Texas Tenors have their own distinct sound

Oct 30, 2011

KPLU's Nick Morrison is glad the word "robust" is coming back into common parlance. He says that's the perfect word to describe the Texas Tenor saxophone sound. He's compiled a list of five titans of Texas Tenor.

'Bottom's Up' Illinois Jacquet

Nick and I discussed three of the five songs on his list, starting with one of Illinois Jacquet's signature songs "Bottom's Up." From the first long wail at the beginning of the tune, you can tell right away that you're hearing the Texas Tenor sound. Nick says it's tough to miss.

"It's that honkin,' bar-walkin' sound that used to be played on juke boxes."

'Cobb's Blues' Arnett Cobb

The second song on the list is from Arnett Cobb called "Cobb's Blues." Nick calls this a "generic blues that doesn't disappoint." He says Cobb knows exactly what to play and exactly when to play it. He starts out cool and smooth and ends the song on a rather feisty note.

'Cellar Groove' David 'Fathead' Newman

David "Fathead" Newman spent 12 years on the road with Ray Charles, who encouraged him to make his own records. For the song "Cellar Groove" in 1962, he recruited some of his colleagues from the Ray Charles Band to play with him, most notably trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. Nick says Newman's Texas Tenor sound includes a lot of bebop.

Don't have to be from Texas

All five artists on Nick's list (Buddy Tate and King Curtis round out the top 5) were either born in Texas or grew up there. But Nick says the Texas Tenor sound is definitely not limited to the Lone Star State. It's played by musicians all around the world.

The five Titans:


  • First of all, don't let the name "Illinois" fool you. Illinois Jacquet was born in Louisiana, but grew up in Houston, Texas. He basically became immortal in 1942 at the age of 19 when he recorded his famous sax solo in Lionel Hampton's original recording of "Flying Home." The song you'll hear now, "Bottoms Up," was also one of Jacquet's signature songs, and was described by one writer as "'Flying Home,' backwards." However you want to describe it, it's a classic example of Texas Tenor at its best.


  • Houston's Arnett Cobb came up hard on the heels of Illinois Jacquet. He replaced Jacquet in Lionel Hampton's band, and really started making a name for himself as a bandleader in the late 1940s. Poor health and bad luck made it difficult for Cobb to tour and record throughout the 1950s and '60s, but it doesn't seem that his saxophone playing suffered. "Cobb's Blues" was recorded in the early '70s with Milt Buckner (organ), Michael Silva (drums) and fellow Texan Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown (guitar). Cobb's solos are textbook examples of how to play Texas Tenor blues: cool and smooth at the beginning, but sassy and feisty at the end.


  • In the previous two songs, Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb have laid out the basic language of the Texas Tenor. We'll now see what happens when Southwest America meets South Africa. Buddy Tate was born in Sherman, Texas, and added his Texas Tenor sound to Count Basie's band for nearly 10 years. In 1977, Tate teamed up with South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim for one recording session, which also featured drummer Roy Brooks and bassist Cecil McBee. Ibrahim starts this song with one of his Capetown-feeling riffs, and Tate plays along for a while, but when the rhythm switches to straight-ahead swing, Abdullah drops out and Tate takes over. After a solo from McBee, Abdullah comes back in withhis solo and brings the song back around to its Capetown origins, with Tate again along for the ride out. It's a compelling experiment that features fine playing from everyone.


  • David "Fathead" Newman was raised in Dallas, where he was mentored by alto saxophonist Buster Smith, who was one of the fathers of Texas saxophone and also a great influence on Charlie Parker. Newman eventually left Smith for a 12-year stint with Ray Charles, who encouraged Newman to make his own records while still working in Charles' band. In fact, for "Cellar Groove," recorded in 1962, Newman recruited some of his colleagues from the Ray Charles Band to perform with him, most notably (in this song) trumpeter Marcus Belgrave.


  • Fort Worth, Texas, gave us King Curtis, the man who introduced the Texas Tenor sound to the world of pop music in the 1950s and '60s. As a teenager, he worked with Lionel Hampton's band (Hampton had great luck with Texas Tenor players), but soon became a studio musician, appearing on a number of rock and R&B records by Buddy Holly, The Coasters and many others. He really found the spotlight in the mid-'60s, when he began leading the band that backed Aretha Franklin. We'll hear him here doing his version of William Bell's R&B classic "You Don't Miss Your Water." Nothing like a little sweet soul music to wrap up a session with some of the titans of Texas Tenor saxophone.

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