Jazz opportunities for woodwind players: learn the saxophone

Jazz clarinetist (and saxophonist!) Eddie Daniels. Photo, Professor Bop

I’ve been having a great time directing the university jazz band this year (alas, a temporary assignment). The group performed recently for some talented high school musicians from around the state, the kind of students I would like to recruit. After the performance, I was approached by no less than three of them, each expressing an interest in playing in the group in the future. None of them play instruments typical of jazz big band arrangements.

I’ve had this happen with private students, too. I once met with a very young and enthusiastic clarinetist and her mother. They explained to me that the young clarinetist was being excluded from her middle school jazz band because she didn’t play a “jazz” instrument. Their plan was for her to study clarinet with me, and to get so good that the jazz band director would “just have to” accept her into the group.

The clarinet, of course, does have a noble history in jazz music (even big bands), as does the flute, and, less frequently, the double reeds. And don’t get me wrong here—I love playing and listening to jazz on all those instruments, and would love to see every young woodwind player, regardless of instrument, get the chance to participate. But there are some practical barriers.

Students who want to learn to play jazz need opportunities to play in jazz groups. The big band format, by far the most likely jazz ensemble to be found in a school setting, has crystallized into a format with pretty specific instrumentation, and the saxophonists are the only woodwind players who get in on the fun. Parts for flute and clarinet pop up occasionally, but almost always written as a double in what is predominantly a saxophone part. Some school jazz band directors make the extra effort to include a larger variety of instruments, transposing parts themselves or purchasing special everyone-is-included arrangements. This approach of course has significant merits, but also robs the players of “jazz” instruments of an experience that is more authentic. And the stronger the group is, the less likely it is to use a non-standard instrumentation.

Aspiring jazz players, can, of course, look beyond the school system for opportunities, but the grass may not be any greener. Neighborhood garage bands or other non-instructional ensembles in the community can provide valuable experience, but would a group like that care to include a beginning jazz player? Especially one who plays a “non-jazz” instrument?

For this reason, my approach has been to tell my non-saxophonist students who are interested in jazz that the shortest way from here to there is to pick up the saxophone. It hurts a little to tell them that. But by approaching jazz study as a saxophonist, a woodwind player opens up a world of opportunities and resources that otherwise just aren’t available. My university group, like most, has a set instrumentation. One of my oboe students has been a longtime member of the group, playing baritone saxophone. She gets jazz experience that most oboists don’t. But if she didn’t play at least a little bit of saxophone, she would be out of luck.

Clarinetists and flutists who are into jazz can become particularly valuable to a jazz group as members of the saxophone section. It’s not uncommon for an advanced school big band to play arrangements that call for those instruments woodwind doubles. Nor is it uncommon for the saxophonists to have a serious lack of ability to play those parts. A flute or clarinet specialist who is also a strong saxophonist can really save the day.

A handful of musicians have, of course, made names for themselves as jazz players on non-saxophone woodwind instruments. But most of them also have also played the saxophone.

To flutists, clarinetists, oboists, and bassoonists who want to play jazz, I encourage you to continue working hard at your instrument and to seek out recordings and concerts of the top jazz players on that instrument. But also consider taking a few saxophone lessons and getting access to some great opportunities.

Here are just a very few of my favorite jazz woodwind players. Note that all also play saxophone!

Flute Hubert Laws
Lew Tabackin
Clarinet Eddie Daniels
Ken Peplowski
Don Byron
Oboe Paul McCandless
Charles Pillow
Bassoon Paul Hanson
Ray Pizzi

6 thoughts on “Jazz opportunities for woodwind players: learn the saxophone”

  1. Great advice!

    As a doubler, I started out with strings, and starting learning oboe in high school, and later picking up flute and clarinet. I’d always thought playing in jazz band would be fun, and a better musical outlet at my school. I asked my parents for a sax, got a good mouthpiece (still using today…) and some books from my band director, and was in jazz band a week later, getting solos on flute, piccolo and violin oddly enough! It was a great experience, and for a well rounded player on any woodwind instrument, the saxophone is going to be an easier instrument to pick up and learn the basics of, although in hindsight I think that the oboe skills helped the most of any of the other woodwinds. The next year, since I had experience on it, I ended up playing some bass too, and learned a lot about chord structure and the bass line’s importance in general.

  2. Hey Bret,
    Thanks for writing this post. I started on clarinet and then picked up sax pretty soon after that (to play jazz). You’ll generally get more interesting parts in concert band and orchestra on clarinet/flute/oboe, etc compared to saxophone.

    But in jazz, saxophone does seem to be the woodwind of choice.

    That doesn’t mean you need to give up the other woodwind.
    Playing in a few music groups at school can be fun.

    And I did take a couple of clarinet solos in jazz band when the arrangements called for it.

    Playing saxophone will get you in the jazz world, and after middle school and high school when you’ve developed some musicality, you’ll have more opportunities to play jazz and other styles of music on the ‘less common’ in jazz woodwinds. That will actually make you stand out a bit more. Jazz bassoon isn’t a sound you hear everyday.

    Have you heard Anat Cohen Bret? I would add her to your jazz clarinet list! Great musician.


  3. Totally agree. “Jazz”, especially in school, means trumpet, trombone and saxophone.

    I also agree (as someone who started on sax and later learned flute, clarinet, and bassoon) that the person for whom the sax is the double will have a huge advantage when it’s time to play those double parts.

  4. My first jazz band experience came in the form of a “stage band.” The director had clarinet and flute players on sax for the band; but next year, he allowed flute. It’s been two years since I’ve seen the band, but I have heard that he still allows flute players in the band. I suppose it depends on the number of players one has available.

  5. As a jazz musician who finds expression with both clarinet and sax, it’s hard for me to argue with you here Bret. Your point that the saxophone is the reed of choice in jazz — especially orchestrated jazz — is absolutely true. But because I can’t resist chiming in, allow me to emphasize your point by adding that even during the hey-day of jazz clarinet, even the most famous players also honked away on saxes — at least at the start of their careers. For example:

    Benny Goodman played alto, tenor and baritone sax. An excruciating video of this, long before he was the King of Swing, can bee seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrI5oW2ykuU. Perhaps it serves as inspiration to beginning players!

    Artie Shaw started out on alto. Woody Herman did too.

    And just to cloud the mix even more: Arguably the greatest of jazz tenor men, Lester Young, played clarinet in his unique style throughout his career, but is rarely remembered for his work on that instrument.

    So there you are! Seems that the greats will inevitably make music, regardless of what horn they’re holding — but they don’t get far with out a sax. Perhaps a good example to follow.


Leave a Comment

Comments that take a negative or confrontational tone are subject to email and name verification before being approved. In other words: no anonymous trolls allowed—take responsibility for your words.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.