Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Jimmie Noone, amongst New Orleans' early clarinet kings, posessed the best technique and a pure, almost classical sound. To some, his seemingly effortless delivery sounds shallow, or even lacks taste: but his sophisticated style opened the door for the Swing Era, and made him ultimately more influential than his peers Johnny Dodds and Sidney Bechet.
Born in Cut-Off, Louisiana on April 23, 1895, Jimmie Noone was raised in Hammond, where he began to play guitar as a boy. In 1910, his family moved about fifty miles south to New Orleans. Once in the city, the aspiring guitarist met Sidney Bechet – who was two years younger than he, but already regarded as an exceptional clarinetist.
Noone felt attracted to the clarinet and began to study informally with Bechet. Before long, this led to his first professional engagement on the instrument, when his notoriously unreliable teacher failed to appear at a gig.
Noone also began to take more formal clarinet instruction with Lorenzo Tio, Jr., the son of a musical family noted for their teaching abilities. Tio gave him a solid foundation in technique and music theory and apparently encouraged him to continue his studies. Later, when he was established as a busy soloist and recording artist in Chicago in the 1920s, Noone also studied with Franz Schoepp, the teacher of Benny Goodman and Buster Bailey.
Until 1917, Noone worked in a variety of musical settings in New Orleans, playing with many top-level musicians including Oscar Celestin, Armand Piron and Clarence Williams. He formed the Young Olympia Band with the legendary cornetist Buddy Petit before leaving to join his brother-in-law, cornetist Freddie Keppard, in the Original Creole Band on a tour of the Junior Orpheum vaudeville circuit during the 1917-1918 season.
After this taste of travel, Noone decided not to return to New Orleans, and settled in Chicago to play with King Oliver at the Royal Gardens from 1918 to 1920. Chicago became Noone’s base of operations, and he remained there for the next twenty-five years and became a fixture on the city's dance and cabaret music scenes.
From the summer of 1920 until the fall of 1926, and again briefly in 1927, he played clarinet as well as saxophones in the large band led by Charles “Doc” Cooke, primarily at the Dreamland Ballroom. This group eventually grew to sixteen pieces, and developed to a point that Noone was called upon to exercise his reading abilities in the saxophone section, as well as to enliven many arrangements with his clarinet solos and obbligati.
During this period Noone freelanced occasionally and made his first recordings with Joe "King" Oliver and drummer/entertainer Ollie Powers before entering the studio with Cook several times between 1924 and 1926.
His first recording in September of 1923, “Play That Thing” for Claxtonola, shows him at work in a traditional New Orleans context, interacting with a front line of one or two cornets and trombone and alternating rapid but precise bursts of notes with more bluesy phrases emphasizing his round yet penetrating sound. His work with Cook, such as “The One I Love,” recorded on January 21, 1921 for Gennett, or “Messin’ Around (Cookie’s Gingersnaps)," recorded on June 22, 1926 for OKeh, feature him playing in the reed section but occasionally bursting forth with a fiery obbligato over the final ensemble.
While employed by Cook and afterwards, Noone also led smaller groups in after hours clubs such as the Nest, Apex Club and El Rado. These were essentially speakeasies catering to a much rougher crowd than that which frequented the Dreamland. Noone’s group eventually became known as the Apex Club Orchestra and featured the unusual instrumentation of himself on clarinet with a second player, often Joe Poston, on alto saxophone in the front line backed up by a rhythm section of piano, banjo, drums and sometimes tuba. For a short period, Earl "Fatha" Hines played piano with the group.
In May of 1928, Noone was finally able to record under his own name. Calling his group the Apex Club Orchestra, Noone preserved the sort of music he was playing in the after-hours clubs in Chicago at the time. Consisting of only Poston on alto saxophone and Noone in front and Hines on piano, these recordings represented a sophisticated translation of the traditional New Orleans style.
With Poston providing a spare lead, Noone was free to range much more freely in his improvisations and accompaniments. On the first recording of the series, “I Know That You Know,” recorded on May 16, 1928 for Vocalion, is perhaps the finest of Noone's career. His articulation, speed of execution and sense of time are all superb as he embroiders Poston’s spare lead and later takes a solo against stop-time rhythm. The choice of a Broadway show tune, composed by Vincent Youmans, also represents a departure from the more traditional New Orleans fare, based on blues or simple chord progressions.
The flip side of that record was “Sweet Sue,” which shows the more romantic – and sometimes criticized - side of Noone. Using a faster vibrato and sweeter sound, which is intensified by Poston’s switch to clarinet, Noone turns this normally spirited tune into a lament. "Four or Five Times," on the other hand, captures both Noone and Hines in full swing.
The Depression years limited Noone’s musical opportunities, but as a versatile and well-trained musician he could fit into a variety of settings. A brief trip to New York in 1931 found him playing with Cab Calloway’s big band for a short period, but he soon returned to Chicago where he led a succession of small groups in various clubs. Except for another abortive attempt to open a club in New York in 1935, Noone remained based in Chicago until 1943, touring the Midwest with a quartet and occasionally yielding to popular taste by fronting a big band of his own.
Noone’s later work shows a remarkable consistency of approach – generally either a technical, highly arpeggiated style, or a slow, dreamy one using a rippling vibrato. Fortunately, a quartet date Noone played at Chicago's Yes, Yes Club on July 17, 1941 has been preserved: his version of “A Porter’s Love Song” from this date demonstrates his use of the former technique, and “Body and Soul” the latter.
1943 began what appeared to be a renaissance in Jimmie Noone’s career. The revival of interest in New Orleans Jazz was just beginning to emerge on the West Coast, and with it, the revival of the careers of Crescent City natives Bunk Johnson and Kid Ory.
Noone moved to the Los Angeles area to be a part of that scene, and quickly found work in movies and clubs. Early in 1944 he joined Kid Ory’s Creole Jazz Band and was featured with them on the weekly broadcast of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre program in March and April. Unfortunately, Noone did not live to enjoy his newfound popularity, as he died suddenly of a heart attack on the morning of April 19, 1944.
Noone’s final recording, with Ory's group for the Welles broadcast of March 15, 1944, shows him returning to his roots as an ensemble player. His clarinet solo on “High Society" stands out as one of the finest early recordings of this influential and often copied early jazz riff.
Jimmie Noone’s legacy as a New Orleans clarinetist was one of great technical assurance and ability. He combined his pure and refined tone, which he seldom colored with the growls or rasps utilized by Bechet, with exceptionally precise articulation and clean execution.
Those who favor the grittier, bluesier style of Dodds and Bechet may find Noone's tone to be too sweet, especially on romantic numbers, and when he intensified his vibrato. But close listeners will also hear how he kept alive the more refined Creole clarinet tradition he learned from Lorenzo Tio. This tradition can also be heard in the work of some of the next generation of New Orleans clarinetists, such as Albert Nicholas, Barney Bigard and Omer Simeon.
Swing Era clarinetists, such as Benny Goodman, Buster Bailey and Jimmy Dorsey were avowed Jimmie Noone admirers – both Goodman and Bailey later recorded “I Know That You Know,” and liberally quoted the original clarinet solo. Dorsey’s clarinet work in the late 1920s and early 1930s, such as “St. Louis Blues” with Spike Hughes and “Praying The Blues,” explicitly attempted to capture Noone's liquid sound and freely used some of his pet phrases.
While there are many reissues of Noone's work, all of the recordings mentioned in this article except for “High Society” can be found on the superbly remastered, four CD set Jimmie Noone – Chicago Rhythm, issued as JSP 926.
All of the Kid Ory broadcasts for Orson Welles, including "High Society," can be found on Portrait of the Greatest Slideman Ever Born, Upbeat Jazz URCD 187.
Contributor: John Clark