By Tom Dalton
SALEM — Music may soothe a savage breast, but it can drive a civilized person to distraction when it's off-key and loud.
That appears to be the lesson learned last year when a saxophone player on the Essex Street pedestrian mall did his own rendition — over and over — of two standards, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
The phones were ring, ring, ringing at City Hall with complaints, some from lawyers in an office near the mall certain they were witnessing a musical misdemeanor.
"It was the volume that was concerning to folks," said City Solicitor Beth Rennard, who conceded she could hear the sounds from her City Hall office a half-block away. "I never realized how loud a saxophone could actually go."
While no one's admitting it, that lone saxophone player apparently struck a cacophonous chord at City Hall and may have even been the musical muse who inspired the city to rewrite its rules for street performers.
On Monday night, the Licensing Board approved 26 new regulations and came oh-so-close to adding Rule No. 27 — "No saxophones."
The saxophone ban was actually proposed and jotted down at the end of the list of regulations before an elected official, who happened to be seated in the audience, leapt to his feet in protest.
Ward 1 Councilor Bob McCarthy said he spoke out "as the parent of a saxophone player" in an award-winning school band.
Without invoking the late Charlie Parker or John Coltrane, McCarthy noted that there are actually good saxophone players in the world who, under these Draconian rules, would be banned from the city.
"I don't think we can regulate taste, and I don't think we can regulate (instruments)," he said.
Licensing Board Chairman Robert St. Pierre jumped on the bandwagon.
"How do we say 'no saxophones,' but allow everything else," he said.
The Street Performer Rules were adopted unanimously, minus the saxophone prohibition.
The new regulations also set a limit of 40 street performer licenses, with the possibility of more during the Halloween season, broken into six categories: musicians, costumed entertainers, magicians, balloon artists, dance/theatrical arts and face painters/caricature artists.
The new rules require applicants to submit samples of their work, which could range from photographs to a CD or DVD.
There is no mention of tryouts for saxophone players.