The Jazz.com Blog
April 14, 2009 · 22 comments
What happened to the clarinet? It once was the defining instrument of jazz, and in the hands of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and others helped launch the Swing Era. But now it has become a "miscellaneous instrument"—a sideline for artists who mostly play sax. Michael Pellecchia continues his looks at the rise and fall of the clarinet below, in the second installment of this three-part article. Check out part one here. T.G.
After World War II, the selfsame Benny Goodman who had previously recorded with Bessie Smith 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 Downbeat 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. Yet even as the jazz world’s tastes changed, 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 classically-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. . . .
This blog entry posted by Michael Pellecchia. Check back soon for the third and final installment of this article.