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Ryan Piurek
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Thursday, March 27, 2003

IU Feature: The saxophone is passed

Murphy launches new era of classical saxophone at School of Music

EDITORS: Otis Murphy will perform a saxophone recital April 9 at 8:30 p.m. in the IU School of Music's Auer Hall. The performance is free and open to the public. For a program listing, visit

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Otis Murphy was just 15 years old, visiting his father at work, when he heard the sound that would change his life.

"My father used to moonlight as a campus policeman for a local college in Georgia," said the Indiana University School of Music faculty member. "He loved classical music, so every day, after hours, he would go listen to it in the college's music library.

"One day, he called up my mom and told her to drive me to meet him at the library. I'll never forget, I opened the door and a record was playing the most amazing, most beautiful sound, a sound I'd never heard before.

"Dad showed me the LP cover. On it, there was a picture of a slender man with wire-rimmed glasses. It was called Eugene Rousseau Plays the Saxophone.

"I'd started playing saxophone when I was 12," Murphy recalled. "But it wasn't until that time that I knew exactly what it was I wanted to do."

Today, at age 30, Murphy is one of the youngest faculty members in the history of the IU School of Music and, if you talk to many of his colleagues, one of its rising stars. He won Yamaha's Young Performing Artist Award and a Fulbright grant to study in France with the legendary saxophonist Jean-Yves Fourmeau. He earned a master of music degree from IU in 1998, graduating with the performer's certificate, the highest honor given to a performer at the institution. His debut compact disk recording, Memories of Dinant, has received critical acclaim. He has also enjoyed international success, capturing second prize in the 1998 Adolphe Sax International Saxophone Competition in Dinant, Belgium.

But perhaps his greatest achievement thus far has been succeeding the man whose music it was that inspired him to become a professional saxophone player, the man who would one day become his mentor. In the spring of 2000, after 36 years of teaching saxophone at IU, Distinguished Professor of Music Eugene Rousseau retired and accepted a part-time appointment at the University of Minnesota. Murphy, who studied with Rousseau at IU, joined the School of Music faculty in the fall of 2001.

It was the start of a new era.

"You have to understand that there was only one classical saxophone teacher at this university for 36 years," Murphy said. "It's a dream come true. I'm working with people who used to be my teachers, people who, across the board, are the top performers in the entire field."

When Murphy speaks of his mentor, it's almost as if he were 15 again and listening to records in the library with his father. Then again, Rousseau's artistry has left many musicians and music lovers in awe. One of the world's great saxophonists, Rousseau has performed across North America and on five continents since his Carnegie Hall debut in 1965. He gave the first solo saxophone recitals in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, London and Amsterdam. He also recorded the first album of solo saxophone with orchestra and the first saxophone recital on CD.

Murphy praises his mentor for helping launch the careers of many classical saxophone players. "Forty years ago, there was not a single institution in this country that offered instruction in classical sax," he said. "The sax was thought of as a jazz instrument. It had no place in orchestras. Now, thanks in large part to Eugene Rousseau, most college music programs have classical sax."

Rousseau thinks just as highly of his former student. "He was one of the best," Rousseau said, which is high praise considering the list of Rousseau's former students. It includes internationally acclaimed saxophonist Kenneth Fischer; Kenneth Tse, the first saxophonist to receive the artist diploma from the IU School of Music; and Thomas Walsh, assistant professor of saxophone and jazz studies at the IU School of Music. Together, Walsh and Murphy run the IU Saxophone Studio.

"No one questions his talent," Rousseau said. "Otis is a gifted player. He was an outstanding student, and I am very proud of his accomplishments. A rising star is how some members of the (IU School of Music's faculty) search committee described him. When he came to study with me he already had excellent tools, having studied classical saxophone with internationally renowned Kenneth Fischer. His background was solid."

Rousseau also praised his student's ability to adapt to various styles of music. "What are the criteria to be successful in this field? In addition to a generous amount of talent, one needs much experience as both performer and teacher in order to gain credibility as an artist-teacher. One must be able to grasp new concepts and to learn music quickly," he said.

Murphy described the saxophone, which is named after its inventor, Adolphe Sax of Belgium, as one of the most flexible instruments to play, one that is able to meet the varying needs of both jazz and classical music. That's not to say, though, that this shining woodwind instrument has been readily accepted into the world of classical music. Murphy admitted that many people still consider the sax to be purely a jazz instrument. However, it's clear that the classical sax has become more fully accepted over the past three decades. An increasing number of students are choosing to study both jazz and classical styles in an effort to become more versatile performers.

Murphy fully supports this trend and encourages his students to become what he calls "functional musicians." He welcomes individual musicianship and urges his students to find and develop their own styles. "The audience doesn't want to just hear what's on the page," he said. "They want to hear what the individual brings to a particular piece of music. I try to teach my students to be gutsy and to take chances. I tell them not to be afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves."

Murphy has injected this same passion into his own career, which has taken him around the world in an effort to "internationalize" American classical saxophone playing. Whereas Rousseau helped introduce the classical sax to a generation of American musicians, Murphy hopes to bring American classical sax playing to the rest of the world. The classical saxophone in America, Murphy said, has had a different evolution than in France, the instrument's birthplace, or in Japan, where the instrument is widely performed and loved. "The sound, the aesthetic, the tone, the acoustics, they're different here than in other parts of the world," he said. "It's why I wanted to go to France to study. I wanted to learn about the different sound."

Like Rousseau, Murphy can be considered a crusader for the classical sax. He has performed and taught classes in countries around the world, including France, Switzerland, Germany, Great Britain, Canada, Japan and Belgium. He enjoys a particularly close relationship with Japan. His wife, Haruko Suzuki, a pianist with whom he collaborated on his 1999 debut album, is from that country, and he has traveled there annually to present concerts and master classes. He will also perform for the second time at the World Saxophone Congress, July 9-13 at the University of Minnesota, where his mentor, Rousseau, is currently teaching. The World Saxophone Congress, which convenes every three years, is the world's largest gathering of professional, amateur and student saxophonists.

Despite all his travels and accomplishments, and the prestige of teaching and performing at one of the world's top music schools, Murphy said he stays rooted to the music that first transfixed him when he was a teenage boy. "We should always remember why we play music," he said. "It's because we love it, and we enjoy it."

Hometown information: Otis Murphy is from Milledgeville, Ga., home of Georgia College & State University, where he first heard the music of Eugene Rousseau. He received his bachelor of music education degree from the University of Georgia in Athens, where he studied with renowned saxophonist Kenneth Fischer.