Saturday, September 1, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (8)

8. Clarence Hutchenrider & the Casa Loma Orchestra * Smoke Rings * 1937

Born in Waco, Texas in 1908, Clarence Hutchenrider kicked around various regional bands as a young man before ending up in Austin Wylie's Golden Pheasant Orchestra: that important Cleveland training ground which produced such esteemed alumni as trumpeter Billy Butterfield, pianist Claude Thornhill and, most importantly, clarinetist Artie Shaw. When Shaw left Wylie's band for the New York studios, Hutchenrider was his replacement.

But Hutchenrider's days on Prospect Avenue in Cleveland were numbered. He would soon jump from Cleveland's top band to New York's: the Casa Loma Orchestra. In doing so he would temporarily pole vault, career wise, over Shaw himself.

The Casa Loma Orchestra was a unique ensemble. It functioned as a corporation, where the players all owned a share in the business. There were strict rules for remaining a member, and if those rules were broken, the band could buy the offender out and hire someone else. The resulting ensemble was a highly motivated, professional, and loyal group who had a direct stake in their own future--a group which stayed relatively intact for a couple of decades, and dominated the Big Band scene of the early 1930s.

Originally from Detroit, the band was called the "Orange Blossoms" before landing a gig at the Casa Loma in Toronto--a nightclub which, paradoxically, never opened, though the band kept the name. In 1929, when the stock market crashed, work dried up in the Detroit area, so the band relocated to New York.  [see George Simon's The Big Bands] Two years later, Austin Wylie's clarinetist joined the band and became the Casa Loma Orchestra's premiere jazz soloist.

Clarence Hutchenrider's sound tended towards Artie Shaw's: round, warm, velvety. Also like Shaw, his soloing style had the essential starting point of romantic lyricism. I've often wondered if the apprenticeship in Cleveland wasn't a dominant influence on the sound concept of both men. And though it is almost certainly historical coincidence more than anything else, considering also the sound concept of Franklin Cohen (who plays in Cleveland's most successful Orchestra these days, and who has done much to champion the playing of Shaw) I tend to think of this approach to the horn as the "Cleveland Clarinet Sound." There seems to be an emphasis towards fullness, roundness, and above all lyricism--a working within the sound itself--without the more nasal or harsh edges found in other styles of playing.

Thanks in part to Hutchenrider's gorgeous soloing, the Casa Loma Orchestra was the top band of the early 1930s, and set the stage for much of the Big Band Era proper, which most historians agree was launched by Benny Goodman in 1935. Casa Loma was among the first bands to fully tap the potential of playing for college dances, for mastering many styles, and for working in a truly professional manner. Coleman Hawkins, then of the Fletcher Henderson band, would refer to them as his "favorite band" deserving of serious attention (Sudhalter, 347), and Buddy Rich would call them "the most together band ever." (Sudhalter, 351)

Of the top clarinetists of the Big Band era, Clarence Hutchenrider of the Casa Loma Orchestra drifted into the most needless obscurity, and is therefore certainly the most deserving of a renaissance. While other jazz clarinetist's contributions have been unfairly devalued by historians, which is tragic enough, his has been nearly lost.
Further Reading:
Simon, George T. The Big Bands. Schirmer Books, 1982.
Sudhalter, Richard M. Lost Chords. Oxford University Press, 1999.

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