The Clarinet in Jazz History

Jazz Clarinet History

The jazz clarinet was one of the most important instruments in American jazz at the beginning of the 1900s.  From the origins of Dixieland in New Orleans through the height of its popularity in the Swing Era to today’s contemporary performers, the clarinet has been recognized among both musicians and the public as a major voice of jazz history.

Dixieland Clarinet

Instrumentation of Dixieland combos included trumpet, clarinet and trombone in the horn section and piano,  banjo, tuba or string bass, and drums in the rhythm section. A hallmark of early Dixieland was collective improvisation with no soloing by any single instrument.   Rather, all instruments played at once and “jazzed” the various parts. Later, soloing was added and extended and made a main feature of Dixieland by jazz pioneers such as jazz clarinet great Sidney Bechet.   

Sidney BechetPee Wee Russell, and Johnny Dodds are some of the jazz clarinet legends that played this early Dixieland jazz in the early part of this century.  Legend Pete Fountain preserved the heritage of New Orleans Dixieland style clarinet playing over much of the late 20th century and has presented an aural history of early jazz clarinet styles to countless listeners.

Around 1920, Chicago style Dixieland resulted as New Orleans merged with ragtime.  A new “Swing” feel of the music adopted a metered pulse with the accent on the second and fourth beats.  Tenor Saxophone was added into the instrumentation. Acoustic guitar replaced the banjo and the string bass took over the part often played by the tuba.  

From about 1920 to 1930 there was an explosion of cultural and artistic creativity in all fields of art in Harlem, New York.  This became known as the Harlem Renaissance. Literature, art, and music, were profoundly influence as African-Americans were encouraged to celebrate their heritage.

Swing became vastly popular because it was so easy to dance to and quickly spread to other cities like New York and Kansas City just when swing began to take shape, and collective improvisation began to move to individual solo playing, an approach that was spearheaded by Louis Armstrong.

Big Band and Swing Clarinet

In the mid-1930s, the small 7-8 piece combos were augmented with full brass and reed sections giving them enough sound to fill large dance halls with music.  These new 16 piece “Big Bands” often included full brass sections of 4 trumpets and 4 trombones, adding a brighter louder sound to the band. The brass was counter-balanced by a compliment of reed players on saxophone and clarinet.  The rhythm section now included an expanded drum kit, an acoustic guitar replacing the banjo and a string bass instead of the tuba. The piano augmented the band with both harmonic color and rhythmic texture.

During this time, a bouncy variant in jazz called the Jitterbug was introduced to America by big band leader Cab Calloway when he introduced a tune called “Jitterbug” in 1934.  With the Jitterbug, America began dancing to contemporary jazz and swing music as it was evolving, with Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw leading the clarinet action in the late 1930s and early ‘40s.  The American love of swing dancing during the early 1940s and WWII propelled the jazz clarinet into the forefront of contemporary popular music.

Bebop Clarinet

During the 1940s a new revolutionary style of music called “Bebop” was invented by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and the clarinet faded from use in jazz ensembles.  From the late 1940s until just a few years ago, the clarinet was a voice rarely heard in jazz groups. The reasons for the clarinet’s demise in the jazz ensemble are many and varied.

Bebop was a musical style for virtuoso musicians. This style of jazz required a greater understanding of jazz theory and a mastery of complicated chords and rhythms. This new complexity and virtuosity of Bebop had much to do with the rejection of the clarinet in the 1950s.   The clarinet was not as suited to the technical demands of Bebop. Unlike the saxophone, the clarinet overblows at an interval of a 12th rather than an octave requiring the player to hear and use completely different fingerings depending on the range. Most of the tone holes on the clarinet are open and require a more precise fingering technique than the saxophone.  The demands of the clarinet force the player to use a different more advanced tonal, harmonic and technical approach to play Bebop

Technical differences of the clarinet were not the only factors working against it.  Clarinet artifices like the “slide”, and “wide vibrato”, so popular in Dixieland and Swing ensembles, were rarely used in Bebop.  

Bebop was the rock music of its time.  It was both a musical and cultural revolution.  Moreover, Bebop was a rejection of traditions. The clarinet as the leading voice in the big bands of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw symbolized the Swing era.   And, the Bebop movement rejected both swing and the clarinet.

A few notable clarinetists took up the challenge of the Bebop movement.  Clarinetist Buddy DeFranco knew the genius of Charlie Parker right away. Buddy defied Swing conventions and extended the technical capabilities of the difficult instrument while reshaping the clarinet technique in the form of Bebop. However, Buddy DeFranco was one of the very few clarinet exceptions of the Bebop era.

Many cultural and technical factors noted above were responsible for the eclipse of the clarinet in bebop and post bebop eras.  The culmination of these factors ensured the relegation of the jazz clarinet to obscurity for decades. John Coltrane‘s seminal work on the soprano saxophone in the 1950s elevated the soprano sax to the forefront of a freer modal jazz.  This emergence of soprano sax into the modern jazz culture served to further relegate the clarinet to obscurity in jazz ensembles of the 1950s and early ‘60s.

Free Jazz Clarinet

Oddly enough, jazz interpretation of the atonal “art music” and of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg in the 1960s were to be the basis of a re-launch of the clarinet as a modern jazz instrument.  Postmodernists Jimmy Giuffre and Eric Dolphy successfully juxtaposed the influences of “art compositions” with straight ahead and free jazz while adding their own extensions of instrumental technique, timbre, meter and rhythm, voicing, improvisation and notation into a personal synthesis of the postmodern jazz clarinet.  The clarinet family is made up of many different sized and pitched instruments including the bass clarinet and contra-bass clarinet. Up until this point in time, the voice of the lower clarinet family had not been heard in jazz. In the mid-1960s, Eric Dolphy introduces the bass clarinet as a solo jazz instrument for the first time.

Contemporary Clarinet Jazz

Today’s jazz clarinetists are varied, highly creative individuals, borrowing from the rich American musical and cultural heritage and combining new forms and cultural influences to create unexpected new paths in jazz.  Contemporary pioneers like Eddie Daniels and David Boykin have extending the jazz clarinet by combining Bebop and post-bop with multicultural influences such as Latin and African music. Postmodernist Don Byron has taken the obscure instrument and combined traditional and avant-garde jazz elements with a heady and often humorous mixture of classical, funk, calypso and Klezmer, the traditional music of the Eastern European Jewish ghettos, and created new forms of music that defy categories or labels altogether.

In one hundred years, the place of the jazz clarinet has evolved from being a main instrument heard in the late-night haunts of New Orleans’ French Quarter into a solo instrument on the edge of new American art forms.  The jazz clarinet enjoys new respectability from universities, jazz aficionados and swing, tap and jazz dancers. New clarinetists are appearing on the jazz scene with regularity, as the clarinet enjoys something of a renaissance in the world of jazz. 

Leonard Feather proclaimed the re-emergence of the clarinet as the “Jazz Trend of the Year”.

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