James Houlik and Dick Oatts speak with respect and reverence for the instrument that has given them careers.
They also have some regret that it isn’t more fully respected in a classical setting.
“Being a classical saxophonist is a hard life,” says Oatts, a widely known jazz player. “It’s a very tough skill to market.”
Oatts, who also teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia, will be one of the guests at Saxophone Saturday on Nov. 8 at Duquesne University.
The program was put together by Houlik, professor of saxophone and chairman of woodwinds at Duquesne.
“To be a saxophonist is to be a little reckless,” Houlik says about the instrument that he says provides the necessary link between the higher-pitched woodwinds and the brasses.
Saxophone Saturday is being held as a celebration of the 200th birthday of inventor Adolphe Sax (1814-94). It will consist of a presentation on Sax and his life, a clinic with Oatts and master classes with saxophonists from area universities. It will close with performances by saxophone quartets and a concert by Houlik, Oatts and Eric Lauver from Duquesne.
It also will include a display of 30 Sax instruments put together by the embassy of Belgium, the inventor’s homeland.
Houlik, a saxophonist who has performed all over the world and has had commissions written for him, says it is important to remember the work of Sax because of what his horn has provided.
Probably best known for its use in jazz, the saxophone can provide an highly individual sound in classical music, he says. It also has taken a powerful role in establishing the sound of concert and marching bands, he adds.
The basis for that sound is that the sax is made of metal, making it stronger than woodwinds, but its keys and mouthpiece make it more like one of them.
“It is a brass instrument with a woodwind mouthpiece,” Houlik says.
Oatts plays all the saxes, but is best known for his work on alto. He has performed and recorded as a leader, accompanist and member of the famed Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra.
He says the instrument has become increasingly better over the past 100 years. Its tone has improved by its physical improvements alone, but better keys, springs and mouthpiece assembly have made it faster and better to play, he says.
All of those elements make the saxophone a versatile instrument.
“There is so much to choose from,” he says. “I really respect classical players.”
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7852.