It’s said that Benny Goodman died with Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata Opus 120 on a music stand nearby. He had finished his work for jazz, and jazz had finished its work with him.
Like the banjo, the clarinet had an important role in jazz but now it’s either a sax double or a dark didgeridoo, some cultural artifact of a signaling race approaching extinction.
In order to survive, the jazz instrument check-out desk had to refine its selections. Ask for a clarinet, and get a saxophone.
It’s easy to forget how important the clarinet was. Alphonse Picou’s flag-waver, the oft-quoted “High Society” chorus, is worth a thousand words in this respect. Racing up and down scales and arpeggios was devilishly easy on this instrument which inspired ladykiller virtuosos to gig on the transient showpieces of Carl Maria von Weber and drive composers to heights like Mozart and Brahms.
The clarinet and piano gave jazz its Eurocentric roots, making the music go up and down while the banjo helped it go back and forth. A pianist such as Lil Hardin might be asked to keep her right hand out of the clarinet’s range. A cornetist working a limited range of notes would be filigree’d by a nervously fingered clarinetist.
Ever since Schubert’s “Shepherd on the Rock” the clarinet and voice have gone together. From opera to blues, it’s the perfect foil for a good singer, be it Lily Pons or Ma Rainey. It seemed to have the necessary ingredient for ethnic and racial mixing: a “field holler” of European pedigree, with its growling and snapping effects. Alongside the banjo in jazz, it was integrating the literate and nonliterate, the European and African, the country and the city, writing a new language. The clarinet sounded best on records made before the advent of “electrical process” recording during 1925 and 1926. Today’s microphonics don’t really favor its shape or manner of sound production. But live in person—the sound of an Albert System clarinet, with a little less metal than the keywork of clarinets today—it was really somethin’.
By the early 1920s, all cities had speakeasies where the sound of trained and untrained musicians merged in a cacophony of alcohol. Just like electrical guitar today, it’s easy to play a “little” clarinet. Squeak too much, and you were not long for the gig. There was incentive to get good. And good some cats got— very good.
The clarinet had a muse-like charm. When Louis Armstrong got to New York, he began as an undistinguished section player in Fletcher Henderson’s band. One day, clarinetist Buster Bailey was hired. On the stand at Roseland, Armstrong followed Bailey’s Tiger Rag break with four choruses of his own—the first time he cut loose with this band. The sound Bailey brought from Chicago reminded Louis of his roots.
In this wooden tube with holes and a single reed, inhabited the classical legacy of Franz Schoepp, who helped jazzers Bailey, Jimmie Noone, and Benny Goodman polish their technique. The Creole Tradition of Lorenzo Tio, the American side of the European coinage. It held the formality of a Jelly Roll Morton. It gave up the moan of the blues. It projected the smoky vapors of the Windy City. It boasted three different registers built in twelfths, unlike the octave stretch of the sax.
Early 20th century clarinetists appeared more often than not on jazz and blues records, and not just for solos. Duke Ellington and Claude Thornhill used the clarinet trio and Glenn Miller mixed clarinet and low brass for his trademark sound.
By the beginning of the Great Depression, though jazz had a superstar in Louis Armstrong, the two beat was evolving into a 4/4. A prominent shepherd of this movement was also a clarinetist. Interesting that the 4/4 banner was carried by the cat who played the most 16th notes per minute in a traditional jazz band—the clarinetist.
Benny Goodman, who had gotten his big break on a program called “Let’s Dance,” was not known to have doubled on sax, unlike Sidney Bechet or Johnny Dodds. He had adopted a new formula with a band that did sophisticated call and response between the brass and winds, could play music both sweet and hot, and featured a clarinet soloist. He became far and away the most popular clarinetist to have ever lived. This reticent, bespectacled man finished the clarinet’s work with helping to create jazz, though it would become a mere foot soldier in the music’s history from 1948 on.
After World War II, the selfsame Goodman who played hot solos on the 1920’s Bessie Smith shellacs could afford to commission Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto in 1947. Meanwhile, the kids from the Palomar Ballroom and Carnegie Hall had moved on from the swing dances and concerts of their callow youth.
Now it was the new against the old. Traditional jazz made a “comeback” and Bird “lived.” When instrumentalists took themselves off the market, singers filled the breach. Small groups led by the likes of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw still created definitive swing with clarinet in the lead.
A generation after it helped spawn jazz, the licorice stick went out with a bang. The new instrumental stars were Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Miles Davis. Were singers calling for clarinets on their gigs? Two word answer: Frank Sinatra.
Clarinetists found other work. Dave Brubeck’s great clarinetist, Bill Smith, is a distinguished composer. Harry Belafonte had a musical director named Anthony Sciacca (Tony Scott) who is still considered one of the most under-rated jazz clarinetists; he won the Down Beat polls for clarinet in 1958 and 1959.
Duke Ellington’s stable of clarinetists is legend, including Barney Bigard, Russell Procope and Jimmy Hamilton. Though he lost popular favor in the 1950s, students of Ellington are still in awe of his soloists and the beautiful music they made.
Jimmy Giuffre brought the “cool” to clarinet in the 1950s but was still called “over-rated” by a 1957 Esquire magazine reviewer. By this time, it was firmly planted as a “Dixieland” instrument.
Dozens of imaginative clarinetists never abandoned the axe: Omer Simeon, Irving Fazola, Peanuts Hucko, Albert Nicholas, Edmond Hall, Herb Hall, Mezz Mezzrow, Leon Rappolo, Joe Darensbourg, George Lewis, Tony Parenti; the list is endless. One of the most successful traditionalists is New Orleans’ Pete Fountain, who rocketed to popular fame in 2 short years on the Lawrence Welk TV show and left, as he says, “because champagne and bourbon don’t mix.” Millions of viewers supported him for decades after, as pilgrims to his nightclub and buyers of his dozens of best-selling albums full of jazz and contemporary cover tunes during the 1960s and 70s. He hardly ever saw a tune on the charts that he could not re-interpret on clarinet, with the help of his erstwhile arranger Bud Dant.
Bob Wilber once told Whitney Balliett that perhaps Benny Goodman had set such a high standard for clarinet; who could follow him? Pete Fountain did! But clarinetists have a high tolerance for exasperation, and the challenges they have faced on the licorice stick can refine talents applicable (and better paid) in many areas of high achievement. Yes, I bet the IQ of clarinetists is above average. I think of Leon Breeden, a more than serviceable jazz clarinetist who became a music teacher and put Denton, Texas on the map as a school for jazz. Early in his career he self-published a book and record called “Fun With The Clarinet.”
If you can play Brahms, why learn bebop? Leon actual did make it fun. You played along with him and he overdubbed himself into a clarinet choir. He gave exercises that swung.
Fun, yes… to a point. With no other instrument does the player have to cover holes completely with his naked fingertips, while manipulating side keys for the chromatics and substitute fingerings necessary to follow in the footsteps of Bird or Diz. And, be a woodpecker in reverse just to get a decent sound.
The jazz listening ear moved quickly past the clarinet’s favorite jazz lick—the diminished triad. Coleman Hawkins made the passing chord sound good on sax. Along the veritable (and venerable) Route 66 of popular music, on a typical piece of vintage tin pan alley sheet music, the ukulele or guitar chords will tablature as diminished. Today’s fake books will substitute the musical superhighway of ii-V substitutions which keep things dominant. This is not inherently good news for a classical trained clarinetist, relegated along with diminishment to the Route 66 of jazz. Buddy DeFranco fearlessly and effortlessly commands any ii-V sub, and still found time to command the ghost band of Glenn Miller from1966-1974. Eddie Daniels has so many recording credits as a saxophonist, one might be forgiven for not knowing his breathtaking clarinet jazz. High virtuosity has not brought high fame or the big bucks to clarinetists. It’s brought a lot to music, though. Composers are still ravishing the clarinet; I think of Roger Kellaway who has written for both Paquito D’Rivera and Eddie Daniels.
When a popular classical piece adopted a “jazzy” sound, courtesy of George Gershwin, it rode on the crest of a clarinet. The introduction to his Rhapsody in Blue needs no introduction. This clarinet cry begs to smother all other. Using another straight stick as a comparison, it’s as if Sidney Bechet never existed in the eyes of a Kenny Gorelick admirer. The instrument is a musical actor.
Everyone has heard of Ornette Coleman, but how many know of his childhood schoolmate whose compositions represent some of jazz’ true caviar? That would be the late clarinetist John Carter. Another great jazz composer and theoretician, Alvin Batiste, had clarinet as his primary instrument.
On a 1967 album called “Ask Me Now,” Pee Wee Russell plays the Monk tune and many others with an ageless sound and style that suggests the eternal spotless mind of the clarinet. Russell plays without any particular decade in mind, and epitomizes the strangeness of someone who would take up this instrument rather than another one. Is he the character Woody Allen channels on clarinet?
Prominent clarinetists in every area of jazz today have kept this pud-puller of an instrument alive. Universities and conservatories employ many top clarinetists who can play jazz. In the late 1980’s, I was allowed to include a couple of jazz tunes in my master’s degree clarinet recital. Classicists such as Richard Stolzman put their personal stamps on a jazz repertoire. There’s Paquito D’Rivera, Giora Feidman (carrying the substantial influence of Dave Tarras’ klezmer), Allan Vache (doing the same for trad), Ken Peplowski, Brad Terry, Michael White, the late Kenny Davern. A newer generation includes Evan Christopher, Don Byron, Anat Cohen, Marty Ehrlich, Dan Block. Update this list with names of your own. It might be fun to keep a tally of 21st century clarinetists, to imagine what future generations may write about the postmodern clarinet. For every great clarinetist, there are ten great saxophonists. As a jazz instrument, the sax has it all over clarinet. Let’s not diminish the clarinet’s achievement, though. Like the banjo, it is more important to music at large than to jazz in specific.
Most followers of the jazz clarinet have their memories and great recordings to hold them. Half a century ago, Pete Fountain might play the latest chart hit on “Lawrence Welk” for millions of viewers. During the last 25 years, few clarinet sounds have broadcast more widely than Billy Novick’s, plaintively introducing the TV show “This Old House.”
Relegated to nostalgia, yet the clarinet never had to don a disguise to do its job. Perhaps that’s part of its problem. To get where it is today, the electric guitar has had to be many things to many people. A saxophone choir can produce a mass of audio chocolate that a clarinet choir might envy. The saxophone has actually been very good news for the clarinet. It doesn’t squeak so much, it’s the prime instrument of jazz, and a saxophonist can play at doubling the clarinet for an arranger’s benefit. Nothing has changed with the old cliché, that if one starts out on clarinet, the sax will seem much easier by comparison. In the hands of an expert, the clarinet’s special effects go beyond boundary. The same instrument which can sing an aria, burn the midnight oil at Mozart’s place, and execute a Charlie Parker solo up to speed, can also produce multiphonics, tweets and splats which most jazz might eschew (John Carter to great exception).
Finally, it comes down to image. The computer or television screen can make a person look fatter but not a clarinet. Kenny G, with what many listeners think is a metal clarinet, revived the image of a person with a long skinny thing coming out of his mouth. It helped that he looked like Weird Al Yankovic. Benny Goodman’s avuncular appearance may have made him the perfect clarinet holder for his time. Swing was a rebellion, but Goodman was no Che Guevara.
I am haunted by a scene in Bert Stern’s 1960 film Jazz on a Summer’s Day. It shows a filmic interpretation (definitely not a “documentary” in the sense that we normally think) of portions of the Newport Jazz Festival. In one scene, there’s a classic mismatch. Or is it? The drummer is Jo Jones, the bassist is Tommy Bryant, and the clarinetist is Rudy Rutherford, who also played r&b clarinet behind Dinah Washington in the 1940s.
The guitarist and vocalist is Chuck Berry.
The scene says everything that this blog doesn’t. We’ll never know how jazz would have evolved without this tube of squeaks. Or whether rock ‘n roll would have been invented!
P.S. Gene Krupa wouldn’t have looked so cool behind a banjo either.