Monday, June 25, 2012

Ten Essential Jazz Clarinet Recordings (4)

4. Sidney Bechet * The Best of Sidney Bechet (Blue Note)

This next selection was a difficult one to make, considering all of the options for Sidney Bechet compilations, but it seemed to me the Blue Note set had a lot to recommend itself.

First and foremost, it has one of the most perfect blues recordings ever made, "Blue Horizon", which is a must for any jazz clarinetist to transcribe and inwardly digest.

Beyond this, there are many other sides here of unique importance. The sessions represented on this disc are largely drawn from the mid-1940s, when recording technology and quality had finally caught up enough to give some real excellent representations of jazz musicians' sound. They give us the opportunity to hear Bechet in many contexts both solo and ensemble, playing opposite Bunk Johnson and Wild Bill Davison on trumpet and cornet.

Perhaps most exciting for the clarinetist is "Old Stack O'Lee Blues" with Albert Nicholas. Here we have two differing New Orleans sound concepts: Bechet with his woody, aggressive ferocity, and Nicholas with his fat, round mellowness--Bechet on Albert system, Nicholas on Boehm--both of them singing, swinging, and booming.

For many in the New Orleans tradition, Bechet's sound is foundational, and for jazz itself, Bechet's solo concept certainly is. Even Gunther Schuller, whose jazz series has a penchant for setting up a rigid and highly subjective hierarchy to jazz history similar to a German Romantic "history of heroes", had to grudgingly admit that Bechet, as "creative melodist, had...a soloist's conception even before [Louis] Armstrong did." [Early Jazz, 198]

Duke Ellington went a great deal further in his praise for Bechet. "I consider Bechet the foundation [of jazz]," he said in 1962. As far as his clarinet sound, Duke had this to say:

He was just a great clarinet player. He had a wonderful clarinet tone--all wood, a sound you don't hear anymore."

But Duke's praise for Bechet doesn't end there. Perhaps this next quote puts things in the starkest relief:

Yes, there were some very good Lester Young imitators. Lester was one of the very potent influences. Charlie Parker had plenty of imitators. Johnny Hodges too. And there was a time when there was hardly a tenor player in the world who didn't try to sound like Coleman Hawkins. But we mustn't leave out the greatest--Bechet! The greatest of all the originators, Bechet, the symbol of jazz!   [Dance, The World of Duke Ellington, 10]

The history of jazz clarinet is a story of critical and scholarly neglect since the 1950s. I can't help but wonder why Duke Ellington, whom scholars have often canonized as the greatest jazz composer in history, shouldn't be consulted more for his opinion! The great foundational saxophonists of the 20th century--Lester, Bird, and Hawk, are all considered in this quote and yet Bechet, the clarinetist, is considered more important to jazz. Though these opinions (and the opinions of critics and scholars) are ultimately mere chatter in the face of the music, they do matter in the big picture, because they shape what is preserved and passed on to further generations. As clarinetists, it's worth remembering that such canons can be reshaped and influenced.

I read constantly of the supremacy of the saxophone to the clarinet in jazz, and when I was a student in college, it was common to hear no less a musician than Jackie McLean suggest that the clarinet might not really be a "jazz instrument." The history behind such statements is often ideological, extra-musical, and culturally disappointing. But we need not accept it, especially when our ears, hearts, and souls tell us otherwise (along with the history itself, and a few powerful quotes from musicians like Duke Ellington).

Keep swinging and wailing, clarinetists!


Works cited:

Dance, Stanley. The World of Duke Ellington. Da Capo, 1970.
Schuller, Gunther. Early Jazz. Oxford, 1968.

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