Tom Brown & the Brown Brothers

America’s minstrel and vaudeville circuits were much less hesitant to accept Sax’s novel instrument in their performance routines.  By the 1910s, the Five Musical Spillers, a vaudeville act, began incorporating saxophones into their performances with great success. Unlike Hall’s efforts, which sought new music commissions for the saxophone for polite society concerts, saxophone ensembles like the Five Musical Spillers tailored their performances to appeal to mass audiences. They often used comedic humor and popular ragtime melodies to keep their audiences engaged with their performances. 

A photo of Tom Brown, in evening dress and holding a saxophone.
A photograph of Tom Brown (1917)

The breakout saxophone ensemble of this era was the Brown Brothers.  Performing first as a trio on the minstrel circuit and later as a quintet and sextet on the vaudeville circuit, they were the first major saxophone ensemble to profit from making commercial audio recordings.  By the early 1920s they were among the most popular and highest paid ensembles, performing on the vaudeville and Chautauqua circuits, and earning nearly $1,000 per week.  

Both the Spillers and Brown Brothers ensembles began their music careers performing in the style of minstrel burlesque shows that featured slapstick plantation skits, music numbers, and comic exchanges.   Up to 1914, the Brown Brothers wore military band uniforms.  Once they began performing in the Broadway production Chin Chin, they instead dressed as clowns.  Tom Brown performed in blackface, playing the role of Tambo, a traditional character in minstrel shows.  This type of performance, considered racist by today’s society, became the model for other saxophone ensembles through the early 1920s, because it utilized new ragtime melodies that were becoming the new dance rage across the country.

In 1917, the dance band manager W.C. Handy hired Wilbur C. Sweatman as the first saxophonist for his “Jass Band.” Other dance bands like the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians followed Handy’s lead, hiring clarinet and flute players who could double on the saxophone. By the early 1930s, the Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and Tommy Dorsey bands began hiring virtuoso saxophonists like Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, and Johnny Hodges to lead their ensemble’s saxophone sections.