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Sax appeal

If a recent article in the Guardian is to be believed the saxophone is back in vogue with the instrument featuring unexpectedly in recent releases from artists as diverse as Lady Gaga and US indie-rockers Deerhunter. While the sax may have fallen out of favour in recent years it has enjoyed several periods of popularity. Sorting through a box of photographs in the Musicians Union Archive last week I came across a stack of promotional photographs of saxophonists from the 1930s and 40s, when dance bands played to huge audiences, to the 1950s and the birth of rock and roll.

The union’s membership registers provide the evidence for the ubiquity of the saxophone at the time these photographs were taken. The detailed information recorded in the registers includes valuable information on the instruments played by members. For example, a quick comparison of a register from say, 1930, and one from 1970 will provide a clear example of how the instruments played and the make-up of the union’s membership changed over the years.

Page from membership register of Manchester Branch of the Musicians Union.

 The various surveys and reports produced by the union over the years also provide snapshots of the musical make up of the nation. One particularly useful document is a fascinating report produced in 1947 which provides a breakdown of the various sections of the profession both regionally and nationally. The figures provide evidence of the high proportion of musicians engaged in playing in the ‘casual dance’ bands which featured many of the saxophonists whose portraits can now be viewed on our flickr pages.

Table from 'Report upon a survey of the fields of employment of members and potential members of the Musicians Union', March 1947.