Roger Blows His Horn – The Squeaky “X” Syndrome

It’s Saturday morning and while doing some chores around the house I turn on the TV and select the Music Choice Jazz Station. Soon, a solo erupts from the speakers that garners the comment “oh boy, another squeaky sax solo.” Another descriptive phrase I have heard likens the sound to “strangling a goose.” Sometimes it is followed by the equally popular extended drum solo, but that’s for another article. 

Although saxophones are particularly well suited to squeaking, honking, rapid fingering maneuvers, and other discordant sounds, the idea and similar effects can be done on any instrument whether it be the piano (the forearm smash), clarinet (max blow above high C), violin (screech bowing), guitar (max distortion) or even trumpet (real high and loud). Therefore, to partially mitigate the anger and resentment of all those saxophonists out there, I will simply label it the squeaky “X” syndrome, and you can fill in the “X” with the instrument of your choice. So, how does this squeaky “X” syndrome fit into the world of jazz we all love and promote. Where did it come from? Why does it happen? What can we do about it?

First, jazz musicians did not originate the squeaky “X” syndrome. Classical musicians really got into this around 1910, continuing to the present day, with practices like increased dissonance, atonality, serial/twelve tone composition, use of not-usually-considered-musical sounds, free/spontaneous performance and many other innovative techniques. Such methods can produce a squeaky orchestra, opera, or other classical ensemble. This was good because music was art and artists were supposed to express themselves and create art and pleasing the audience became a lesser consideration. The same phenomenon happened in modern visual art and sculpture. Jazz didn’t get far out until the late 1940s and early 1950s, about the time that jazz also decided to become “art” music. Jazz coincidentally also became more of a concert music rather than dancing and social music.

Another source of more strident sounds in jazz comes from some musical practices by tribal Africans, which then of course became part of the mix of ingredients to form the musical gumbo we call jazz.

Therefore, the squeaky “X” syndrome happens in jazz because, in the context of contemporary music practices and principles of music making in general, it is a justifiable tool in the performer’s arsenal – especially when it comes time to kick it up a notch. Emotional contrast or contour – excitement versus tranquility, tension versus release, storm versus calm – is what makes music interesting and captivating. Honks and squeaks can definitely increase tension and excitement. Five to ten minutes of honks and squeaks will kick it way on up there. Could it be that it comes down to considerations like how much for how long and who is listening and where.

So, in your jazz listening experience you perceive an instance of the squeaky “X” syndrome— what can you do? First, you most quickly conclude that this performance was not meant to be background or easy listening music. If you are at home or in your car and wish for background or easy listening music, you can take appropriate action, such as manipulation of the on-off switch, channel selector, or other audio control device. In a conversational club environment, legs can take you to a different place. If seated in a huge auditorium having paid big money for the tickets, keep in mind that the performer is attempting to elevate the excitement level and express emotion and produce an art jazz listening experience. I say give the performer a chance to make his musical point and then decide whether the overall show gets a thumbs up or thumbs down. Remember that John Coltrane did great ballads and lots of accessible jazz in addition to his more far out renderings.

So, there you have it, a totally scientific treatise dealing with the squeaky “X” syndrome. You may now consider these thoughts on the matter as you chose your level of acceptance of the squeaky “X” syndrome in your world of jazz. See you at Jazz Jam and Jazz Gumbo.