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The Washington Saxophone Quartet celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. To which most Washingtonians respond: “Washington has a saxophone quartet?”
At least, that’s how it often feels to the men behind the reeds, Reginald Jackson (soprano), James Steele (alto), Rich Kleinfeldt (tenor), and Rick Parrell (baritone). Though the group has toured as far abroad as Beijing, in their hometown the quartet might as well be, well, Chinese. And yet, almost every radio listener in the D.C. area and beyond has heard the group’s biggest hit, which has been playing almost daily for nearly a decade. That would be the theme to NPR’s All Things Considered, played in short bursts between stories.
“Because NPR is on the Internet now, people all over the world can hear [the song],” Kleinfeldt says. But, as the group is rarely ID’d on air, the constant play has yet to boost the quartet’s record sales—let alone awareness of its existence. “Some people don’t even know it’s a sax quartet,” Kleinfeldt says.
Gathered at Steele’s McLean house from Arlington, Fairfax, and Wheaton for a Tuesday-morning rehearsal, the men—all in their late 50s/early 60s—take a break from Mozart fugues and Charlie Parker annotations to vent about their near-invisible local status. “The further away you are from home, the bigger you must be. If you’re from around here—wherever ‘here’ is—you can’t be very good,” Jackson says. “We’re big cheese in China.”
The “boon and the bane of [the] group,” Jackson says, is the time each member has spent in military bands in D.C. Though the military offers what amounts to paid rehearsal time, missing a practice or a gig is considered going AWOL. “For about 10, gosh, 15 years, there were a lot of times we did duet concerts and trio concerts because at the last minute somebody would be called to a job,” Jackson says. “Signing contracts was difficult, because we didn’t know who was going to be there.” Currently, Parrell is the only member still in service, and his seniority allows more booking flexibility.
Though they often play in concert halls, the foursome take a populist approach to their task, shying away from the more artsy compositions. “We’re always looking for something that can reach the audience and make a connection with people who know music and like to hear something that they’re familiar with,” Kleinfeldt says, “but also sneak in some new stuff that they’ve never heard.” So, in addition to Gershwin, Sousa, and Bach, the band offers Chinese folk tunes and Astor Piazzolla tangos.
“One of my professors at North Texas said the greatest compliment that an audience could give a composer was to go out in the aisle and throw up,” Jackson adds. “Well, if you’re on salary, man, you can do that. But if you gotta go back the next week and please a crowd, it’s kinda hard to do.”
Caught between not wanting to pander and not wanting to sicken, the group has the added challenge of pleasing themselves. “I can’t tell you how difficult it is for us to agree on a particular piece of music to play,” Jackson says. “Because the issue is not just, ‘Is it good music?’…The question is, ‘Is it going to be a good program piece? Is it going to be effective?’”
“String quartets have it made,” says Kleinfeldt. “I mean, they can play a piece that’s mediocre and people will say, ‘Isn’t that wonderful?’”
The Washington Saxophone Quartet performs at 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 4, at Grace Lutheran Church, 4300 16th St. NW. $15 (proceeds to benefit Loaves and Fishes). (703) 812-8683; for more information visit wsaxq.com.