Those histories which assert the decline of the clarinet, however, tend to ignore the various revivals of New Orleans style, beginning with the recordings of Sidney Bechet in the 1940s and extending through many global revivals, sometimes called "New Orleans style", "Traditional Jazz" or just "Trad." Because of the monikers "Traditional" and "Revival" and admittedly because of some of the attitudes surrounding the more fundamentalist traditionalist in the field, what was often missed in each of these movements was the expanding, creative contribution of each successive generation. Sidney Bechet's style continued to grow, for instance, not remaining with a traditional New Orleans instrumentation, but branching out into a creative fusion of Gypsy and New Orleans jazz. One could argue that his session with Mugsy Spanier in March of 1940 was an early example of jazz fusion at its finest. Beyond that, the influence of French chanson in Bechet's work increased throughout his career, making him not only the first soloist to develop a fully unique solo style, but also the first international style.
The 1950's likewise saw the emergence of the British Trad Jazz scene, in many ways a misnomer with unfortunate consequences. That they emulated New Orleans polyphony, instrumentation, timbral language, and harmonic clarity is true, but the term "Trad" too often lead listeners to wrongly assume they were hearing a reproduction or Historically Informed Performance practice of 'original' New Orleans jazz. It wasn't. In fact, the British Trad Jazz scene produced some of the most interesting, creative, even forward looking fusion in jazz history--from introducing elements of British light theatre music to precursors of a clear, popular style of jazz that would eventually become British Invasion pop rock. Albums such as Terry Lightfoot's Tradition in Colour (1958) and Acker Bilk's The Seven Ages of Acker (1959) were actually forward looking, blazing new ground, while simultaneously preserving an inheritance. Perhaps it was because they didn't seek the self-consciously intellectual jazz audience of the day, or their main interests were not expanding jazz vocabulary through increasingly difficult applications of European classical modernist chord structures, but nonetheless they brought about a tuneful music that was quite new.
Almost simultaneously with those advances, Pete Fountain was engaging in a different type of fusion--what might best be described as fusing West Coast cool jazz with traditional New Orleans style. He has never really gotten credit for how smoothly and seamlessly he made the two styles fit together.
These days, players such as Evan Christopher and Dr. Michael White continue the fusion process, from a strong New Orleans background.
Over the history of this blog, I have tried not to take sides on contemporary players. I've written reviews of most styles, and given due praise to Buddy DeFranco's albums, Eddie Daniels', and others who fit best in the bebop or straight ahead modern jazz that came out of New York in the late '40s and early '50s. But now I find it's time to say that I've never really believed that was the best path for the clarinet, and while the reasons this incredible instrument seemed to decline in jazz were manifold, a large part of it was that bebop was developed largely through the saxophone, and the saxophone is a very different instrument with different challenges.
The ranges and timbres of the two instruments are radically different. The 'normal' range of a saxophone is really only about two octaves and change. The 'normal' range of a clarinet is over three. This alone can change the dramatic structure of solos, and how a clarinetist can use arpeggios to their advantage. Saxophonists, on the other hand, benefit from knotty phrases which snake and double back on themselves, replete with added note scales. One type of 'coloring' on a saxophone is more readily obtained, in a sense, by harmony than by register. There are exceptions to these observations, but it's my contention that the clarinet can be more expressive than a saxophone when dealing with triadic harmonies (such as we find in the Mozart Clarinet Concerto) than a saxophone can, for precisely the reasons mentioned. Studying historic orchestration treatises (such as Berlioz's and the revision by Rimsky-Korsakov) we also find that triadic arpeggiation and exploitation of the clarinet's range are primary suggestions, in contrast to instruments like the oboe (which has a more similar normal range to the saxophone).
Harmonic analysis and expansion are easily studied and quantifiable. Combine that with the dominance of the New York scene and tastes on the history of jazz criticism and scholarship, and we see how the creative work of clarinetists, moving the art forward, has been somewhat routinely missed. And some of this was missed simply because there was no decent name for the music clarinetists were making, that didn't somehow seem to suggest stagnation or reproduction.
I'm not sure if my current label will ultimately win the day, but at a recent gig I was asked by an enthusiastic listener what style my band played. For the past year and a half, since starting Eric Seddon's Hot Club, I labeled us "New Orleans Style Jazz", for lack of a better term. But despite the partial truth, I've never felt the label quite accurate enough. So this time I blurted out "Roots Jazz." Everyone in the band liked that term better, so I've actually changed my advertising to reflect it. Beyond that I would say, even more accurately, that we are Roots Jazz Fusion: a creative combination of New Orleans, Blues, Gypsy, Swing, and other styles: forward looking, with a common denominator that our harmonies tend to be more clear and less extended, our timbral language more American than European classical, and our general conception more polyphonic. It's my hope that this explanation will help listeners and fans understand the dynamic, contemporary significance of our music: that we aren't academics seeking period performances, but progressive artists contributing
to the culture of today. We are, in fact, another important facet of contemporary, modern jazz.