top 15 famous jazz clarinet players

top 15 famous jazz clarinet players

Any attempt to make a list of famous jazz clarinet players is bound to fall short in someone’s mind. What even makes clarinet players famous? Is it how popular they are or how innovative they are? The most famous clarinet player may only be famous because a racially charged world wouldn’t allow for a person of color to have the limelight. Does that mean we should have a separate collection of famous black clarinet players and famous white clarinet players? I personally prefer to mix it all up, which seems to be the core message of jazz

Benny Goodman

(May 30, 1909 – June 13, 1986) Born into a poor Jewish immigrant family, Benny became a household name as the “King of Swing.” Mastering the clarinet in jazz and classical styles, his musical success allowed him to break down racial segregation. Ten years before Jackie Robinson played professional baseball, Benny hired Teddy Wilson. He toured Japan, South America, and Russia as the “jazz ambassador” of the USA. He was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement.

Artie Shaw 

(May 23, 1910 – December 30, 2004) Shaw rose to fame in the era of Big Bands and Swing, he is considered to be one of Jazz’s finest clarinetists. Raised by Jewish immigrant parents, he went on to lead over a dozen different bands, even as the bandleader of the Burns and Allen ShowHe volunteered for the US Navy and toured till he was physically unable to go on, some days averaging four performances in war zones. He was difficult to work with and live with, which might explain his eight marriages.

Buddy DeFranco

(February 17, 1923 – December 24, 2014) Born from Italian immigrants, his father spent all their rent money to buy Buddy his first clarinet. He studied classical music for five years but made the transition to jazz after winning the national Tommy Dorsey talent contest. He was called “The Charlie Parker of the clarinet,” and dominated the jazz world for 40 years with his smooth and melodic clarinet sound. During the ’60s and ’70s, Buddy was the leader of the Glenn Miller Orchestra and worked tirelessly to encourage young clarinetists.

Woody Herman

(May 16, 1913 – October 29, 1987) Woody, a child prodigy, by six years old was dancing and singing in vaudeville. After starting with a saxophone he moved on to the clarinet and became known as “Boy Wonder of the Clarinet.” By 16 he had his first album. His “Band That Plays the Blues” rocketed to fame, and more than a million copies of their hit, “Woodchopper’s Ball” were sold in 1939. Woody’s band often played the music that explored cutting edge ideas and was at the forefront of progressive jazz. In 1946 he and his band were awarded the title of “Best Band” in Metronome, DownBeat, Esquire, and Billboard polls.

Anat Cohen

(December 31, 1979-present) Grammy-nominated, incredibly talented clarinetist, saxophonist, and bandleader, Anat, has been voted by the Jazz Journalists Association as Clarinetist of the Year by the Jazz every single year from 2008 to 2019. She was born in Israel and served in the military there prior to coming to Boston where she studied at Berklee College of Music. She began playing the clarinet in a Dixieland band when she was 12 years old. She still tours widely and should not be missed if you get a chance to see her live.

Sidney Bechet

(May 14, 1897 – May 14, 1959) Born into a middle-class New Orleans Creole family, he experimented with several instruments before finding that the clarinet was for him. Sidney played the clarinet so passionately and domineeringly that trumpeters had a hard time playing beside him. He traveled abroad from Europe to Russia. After being insulted by another musician he challenged them to a duel and accidentally shot and killed a woman. He was imprisoned for 11 months before being deported back to the US. Upon return, the stock market crashed and Sidney, finding it difficult to make ends meet, decided to return to France, where In 1950, his popularity surged after a great performance at the Paris Jazz Fair. 

Eric Dolphy 

(June 20, 1928 – June 29, 1964) Eric had a powerful impact on the free jazz movement that still is with us today. Not only did he establish the bass clarinet in the jazz world, but he also made the flute a staple in jazz music. Born in Los Angeles to immigrants from Panama, his improvisational talents rocketed him to attention at the forefront of the abstract jazz world. His controversial album, “Out to Lunch!,” is still a mainstay in the jazz world. He worked with greats such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock. He went on tour to Europe and decided to stay with his fiancé. He died later that year of complications with diabetes.

Click here to learn more about the amazing bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy


Johnny Dodds

(April 12, 1892 – August 8, 1940) Johnny had a bluesy way of playing that made his music soulful and emotionally connecting. He got his start as a clarinetist at the age of 16 in New Orleans. He teamed up with King Oliver in Chicago and became the counterbalance to Louis Armstrong‘s dominate skills. As the de facto leading clarinetist of his age, and “a prime architect in the creation of the Jazz Age,” he was installed in the Jazz Hall of Fame. Benny Goodman believed “that no one ever surpassed Dodds in achieving a finer tone with the clarinet.”

Don Byron

(born November 8, 1958- present) When he was a kid, he had asthma and the doctor prescribed playing the clarinet to improve his lung capacity. He was surrounded by a large Jewish community in the south Bronx and this influenced his interest in Klezmer, which he has continued to mix in his eclectic style of music. Don flows freely between free jazz with traditional swing elements, pollinated with hip-hop and funk, blending divergent traditions of Afro-Cuban Latin sounds, Klezmer, and old-school R&B. He was chosen by Down Beat as “Jazz Artist of the Year” in 1992.

Jimmie Noone

(April 23, 1895 – April 19, 1944) A major player in the 1940’s for reviving traditional New Orleans jazz in America. He was born in Louisiana, but when his family moved to New Orleans he picked up the clarinet. In ’27 Noone led a band in Chicago’s Apex Club where his smooth clarinet style became a major influencer on the next two decades of swing music. As a teenager, Benny Goodman used to sneak into the Apex club to hear Noone. Nat King Cole would sneak out of his home to go listen to Noone. (Jimmie Noone is) “the greatest clarinetist of all time, the possessor of a more beautiful, more poignant tone and a player able to summon more sensitive nuances than any other.” –Hugues Panassié

George Lewis

(July 13, 1900 – December 31, 1968) Born to a Native American father and a descendant of Senegalese slave in the french quarter of New Orleans, George became the face of the New Orleans jazz sound. He taught himself the clarinet and was playing professionally in his teens. Finding work was difficult, so he resorted to unloading ships at the dock to make ends meet. He almost met his end when he suffered a chest injury when a heavy container crushed him. While recovering, his friends recorded him, and his clarinet mastery became widely known. By the 1950s George began spreading traditional New Orleans jazz around the world, touring in Europe and Japan. Many remember George for presenting them their break in the jazz music industry.

Buster Bailey

(July 19, 1902 – April 12, 1967) He started playing the clarinet professionally in 1917, at the young age of 15 and never looked back. Buster was student of Franz Schoepp, Benny Goodman’s instructor. He played with King Oliver‘s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago where he formed a lifelong friendship with Louis Armstrong. Beyond touring Europe and leading several jazz bands, Buster’s rapid yet smooth clarinet technique put him as a session musician much in demand, appearing in dozens of albums.

Pee Wee Russell

(March 27, 1906 – February 15, 1969) His dad snuck young Charles into the local Elks Club to see New Orleans jazz clarinetist, Alcide “Yellow” Nunez. Charles was stunned by the improvisations and fell in love with jazz and the clarinet. His family moved from Muskogee, Oklahoma to St. Louis, Missouri. Soon afterward at the young age of 16, Charles began touring professionally, traveling widely, performing on riverboats and in tents. Though Charles started playing Dixieland jazz he expanded to include swing and free jazz, creating a unique spontaneous stylized clarinet experience. Having a  slight build, he was given the nickname “Pee Wee.” He was ahead of his time, and when his greatness was recognized he was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.

Click here for more on Pee Wee Russell

Edmond Hall

(May 15, 1901 – February 11, 1967) Born into a musical family, whose father was an accomplished clarinetist just outside of New Orleans, Edmond was destined for greatness. Despite the fears of his parents, he decided being a farmhand and manual labor was not for him and set off to find work as a musician in New Orleans. He went on to join Luis Armstrong in touring Europe and Australia. On their trip to Ghana, Africa, they played to 11,000, their largest audience to date. Edmond was impressed with Ghana’s friendliness, beauty, and the absence of racial bigotry and was determined to return and live there, which he did for a short season. He continued to tour from South America to Japan. He was named “Best Clarinetist” by Melody Maker magazine in 1961.

Doreen Ketchens

(October 3, 1966 – present) Doreen has been nicknamed “Lady Louis” due in part to her capacity to hold difficult high notes. Lady Louis continues the century-old tradition of live music on the streets of New Orleans, playing a mix of Trad Jazz and Dixieland. As one of the “rare” female jazz bandleaders, she has toured in Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Europe and Russia. She began studying the clarinet in grade school, working her way through college as a chef. With her head thrown back, her clarinet raised to the sky, she is one of the world’s best and hardest working clarinetists. “Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans” can be seen performing in their regular spot on the corner of St. Peter and Royal Street.


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