The Jazz.com Blog
April 06, 2009 · 14 comments
The clarinet was once the dominant instrument in jazz, literally defining the sound of the Swing Era, as demonstrated by the commercial and artistic successes of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and others. But somehow that all changed during the modern jazz era. Michael Pellecchia tries to uncover the reasons why below, in the first installment of this three-part article. T.G.
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 in helping to create jazz, though it would become a mere foot soldier in the music’s history from 1948 on.
This blog entry posted by Michael Pellecchia. For part two of this article, click here.