At the beginning of my series on Essential Jazz Clarinet recordings, I mentioned the desire to create an introduction to the great Big Band performances by clarinetists as well. Of all eras associated with jazz clarinet, the Swing Era remains the most dominant. The reasons for this are sometimes lost on fans and historians alike. There is a basic misconception that the clarinet was simply the dominant solo voice of the day, and that band leaders did better if that was the instrument they played. But this is clearly lacking in factual basis, for among the most successful big bands, relatively few were lead by clarinetists.
Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Jack Teagarden, and Glen Gray (of the Casa Loma Orchestra), for instance, were all trombone players--and each of them lead extremely successful big bands--often more lucrative bands than the great clarinetists'.
Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Claude Thornhill, Stan Kenton, and Fletcher Henderson were pianists who fronted successful bands.
Even among those generally grouped with the clarinetists were more properly termed saxophone soloists who doubled on clarinet; the most prominent being Jimmy Dorsey and Woody Herman.
When the final tally of the top bands is done, it is somewhat astonishing that only two of them were lead by full time clarinetists: Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Yet when we think of the Swing Era, it is almost always those two players' bands dominating the images and discussion. The reason for this is simple, if neglected: when the musical facts are examined, Goodman and Shaw were clearly, and by a wide margin, the greatest jazz musicians of that time. In an art form that is often dominated by hyperbole, both Goodman and Shaw were among the rare few worthy of the term 'genius.'
It is not always the case that the greatest technical innovators on an instrument are also the greatest musical innovators. The trumpet, for instance, has had its share of important jazz men. Players like 'Cat' Anderson and Maynard Ferguson are rightly credited with expanding our technical knowledge of the instrument while Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie are understood, primarily, as important musical explorers. This is an oversimplification, of course, but it was rare to find a player who not only expanded but dominated both realms. Louis Armstrong and Harry James come to mind, but neither of them could be said to have maintained their utter dominance in both fields for as long as Goodman and Shaw. In point of fact, one might argue that no one has yet demonstrated the control of the clarinet that Artie Shaw did as early as 1938--over seventy years ago.
But before talking about Shaw's achievement, it's important to recognize that Benny Goodman was simply unprecedented in jazz history. There were absolutely no clarinetists (or instrumentalists) before him in jazz or popular music who possessed anywhere near his range or skill with his instrument; few in the classical world who might approach it; and among clarinetists perhaps only Sidney Bechet could lay claim to playing with as much of that elusive quality called 'soul.' But even Bechet lacked the expressive range of Goodman, whose command of the horn gave him access to a wider palette of timbres, moods, and therefore shades of emotions to express. While this is no longer mentioned in jazz histories, it was commonly acknowledged by other top players of the day, including Barney Bigard and Jimmy Hamilton of the Ellington band.
As a result, Goodman was like a strike of lightening--a player who could not only dominate his field, but command the respect of the non-jazz world. At a time when jazz musicians were widely derided as musically illiterate, rough, and unskilled, his early performances of Mozart and Debussy, when compared to other contemporaries, show a musician who easily surpasses many of the "legends" of the classical clarinet world. Living up to Benny can therefore be difficult in any realm of the instrument's history. It's impossible to imagine any other jazz musician of the era doing the same. Duke Ellington could not have recorded a convincing Rachmaninoff Concerto; Louis Armstrong playing Hummel is likewise unlikely, nor did he commission and record the Tomasi concerto (as Goodman did pieces by Bartok, Copland, and many others). The simple fact, never mentioned in official histories of jazz, is that no other player approached such cross-over brilliance until a young trumpet phenom named Wynton Marsalis burst upon the scene two generations after Goodman had made his mark. [Note: as with every aspect of his multifaceted career, it is intriguing to wonder what Leonard Bernstein might have accomplished, had he decided to focus his career on piano performance. Perhaps he alone might have surpassed Goodman's accomplishments in both fields].
But if Benny was a lightening strike, Artie Shaw was another unlikely blast. The mutually beneficial (though not always perfectly cordial) sibling-like rivalry between Goodman and Shaw is one of the greatest in musical history, and the similarities of the two men are important.
Benjamin David Goodman and Arthur Jacob Arshawsky. What's in a name? Yet they both say so much. Goodman, who refused to change his last name for show biz in a toxically anti-Semitic era, named for both a great partriarch and king, would eventually be known as the 'King of Swing.' Shaw, embarrassed of the name that had been taunted as a child on the playgrounds of New Haven, named for both a mythical king and the Biblical hero who wrestled an angel, changing his name for its literary resonance with the protagonist of Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped --the unlucky young man whose inheritance has been stolen from him. Shaw would wrestle with his own Jewish identity, and become known for his intensely heartfelt and imaginative, yet intellectual style.
Both of them owed a tremendous debt to their Jewish heritage, and to klezmer: the oft-unspoken contributor to their musical approach. Here a word needs to be said about the history of jazz, and its basic trajectory, for the clarinet is unique in that history.
The importance of New Orleans is foundational to all jazz history, the clarinet no less than any other instrument. Dr. Michael White has written extensively on the importance of the New Orleans funeral, and he and others have noted the dramatic roles played by the various instruments in the standard New Orleans marching band. Everyone agrees that the trumpet is the leader--musically and emotionally-- of the New Orleans jazz group. As Dr. White explains, the clarinet plays the role of the wailing widow in a New Orleans funeral. [I refer interested readers to Dr White's article in Vol XXIII (2010) of The Jazz Archivist entitled "Dr. Michael White: The Doc Paulin Years (1975-79)". I'm not sure anyone has better expressed this, and with such humanity and humility, as Dr. White).
With Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, though, and their meteoric dominance of the jazz scene, a equally important tradition is joined to the music--not the New Orleans funeral, but what I call the Jewish Wedding. While Benny mastered and surpassed techniques from at least two New Orleans masters (Jimmie Noone and Johnny Dodds), there can be no question that klezmer remained a foundational influence for his approach to the clarinet. Goodman was open regarding this influence, and hit songs like "And the Angels Sing" and "Bei Mir Bist du Schoen" celebrated this heritage. Shaw's approach, like his name, was usually more veiled--though his playing owed less to New Orleans and of the two of them, his would be most easy to adapt fully, sound concept-wise, to klezmer. Significantly, he did feature a blantantly klezmer solo at the end of his Gramercy 5 number "Dr. Livingstone, I Presume."
Unlike the NOLA funeral band, the clarinet does not necessarily play a supporting role in Jewish music--instead, the clarinet often takes the emotional and musical leadership position. I've read of the cantor-like role of clarinetists in klezmer music, and I think this sense of spiritual leadership comes through in Goodman and Shaw's playing in a more dominant way than any clarinetist of the NOLA tradition. Both of them hired brilliant trumpet players on a regular basis. For Goodman the list is nothing short of remarkable, including Billy Butterfield, Harry James, Ziggy Elman, and Cootie Williams. He gave dominant solo time to each of these men, and of the Big Bands, Goodman's could arguably be called the most trumpet-heavy. Shaw also employed Butterfield, along with 'Lips' Page, and Roy Eldridge, giving them each extensive lead time. But despite this, there was never a sense that the clarinet was anything but the most important voice and most dominant musical personality. The only cultural precedent for maintaining that strong a sense, so far as I know, comes from the Jewish musical tradition.
This is supremely important if we are to understand jazz clarinet history. The New Orleans African American masters were foundational, but it was the Jewish American masters who exploded the instrument's full potential for virtuosity, leadership, and expressive range. Because of this, jazz clarinet history does not follow a simplistic narrative of race and ideology, craved by so many academics and critics. I don't intend to cite them here, but there are many scholarly accounts of jazz history which seem to have a specific problem acknowledging the contributions and achievements of Goodman and Shaw for reasons of their Jewishness. Anyone interested in finding them should spend some time reading between the lines in some of the histories that take a condescending tone towards these men: I think it's plain enough, but will leave those academic arguments to others.
Another way of putting this is that, if you happen to hate one group of people, and want to deny them their place at the table in our jazz culture, you're going to have to avoid jazz clarinet altogether (and I've known ideologues who have chosen this option, denying the clarinet as a jazz instrument, despite how monumentally ridiculous such an assertion is). In the history of jazz clarinet, the great innovators and leaders are too diverse, and drawing from too many cultural sources, to easily pin down into a political ideology. This, by the way, is part of the reason I consider jazz clarinet to be indispensable to our culture. It resists politicization by its very history--it's a place were everyone is welcome, and just about everyone has contributed (even cats with blond hair and blue eyes are represented by Stan Hasselgard!)
Beyond all of this, and rarely acknowledged, is the fact that Goodman and Shaw were arguably the best band directors of the era as well. Their orchestras were rehearsed as thoroughly and brilliantly as any symphony. In fact, if one bothers to check the recordings of orchestras of their day, Goodman and Shaw's outfits were usually better than major symphony orchestras of the era for their precision and execution.
The many live performances available on recording today demonstrate how tightly and emphatically the Goodman and Shaw bands performed on a night to night basis--a record which puts to shame even some of the other legendary Big Bands of the day. Duke Ellington's bands, for instance, were notorious for frequent sloppy performances, and there are plenty of those performances available on recordings--both live and studio sets. To find a sloppy Goodman or Shaw band recording, however, is rare.
These rarely combined talents as soloists, musical revolutionaries, and leaders make a list such as this one somewhat daunting, in that it could easily turn into a catalogue of the Goodman/Shaw rivalry: five Goodmans and five Shaws dividing the list. In the interests of exposing folks to a wider variety of material, however, I've decided to broaden the category a bit, including some performances beyond the Swing Era, and beyond the standard understanding of Big Band orchestration. I hope that my deviations from the Swing Era will prove interesting, and that over the next few weeks this top ten list will enrich your understanding (or remind you of what you've loved for so long).
Benny Goodman and the Swing Era by James Lincoln Collier
The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity by Artie Shaw
Artie Shaw: King of the Clarinet by Tom Nolan
The World of Duke Ellington by Stanley Dance