Monday, March 18, 2013

Barney Bigard on Everyone

Few jazz clarinetists have amassed a comparable resume to that of Barney Bigard, whose career stretched from the 1920s through the 1970s. Born and raised in New Orleans during the crucial transition to the recorded era, and a student of the legendary Lorenzo Tio, Bigard went on to work in what many consider to be the most important of the Chicago-based New Orleans bands (King Oliver), moving to arguably the most creative big band ever assembled (Duke Ellington), before rounding out his triptych with Louis Armstrong's All-Stars.

Fortunately for us, beyond his formidable discography with each of those legendary ensembles (and his own as a leader), Bigard left us some important interviews and a slender, yet informative autobiography. His opinions on early New Orleans clarinetists and everyone else are presented in a clear, concise manner, without frills or subterfuge, and make for an interesting perspective. Many other clarinetists have weighed in on opposite sides of the opinions presented here (Goodman disagreed with Bigard about Frank Teschemacher, for instance), but these thoughts are worth remembering, if only to prevent jazz clarinetists from falling into a rigid orthodoxy of opinion.

All page numbers are from With Louis and the Duke, Oxford University Press, 1986, unless otherwise noted.


on Alphonse Picou:

I was really disappointed with Picou and in later years I found out that he became famous just for that little part in High Society, and in fact he got that from one of Sousa's marches. That was all that made him famous. [13]


on Lorenzo Tio:

On the other hand, the first time that I heard Lorenzo Tio I was not disappointed at all. I heard him on a parade playing his A clarinet. He knocked me out right from the very start. My uncle promised me that he would take me to his house, as he knew him, and ask him to give me lessons. [13]

I started to watch for Tio, where he would play and all. I followed him all over the city of New Orleans. Anytime he would play a parade I would be right there listening to what he was making on that clarinet. Wherever he played I'd go and stand around the bandstand and all my listening was to the clarinet. I didn't care about the rest of it. If I heard a riff of something else that I liked , then I would hum it in my head, and keep humming it. I'd leave the dance and keep humming it until I got home and no matter what time it was when I got home I would get out the horn and try to pick out the notes. I would keep on until I got it down right.

Tio was at that time the best damned clarinet player in the city... [15]

I found out that Albert Nicholas had been taking lessons from Tio before me. Albert was really far advanced and a fine clarinetist. Funny, although we both had the same tutor, we don't have the same style at all. He was also teaching Omer Simeon, and there's one of the real unsung clarinet players.  [16]

[Tio] was a great reader [of written music], even by today's standards. He had real fast execution and he could improvise--play jazz in other words--on top of all the rest. He would even make his own reeds out of some kind of old cane. Yes, Lorenzo Tio was the man in those days in the city of New Orleans. [17]


on Johnny Dodds:

I know for a fact that [Kid] Ory could never read, and Johnny Dodds couldn't either...to tell the truth, when I heard him he never did impress me much. [11]

He was a little what you might call "limited." But what he played was good. He by no means ever impressed me like Jimmie Noone did. [38]


on Jimmie Noone:

I really like his style. In fact, I stole a whole lot from Jimmie. While he was playing with Charlie Cooke he mostly played harmony parts or whatever they had written on paper for him, but after at The Nest he played mostly lead all night because the band was so small.  
     

on Pee Wee Russell, Frank Teschemacher, and jazz critics:

I used to buy DownBeat magazine all the time but once I read that Pee Wee Russell had won a DownBeat poll. That did it. I never read that magazine again. Guys like him and Frank Teschemacher aren't clarinet players to me. But then I suppose even in those days critics were just as ignorant as they are today. I never, ever, played to please the critics. Not once. I never really cared about them at all. Even today I still don't. I mean you can pick up a music paper and read them knocking all of the old-style New Orleans musicians that are currently out there doing their thing. [126] 


on Edmond Hall:

Edmond was a real fine clarinet player, and in fact was a more forceful player than I was. We were buddies because I had met him years ago in New York, but without a doubt he was the "cheapest" man I knew. He used to live in a place where he had to walk up so many flights of stairs to get up there, just to save rent. When Edmond got into the band [Louis Armstrong's All-Stars] they were going on a tour of France so I asked him to pick me up a couple of boxes of reeds that they make over there. He said that he would, and so when the band came back they played out here in California and I went to see them. Edmond said, "Man. I got your reeds." You know that he wouldn't turn loose that little box of twenty-five reeds until I had given him the money. He was like the duck's ass. Water tight. [124]


on New Orleans musicians:

To me it was just beautiful to see those old guys, at their age, coming out on stage and doing a lot of things the youngsters can't do. Most people forget that those guys are the foundation of jazz music. They started it, but naturally everything progresses as it goes along. It's like the Wright brothers' plane. Now you could throw a rock  and knock it out of the sky, but...give them credit for building the first. [125-26]

A lot of those old characters from New Orleans think that anything they do is alright just because they're from New Orleans. They think they can walk on your head if they want to, but it just isn't that way. [88]


on George Lewis:

[In the old days] I never heard of George Lewis. I heard him play once at the Beverly Cavern and once again when Louis Armstrong and I went to see him in New York. This time in New York he was so sick he couldn't play at all. I heard he was a nice enough guy but as to being a legend that people built him into? Willie Humphrey was more of a legend than George Lewis. [88-89]


on Musical Style:

The only thing I say is to play your own self. Don't be copying someone else. Try to create a style of your own and then stick to it. Any of the big names have their own style. You can always tell a Louis Armstrong or a Teagarden or a Hodges, but when you get down amongst the lesser ones it's hard to tell them apart. I tell all the young guys I meet, "It's good to take influence from someone, but don't play note for note like them. You'll never make it in this racket. Play your own way." [126]


on being a Jazz Clarinetist:

I never figured myself as being a "temperamental" musician. I put myself down as easy going and I think that helped my career a lot. I was never one to care about who had top billing, or who played the last act. Some guys, that was all they thought about. I just wanted to be good at what I did. I wanted to get jobs that were in my category. I didn't want to be no symphony man. If I had devoted all my time to that I wouldn't have been a jazz clarinetist. I did want to be a good clarinetist though. Just to read enough music to get me by. That's the way I always felt. I never thought of myself as an artist, or anything like that. Just as a good jazz player that always tried to do his best. Of course I try to live up to my own standards of playing. Sometimes it materializes, sometimes it doesn't, but I keep trying anyway. I would hate to say I was all set on the horn. There is always something more to learn. And you can't stay away from music for long--at least I couldn't.  [126-27]


on Artie Shaw:

What 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. [from Stanley Dance's The World of Duke Ellington. p.88]

To me the greatest player that ever lived was Artie Shaw. [quoted in Gene Lees notes to Artie Shaw: A Legacy, p. 5]

on Benny Goodman, Buster Bailey, and Jimmy Hamilton:

Benny is a hell of a clarinetist, really great, but he's not the easiest guy to get along with. [111]

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 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. [Dance, 89]

on Omer Simeon:

Omer Simeon was a fine musician, an unsung hero, and a great clarinet player. [Dance, 89]

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