The Jazz.com Blog
April 27, 2009 · 12 comments
Back in the "jazz age," 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 fan. 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 boundaries. 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.
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.
This blog entry posted by Michael Pellecchia.