The life of Adolphe Sax could have been directed by Tex Avery. The Belgian inventor survived seemingly countless bizarre and faintly hilarious near-death experiences—poisoning, drowning, gun powder mishaps, a couple skull fractures—before producing the musical instrument that bears his name in 1846. His appalling luck continued afterward, up to and including a failed assassination attempt by jealous rivals. Before dying in poverty at the unlikely age of 80, the slightly mad horn-maker had devised a 10-meter wide hilltop cannon designed to blow away his enemies.
“His life is ridiculous, and it’s all true,” says Larry Weinstein, calling the Straight from Toronto. “Everything you hear about his life is nuts…” There’s much more, like the huge lip-tumour that disfigured Sax’s face for a few years, at least until a mysterious entity known only as “Doctor Noir” applied some witchcraft to the problem and it fell off. Meanwhile, the creation of the saxophone itself was bookended by visionary dreams, with Sax ultimately suffering a nightmare in which horn-playing devils transport the souls of the damned to Hell.
Rumours of a curse have followed the saxophone ever since; something examined in Michael Segell’s 2006 book The Devil’s Horn, and expanded to wildly entertaining effect in Weinstein’s film of the same name, screening at the Vancity Theatre on Tuesday (June 14). Besides telling the hair-raising tale of its inventor, the film asks five very different practitioners to give their take on the legend. Rob Lind of Pacific Northwest proto-punks the Sonics “loved it” according to Weinstein. Jazz legend Jimmy Heath “rejected it and was offended by it,” meanwhile.
Not that Heath doesn’t open up about his own blighted history, which might have looked more like Giuseppe Logan’s if he hadn’t cleaned himself up. Another of Weinstein’s subjects, Logan was a free jazz pioneer who lost everything to heroin. He’s a homeless man cradling his sax in New York's Tompkins Square Park when we first see him in The Devil’s Horn. Weinstein’s daughter happened to live in that very hood, and he would hear Logan playing in the background when they’d speak on the phone. “His memory is shot, he didn’t remember the records he was on, but he still lives to play, and his words are so moving,” says Weinstein. “His existence is pure poetry to me.”
The film notes that the Nazis, the Soviets, the Catholic church, and Hollywood all had their own reasons to fear and cast out the saxophone, but it was the jazz guys that really seemed to summon the bad mojo. “And it all started with a car accident and a 15-year-old in 1935,” Weinstein muses, referring to the event that put Charlie Parker together with his first prescription for junk. “Everyone thought, ‘Oh God, to sound like him, I’ve gotta take heroin,’” he says, “and then it was a whole generation.”
In reality, the filmmaker resists the idea of a curse as anything but fanciful. “But,” he offers, not unreasonably, “I also don’t know. I made a list of about 50 of the top saxophonists of all time, and I colour coded them in terms of what their lives were like, whether they were cursed, mildly cursed, or not cursed. The 'not cursed' are very few, and I showed this list to a guy, George Avakian—a brilliant man, still alive, he was a Columbia Records producer whose best friend was Louis Armstrong, and who produced Charlie Parker, and Coltrane, and all these guys—and he said to me, ‘Come on, Larry. It’s jazz.’ And then I showed him my list and he started to cry. He said, ‘This is very convincing.’”
Avakian, it turns out, knew everyone on Weinstein’s list. “I think there might be something to this…,’ he told the filmmaker.
The Devil's Horn screens at the Vancity Theatre on Tuesday (June 14)