona fide epicenter of the American jazz scene, the community of musician’s creating this still very young music was spread throughout the Southern and Midwestern parts of the country. Dance bands consisting of 8 to 12 musicians were able to maintain semi-stable professional employment playing regional circuits of dance halls throughout both the midwest and the east coast. Texas, in particular, was fertile ground for these organizations due to its large size, population, and love of the local saloon and honkey tonk. As a consequence, young musician’s got a first class education and experience being exposed to high caliber bands constantly traveling throughout the state. It was within this thriving musical climate that a series of tenor saxophonists emerged bringing a heavily articulated, wide and wailing sound to the jazz, R&B, rock and roll, soul and funk movements of American popular music.

The forerunner of this lineage was Herschel ‘Tex’ Evans, who was one of the very first jazz saxophonists when he started his career in the 1910’s. He was known most prominently for his work with one of the premier territory bands of the time out of Oklahoma – the Count Basie Orchestra. Evans frequent sparring partner in this group was the cool toned Lester ‘Prez’ Young. Young’s tone was hollow, smooth, and lyrical. His playing had a floating quality created by his affinity for the middle-high register of the horn, his long and linear phrases, and his less prominent vibrato. Evans, by contrast, played in more heavily articulated, arppegiated way and had a buzzier, fatter sound. While Young might hold a note a little longer to extract every last tonal nuance, Evan’s playing more mimicked the drummer than the singer, hitting each beat with a real sense of rhythmic purpose, creating a strong bouncing swing that reinforced the signature punch of Basie’s “All-American Rhythm” Section.


Herschel Evans plays first.

The contrasting styles of these two tenor players made for great drama on the bandstand, especially when Basie would have them trade improvisations over multiple choruses of a song, back and forth, in an event known as battling, dueling, or sparring. These duels were actually highly collaborative for the musician’s on stage. Having players of two different styles gave the experience a sense of drama that was heightened not by increasingly “notey” displays of technical ability, but by a series of uniquely contrasting artistic statements that grew in intensity in markedly different ways that could rarely be boiled down to winners and losers. Style, not technique was king in this era, and what the lineage of Texas tenor players took from Herschel Evans wasn’t primarily the notes that he played – it was the honking, raw, rhythmically driven aesthetic that he created as a juxtaposition to Prez’s more ethereal sonority.

It was from this artistic atmosphere that a young Illinois Jacquet (b.1922) began developing his style in Houston, Texas. Jacquet first gained prominence in the Lionel Hampton Big Band where he made a name for himself playing a recorded solo on the Hampton classic “Flying Home”. He then went on to fill Lester Young’s vacant chair in the now internationally famous Count Basie Orchestra in 1946. Here, Jacquet popularized several technical innovations for the saxophone that would become trademarks of the Texas tenor sound.

One was the use of the extreme high register of the horn known as squealing, screeching, or altissimo. Jacquet would take epic solos that would climax with a single altissimo note held for as long as his breath would hold out while simultaneously arching his body backwards until he was practically lying on the stage. This unbridled stage presence drove audiences absolutely wild. He also helped popularize ‘growling’, a technique where the saxophonist hums while blowing into the instrument, producing a grainy, distorted effect. Both growling and squealing could be aptly compared to innovations that both vocalists and electric guitarists in the Midwest and South were developing concurrently, a la Little Richard’s growling delivery and his signature squealing “whooo”, both of which were later manifested in the guitar pyrotechnics of Jimi Hendrix.


This clip featuresboth Lester Young (playing the melody and first tenor solo) and Illinois Jacquet (playing last)

While Jacquet popularized the Texan sound within the jazz world, it was King Curtis (b. 1934) that brought the wailing sound to the Rock and Roll, Soul and R&B markets during the 1960’s, coining iconic solos for, among others, Buddy Holly, Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, and John Lennon. Starting his professional career in the Lionel Hampton Big Band in 1953, a decade after Illinois Jacquet left the band, Curtis no doubt studied Jacquet’s role in the band and brought a very similar style and energy to the group. After only a few months with Hampton’s band, the group broke up in New York and Curtis decided to stay in the city to pursue a career as a studio musician.

It was during these early years in New York that King Curtis made a purposeful shift towards commercial music and away from straight ahead jazz that would help define his career. “I saw that the music was dividing, and I had the commercial business sense to realize that ‘way out’ jazz wasn’t getting to the public,” he was quoted as saying in the “Razor & Tie Anthology” liner notes. Luckily, being in New York in the 1950’s was a great place for a talented young player like Curtis to get steady studio work. It was during this period that he collaborated with Buddy Holly on “Reminiscing” and with The Coasters, where his iconic playing on “Yakety Yak” was later the inspiration for Boots Randolph’s “Yakety Sax.” His playing on these recordings took the essential elements of the Texas tenor sound and transposed them into a more distilled, radio friendly format. While some of the musical vocabulary of the bebop and swing era was lost in favor of a more directly blues tinged style of playing, Curtis by no means sacrificed his artistic integrity to cow to public taste, but rather brought the innovations of his predecessors out of the Jazz world and into broader popular consciousness.

Listen to I Was Made To Love Her

In the 1960’s King Curtis became a prolific session player, producer, and composer for Atlantic Records as they were releasing some of their most influential material. It was during his time at Atlantic that he became not only a highly recognizable sound but also a recognized name, recording with everyone from Donny Hathaway to George Benson to Fats Domino to John Lennon. It was with the great Aretha Franklin that he gained most notoriety and by the late 1960’s he led Aretha’s backing band ‘The Kingpins’. It was at the height of his career in 1971 that King Curtis was stabbed to death at the age of 37 following an altercation with a drug addict loitering outside of this apartment.

King Curtis’s tragic and untimely death left a great void in the popular music world, still hungry for the tough tenor sound Curtis popularized. This void was filled when Texas native Bobby Keys furthered Curtis’ inroads into rock and roll with his work with the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Eric Clapton, while David ‘Fathead’ Newman carried the torch with his long standing association with Ray Charles. It was a young Texan named Dewey Redman (b. 1931), however, that produced the most striking innovation on the style.

Far from the increasingly commercial sound of his aforementioned contemporaries, Redman brought the Texas tenor aesthetic to the ‘Free’ jazz movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. Just as King Curtis had taken the ingredients of the style popularized by Illinois Jacquet to popular music, Dewey Redman brought the bald, raw tone to a new audience most famously through his collaborations with fellow Texan Ornette Coleman. Whereas his predecessors played with relative consistency of sound and style, Redman both embodied and antithesized his lineage within a given phrase. At times he would channel Jacquet directly, creating screeching vocalizations on the instrument, only to follow the idea with a soft, pillowy, rhythmically vague response. He worked to create tension and release in his solo’s not just with notes and rhythms, but also by varying his timbre and volume, bringing a sense of over the top drama to his playing reminiscent of the showmanship of his predecessors.

As the musical, cultural, and political climates shifted again in the 1980’s, appreciation for regional art declined. Even before the internet revolution, the country was becoming homogenized through an increased reliance on mass media and open embrace of the corporate lifestyle. Jazz’s acceptance into the higher education system further exacerbated the trend, as did a neo-conservatist jazz revival that emphasized New York’s contribution to the music at the expense of many, many influential musician’s that fell outside of a convenient narrative, which isn’t to say that these contributions of these artists are lost. It certainly seems as the the tides are shifting, and the ability for musician’s to again find work on the road between major cities is increasing. With an increasing awareness and appreciation of music that invokes a specific place, we might understand the more central role that music played in the lives and identities of generations past.

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John Lilley

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