Thursday, September 6, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (9)

9. Barney Bigard & the Duke Ellington Orchestra * Mood Indigo * 1931

Barney Bigard (1906-1980) was an unusual figure in the history of jazz clarinet. From New Orleans, he was taught by the legendary Lorenzo Tio, Jr., instructor of nearly every great NOLA player we remember from that era--including Sidney Bechet, Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds, Omer Simeon, and Albert Nicholas. Yet of them all, Bigard was the only one who spent significant time, both touring and recording, with a prominent Big Band. That it was Duke Ellington's, arguably the most creative Big Band of them all, is a decided bonus.

Ellington had a love for the clarinet, fostered by his early experience hearing Sidney Bechet, who he referred to as "the foundation" and "symbol" of all jazz. (Dance, p10) For a time early in his career, Duke was able to get Bechet in the band, though Bechet never stayed with one group for very long, and was notoriously in and out of the music business for various reasons. Perhaps it was Ellington's love of the New Orleans Albert-system sound that made Bigard such a perfect fit. It remains one of Duke's great achievements that the New Orleans sound could be so well integrated into such a large ensemble.

The clarinetists of the Ellington band have been sometimes neglected by critics, sometimes over praised. Bigard himself was remarkably outspoken and shrewd in his opinions of the clarinetists inside and outside the band. For those of us distant from the era, it's helpful to read the words of an accomplished player from that era:

What [ Artie ] Shaw did to begin with was to make the clarinet sound unusually beautiful in the upper register. He wasn't a low-register guy, but he was more creative than Benny Goodman. Benny did all the popular tunes and standards, but Shaw made up his own and played them so well. The guy could execute like mad. Benny could also execute, and had much more drive than Artie, but I like Artie for the things that are almost impossible to do on the clarinet.
I thought Buster Bailey was one of the fastest clarinetists there ever was. He had his own style, and I could always tell his playing. He was a good musician with good execution, but he didn't have the jazz drive or the soul in there like Goodman and some other guys. In other words it didn't have the oomph to it. Where Buster was great was in a studio or a show. That's the same way I figure with [ fellow Ellingtonian] Jimmy Hamilton. He's a terrific clarinetist, but he doesn't have that soul to go with what he's doing. He should have been in classical music. He's got that studio tone to begin with, and he plays straight and fluent, but it's not jazz.

Omer Simeon was a fine musician, an unsung hero, and a great clarinet player. 
[from Stanley Dance's The World of Duke Ellington. pgs88-89]

To those of us who have read some rather strange scholarship on jazz clarinet, these words are a refreshingly clear headed assessment of the era, and worth remembering.

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