Mad Scientist Mr. Sax

Adolphe Sax is the most important musician in Belgian history, because he invented this:

Cannonball Adderley. He invented Cannonball Adderley.

The saxophone became a bonus instrument in classical orchestras, serving as garnish. But it took off in America and the rest of the world as the iconic jazz instrument.

But you know all that stuff. What you maybe don’t know is that Adolphe Sax also invented these:

Mr. Sax's Magical Emporium

Mr. Sax’s Magical Emporium

Sax was a sort of mad scientist, inventing all sorts of crazy new stuff to see if it worked. And here’s the thing: they mostly sounded pretty darn good!

I was lucky enough to arrive in Brussels during the Musical Instrument Museum’s Sax exhibition, containing hundreds of original instruments. The MIM paired select instruments with recordings, and your audio guide (a little tablet thing) could play all of them into your headphones. The results were fascinating, and often bizarre. An early “slide saxophone,” for instance, built the same way as a trombone, sounds grotesque. On the other hand, a non-sliding trombone sounded pretty terrific.

I'm kind of amazed this is not a more popular trombone today.

I’m surprised this is not a more popular trombone today. Aside from that it looks silly.

Sax is, in some ways, a creative artist the likes of which we no longer have. In response to requests from performers and opera houses, he would frequently invent new musical instruments. Composers would work with Sax to create new sounds that only existed, up until then, in their imaginations.

Sax wasn’t always a success. He was sued twice by rival instrument-makers hoping to kill his patents, and he went bankrupt twice. And then there’s the fact that a man who invented dozens, maybe hundreds of new designs, prototypes, and sounds is remembered nowadays for only one. A great one, though, which received an early celebrity endorsement from the composer Hector Berlioz.

Brussels is not a city loaded with tourist attractions, unless you’re a big fan of the European Union. But the Musical Instrument Museum, with its audio guide taking you through the sounds of history, is a huge plus, especially housed as it is in a gorgeous century-old art deco department store. And the Adolphe Sax special exhibition, on now through October 2015, is a marvel. The man may have struck gold only once, but that doesn’t mean he only created one instrument the world needed. It’s more like he only created one instrument the world was ready for. We could use more people like Adolphe Sax.

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