Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Bigard, Barney (Albany Leon)

Barney Bigard was not only Ellington's clarinetist of choice, he was a master of modern art in pure aesthetic terms. He could paint an aural canvas with exquisite strokes, with beauty of shaped line and presentation. He also had a rich and glorious tone - and, when appropriate, sharper, rasping, or slurred-bluesy tones - which brought marvelous multiple dimensions to his artistic creations in musical form.

Albany Leon Bigard, later called Barney, was born in New Orleans on March 3, 1906, to Alexander and Emanuella Bigard and a creole or mixed-race family. His Uncle Emile was a bandleader, who helped get Barney into music: clarinet player Johnny Dodds worked in Uncle Emile’s band for a while. Barney got his first clarinet at an early age. Before he became committed to music, he worked as a photo engraver for The Tribune newspaper of New Orleans, and he worked in the cigar factory of another uncle, alongside another important New Orleans clarinetist, Luis "Papa" Tio.

His Uncle Emile then took Bigard to the nephew of Luis, Lorenzo Tio, Jr., for lessons. In his autobiography, Bigard said Lorenzo Tio “was at that time the best damned clarinet player in the city.” Lessons cost 50 cents apiece and lasted for however long Tio decided to go!

When Lorenzo left New Orleans to play in New York, Barney took lessons with Luis “Papa” Tio, a fine music teacher and clarinet player himself. Bigard also got guidance and some early gigs from Louis “Big Eye” DeLisle/Nelson, who also influenced Bechet. And like Bechet, Bigard heard the great New Orleans musicians playing in the Lyric Theater and elsewhere in the city, as well as out at the musical hot spot, Tranchina’s Restaurant at Spanish Fort along Lake Ponchartrain. Indeed, Barney soaked up the music that pervaded the town.

Bigard later amusingly acknowledged that when he first began to play, his tone was bad enough that some other players nicknamed him “the Snake Charmer,” and, when he practiced, his brothers would go through the house with their fingers in their ears. Such wonderful irony, since he later developed what may be the richest, most beautiful tone of any clarinet player in jazz history.

Bigard's first steady gig was playing with Albert Nicholas and band, with notables Paul Barbarin and Luis Russell, at Tom Anderson’s establishment in the Storyville. In late 1924, Joe “King” Oliver sent for Bigard to join his band in Chicago, as he had done two years earlier for Louis Armstrong. At that time, Oliver's band was called “The Dixie Syncopators.”

Barney’s grandmother had heard it was terribly cold up north, so she made him put on three sets of long underwear before she would take him to the railroad station.

Bigard mostly played tenor sax with King Oliver. He was highly impressed with Oliver’s use of mutes to produce a remarkable array of musical sounds. New Orleans clarinet player Albert Nicholas also played with the band.

On September 21, 1926, while still in Chicago, Bigard joined Jelly Roll Morton for the fourth and fifth of the historic “Red Hot Peppers” recordings, “Sidewalk Blues” and “Dead Man Blues.”

To this writer, these two tracks are, along with “Doctor Jazz,” are among the best of the Red Hot Peppers recordings, which were arguably better ensembles and better compositions than the more celebrated Louis Armstrong Hot Fives recordings of the same era.

In the summer 1927, Bigard joined the Charles Elgar band in Milwaukee, which included Omer Simeon. But again, Bigard mostly played tenor sax. On weekends he would go down to Chicago to hear the outstanding New Orleans clarinet players Johnny Dodds and Jimmie Noone. In the fall of 1927, Bigard relocated to New York and played with Luis Russell’s band at the Nest Club, until New Orleans-born bass player Wellman Braud walked into the club in December and invited him to join Duke Ellington’s band.

Duke’s band had begun a residence at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Bigard started with the band in December of 1927 and continued with them for fourteen years, the glory years of this great band band. Bigard can be heard, sometimes on tenor sax, on all of Ellington's early classic recordings, including “Black Beauty” in early 1928, “Mood Indigo” in 1930 through “Take the ‘A’ Train” in 1941, soloing on various of them.

Bigard made notable contributions to“The Mooche” and “Move Over” from October of 1928 on which he plays fine duets with Lonnie Johnson on guitar. In “The Blues with a Feelin’” from November of 1928, along with “The Mooche” and “Mood Indigo,” we begin to hear the full development of that extraordinary Bigard tone and style on clarinet.

The main theme of “Mood Indigo” was written by Bigard and Ellington filled out the arrangement; Duke & co. recorded it three times in 1930, and especially in the two full band recordings in October and December, that Bigard clarinet tone is heard in its early glory. In “Rockin’ in Rhythm” (January 1931) we hear an early demonstration of that Bigard style and flair, as well as very interesting tonal effects combining his clarinet with other horns. Other notable solos came in “Creole Rhapsody” (1931), “Delta Serenade” (1934), “Jack the Bear” (1940), and “Across the Track Blues” (late 1940). One number with simple Bigard backing, in this case on tenor sax, is “Diga Diga Do” (December 1932) with the Mills Brothers singing this tune that was the height of cool, early ‘30s style.

Besides contributing fine solos to some tracks, in many others Bigard added superb, well-placed clarinet embellishments, accents and harmonic backing. As Duke Ellington put it in his autobiography, Music is My Mistress: “Bigard is a very original and imaginative clarinet player, and he gave our band another of its distinctive sound identities…. He was invaluable for putting the filigree work into an arrangement, and sometimes it could remind you of all that delicate wrought iron you see in his hometown.”

In his autobiography, Bigard relates a funny story that shows even the great musicians can be overwhelmed with nervousness on occasion. In 1931 the Ellington band had finished their long residence at the Cotton Club, and a little later they had the chance to play at the Palace Theater in New York. As Bigard said, “If you played there and went over big, you had it made.” The night they opened, they knew the major music critics, Broadway “biggies,” and other notables were all in the audience. “This all being at stake, we were shivering… with apprehension…. Then they pulled the curtain and we like to froze. Out came Duke and took his bow. He turned to us and waved the baton to get us to hit that great big chord that would start our show. Down came that baton and… nothing. Nobody moved or blew a note. Duke’s eyes were blazing at us, but he turned and smiled sweetly to his audience…. He turned back to us, still smiling, and said, ‘Play you bastards!’ We got through that first week somehow….”

Late in his time with the Duke, they went on a European concert tour; and in April 1939 at the instigation of French jazz writer and impresario Hughes Panassie, Bigard did some recordings in Paris with gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, along with Ellington trumpeter Rex Stewart. At one point, Barney even played a snare drum with brushes to enhance the rhythm.

Ellington loved to write pieces to showcase the talents of his key players. One feature he wrote for Bigard is his “Clarinet Lament,” which can be heard on the Duke Ellington – At Fargo, 1940, Live album. The song fits Bigard’s exquisite swoops up and down the scale like a glove.

But after fourteen years, Bigard decided he was tired of constantly being on the road, so he quit the Ellington band in mid-1942 and stayed at his home in the Los Angeles area. For the next five years he played with different bands in California, including work with New Orleans legend Kid Ory, had one stand in New York, and he did music for Hollywood films. In 1947 he took part in the movie “New Orleans” which included Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, noted New Orleans drummer Zutty Singleton, Billie Holiday and others.

Around this time there was increasing interest in a revival of classic New Orleans small band music; that and the small band in the movie more or less led to the formation of the famous Louis Armstrong All Stars. In his autobiography Bigard said, “There is no question that the six musicians involved in that band changed the world of jazz, and I was proud to be a part of them…. That band was to be the main group that brought jazz to the people, all over America and all over the world.” For a good part of the time he was with them, the band included the outstanding trombone player Jack Teagarden (later replaced by the equally terrific Trummy Young), the great pianist Earl Hines (later ably replaced by Billy Kyle), noted drummer “Big Sid” Catlett (later replaced by Barrett Deems), bassist Arvell Shaw, and singer Velma Middleton. Bigard worked with the All Stars from August 1947 to mid-1952. By then he had gotten tired of the road and quit, spending time at home in the L.A. area. But in mid-1953 they called and asked him to rejoin the All Stars and he toured with the group for the next two years.

Among the fine recordings Bigard played on with Armstrong and the All Stars was the magnificent 1955 recording of “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue” on the Satch Plays Fats album. He also played with the All Stars on the Satch Plays W. C. Handy album.

For the rest of the 1950s Bigard played mainly around the Los Angeles area, with his own band, with Ben Pollack’s band, and on a couple of tours. In April 1960 he again joined the All Stars. That included a tour of Africa; and it led to a landmark album.

In April of 1961, Bigard joined Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington for a historic recording session, with Trummy Young on trombone and a couple of others. Bigard made superb contributions to such masterpiece recordings as “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Mood Indigo” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing.”

In September of 1961, Bigard quit Louis Armstrong and the All Stars for the last time. Thereafter he played with some classic jazz revival groups, went on a couple of tours, played the Nice Jazz Festival in France, appeared in a couple of television shows about jazz, and otherwise played around California. In January 1968 Bigard joined outstanding Chicago pianist Art Hodes, with some fine sidemen, to record an album for Delmark Records. Two especially good tracks were “Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” and “Hesitating Blues,” with Barney’s exquisite tone and style on the clarinet still on beautiful and swinging display. He died on June 17, 1980.

Select Discography

Jelly Roll Morton – Birth of the Hot: The Classic Chicago “Red Hot Peppers” Sessions, 1926-1927 (RCA/Bluebird 07863 66641-2).

Bigard on two tracks as sideman.

The Okeh Ellington (Columbia Jazz Masterpieces series, 2-CD album, C2K 46177)

Bigard with the Ellington band, 1928-1930.

Beyond Category – The Musical Genius of Duke Ellington (2-tape box: RCA/Smithsonian Press, DMC/DMK2-1241

Bigard with Ellington band in compilation that spans Duke’s whole career, from 1927 to 1967, and Bigard’s 14 years with the band.

Satch Plays Fats (Columbia, 1955)

Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington – The Great Summit/The Master Takes (Roulette/Blue Note 7243 5 24547 2 3)

Bigard as significant contributor to a historic session.

Barney Bigard & Art Hodes – Bucket’s Got a Hole In It (Delmark DE-211).

Bigard as co-lead man playing beautiful jazz and blues, with George Brunies and Barrett Deems.

Contributor: Dean Alger