THE TEXAS TENORS Rotating Exhibit
The Texas Tenors was a movement of African American jazz saxophonists that emerged in the 1930s and 1940s in Houston. It was a style of playing that incorporated both of the tonal extremes of the saxophone: it used deep, low, growling honks and high, squealing harmonics. Texas tenors were famous for their ability to build excitement during their solos and to create peak moments of exuberant overblowing (i.e. playing beyond the normal range of their instrument).
The style’s origins are usually attributed to Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb, two members of the Gulf coast band of Milt Larkin. It was a regional school of playing and developed in the territory bands of the pre-World War Two period. Territory bands like Larkin’s toured circuits of venues in the Midwest, South, and Southwest. Bands would play short gigs in mid-size cities like St. Louis or San Antonio and then move on to the next town and the next dance hall.
The style developed in an environment of Jim Crow segregation and racial discrimination. Unable to secure permanent gigs in white venues, these bands were forced to put together short engagements across the territories. The bands became cultural fixtures in African American communities and, as Ralph Ellison noted, were often symbols of professionalism and artistic success.
The Texas tenor sound first reached a larger national audience with Illinois Jacquet’s extended 1942 solo on “Flying Home.” After this sudden break into national consciousness, Texas tenors became an identifiable part of the surviving big bands of Lionel Hampton and Count Basie. Other musicians from Texas, notably Buddy Tate and Arnett Cobb, extended the presence of the style during the 1950s. Budd Johnson, who had been recording since the 1930s, combined it with the modernist language of bebop during the later 1940s and Booker Ervin brought the style into the complex compositions of Charles Mingus.
Jacquet’s playing, however, also inspired a whole host of saxophonists playing in R&B and early rock and roll bands in the 1950s. In the late 1950s, King Curtis recorded with the Coasters on “Yakety Yak,” an enormous R&B hit. From then on, Curtis became a popular session musician and leader at Atlantic records and continued to have a presence on the charts throughout the 1960s. In the last few years before his death in 1971, he led the Kingpins, which also often served as Aretha Franklin’s backing band. During roughly the same period, David “Fathead” Newman played a prominent role in Ray Charles’s band. Together, he and King Curtis established the Texas tenor sound a permanent component of soul and, later, rock.