The Leeson Saxophone
Of the rare National Music Museum instruments to be played at the Sioux City Symphony’s “Night at the Museum” concert this Saturday, October 17th, at the Orpheum Theater, the alto saxophone is remarkable for its association to the first American classical saxophonist.
The curators at the National Music Museum have a habit of calling this particular 1937 Martin ‘Broadus Committee Handcraft’ sax, the “Leeson Sax” – emphasizing not the maker or the model, but the man who played classical music on it: Cecil Leeson.
Leeson was beguiled by the sax’s timbre and tonal color, determined not to let the instrument’s unique sounds get pigeon-holed into any one musical genre – such as popular music.
During the late 20’s and 30’s, he used the then-new medium of radio to get the word out – with programs broadcast on Cleveland’s WHK, L.A.’s KNX, and CBS in New York City.
But it was one particular live concert performance that would expand the reputation of the sax.
For National Music Museum Senior Curator Margaret Banks and Curator of Woodwinds Deborah Reeves, the “Leeson Sax” has been the source of a few headaches and also a good example of how you can’t always trust an engraving or a label. Inscribed along the side of the sax’s body is “Jan. 13, 1939,” the date of Cecil Leeson’s groundbreaking concert. The problem is -- it never happened. On that date, that is. After researching in the Museum’s archives, curators verified that the year of the performance was actually 1938.
(What’s worse than a ‘typo’ on paper? Maybe one on brass. A museum curator’s work requires a lot of skepticism, research and cross-checking.)
What did Cecil Leeson play on the Martin sax that night in 1938?
The Concerto in E Flat Major for alto saxophone and string orchestra, Opus 109, of 1934 by Alexander Glazunov. Accompanied by a full orchestra (the Rochester Philharmonic conducted by José Iturbi), Leeson debuted the classical work to the American public.
Not only was he introducing a new piece of music (one now standard in the saxophone repertoire), he was demanding that the saxophone be legitimized as a concert instrument. As scholar Stephen Cottrell recounts: “This was the first time the saxophone had been given a solo role and in such a high-profile setting, and its appearance in front of the orchestral platform was sufficiently unusual that conductor Iturbi felt it necessary to make clear before the performance that Leeson was not a vaudeville act but a serious artist.”
So, for those of us – those of you – who still think of the sax in smoke-filled clubs or on jazz, blues or rock riffs only – listen again, as Leeson beckoned us to do.
The Cecil B. Leeson Collection and Archive, including the Leeson Sax, came to the NMM in 1994, five years after Leeson’s death. It took four years to organize the scrapbooks, correspondence, hundreds of photographs, sound recordings, programs, and other unique documentary materials.
Most impressively, the Leeson Collection includes 30 saxophones – five of which were made by the famed 19th-century inventor of the saxophone, Adolphe Sax.
At Saturday’s “Night at the Museum” concert in Sioux City, you will have the chance to delight in what Cecil Leeson delighted in--the full potential of the saxophone--as you hear saxophonist Zachary Shemon play Glazunov’s Concerto again – and on the “Leeson Saxophone” that premiered that classical piece to America 77 years ago.