Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Jazz Clarinet Question & Answer: School Jazz Band: Clarinets Need Not Apply?

This past weekend a reader of The Jazz Clarinet contacted me about an issue that is rather close to my heart:

Hi Eric,

I stumbled on to your blog "The Jazz Clarinet", so far I'm really enjoying it. Thank you. I have a question for you. My son is 12, he has played clarinet since the 4th grade (he's now in 7th). He is quite good, he has a nice natural feel, or so I think, I am a lifetime guitarist. He isn't able to join jazz band at school until next year, but his teacher suggested he learn sax since they do not have clarinet in the jazz band! He and I are both a bit confused by this. I have exposed him to Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and the jazz of the 20's-40's. So, for now I would like to get him started myself on learning jazz clarinet, particularly improvising. Do you have any suggestions on book, ways to teach him jazz?

Thanks for your time.

M. C.

Thanks for reading, M.C.!
Both the question and my ultimate advice on this matter require a decent amount of historical and personal background. It's a question that comes up frequently among jazz clarinetists, and one I've wanted to address for awhile now in more depth.
First, there is a long history of saxophone/clarinet doubling in jazz band history. While the Swing Era (circa 1935-46) has rightly been considered the golden era of jazz clarinet, it's important to realize that only two of the top bandleaders--Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw--were full time, virtuoso clarinetists. Others band leaders associated with the instrument (such as Jimmy Dorsey and Woody Herman), were almost invariably doublers, and equally invariably sounded better on saxophone than clarinet.
To play clarinet within the saxophone section was a standard double for many bands. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Harry James and most other bands employed reed doublers, often hiring important jazz clarinetists such as Barney Bigard, Jimmy Hamilton, and even Lester Young to do so (Prez was not only one of the greatest tenor players ever, but a fairly interesting clarinet soloist too).
Up through the 1940s, clarinet parts were an important part of jazz band arrangements. This started to change sometime shortly after WWII, though the reasons for it are vague. As early as the 1950s, publications like DownBeat were wondering why the clarinet was losing prominence in the jazz world. As a touchstone for historical trends we might look to arguably the most important Big Band album of the decade, 1958's Atomic Basie, which featured an array of now classic, benchmark arrangements by Neal Hefti--none of which called for a clarinet. To my knowledge, no one ever complained.  
The 1950s also saw an exodus of Big Band alumni, now looking for work and stability, into the ranks of public school teachers. The impact of these musicians on our culture has been profoundly positive. If the Big Band has been preserved, it has been largely through High School educators and their college counterparts since the 1950s. Unfortunately, though, the need for a large number of simple, educational arrangements and methods coincided with a trend away from clarinets in the jazz band. The vast resources of jazz educational literature that have developed since then have tended to neglect instruments that weren't fashionable during the 1950s. That means that if a student plays clarinet or banjo (both of which are musically essential and culturally important to early jazz), he or she is generally asked to switch to saxophone or guitar. 
Ordinarily, this is no big deal. Most 12 year olds who want to play jazz aren't in love with a certain instrument, and just want to be in the band. But there are important exceptions.
Imagine a girl who has a natural coloratura soprano voice, trying out for the school musical, only to be told she has to sing mezzo--because those are the only roles they intend to do. Or imagine a boy who can sing countertenor told he has to be a Heldentenor. In such situations, you'd hope the music director would have the sense to use the talent they have, rather than slotting people into roles that go against their natural abilities.
Instrumental music is not quite so dependent upon natural endowment as these: it is true that a kid can generally hold an alto as well as they can hold a clarinet. Still there are natural traits, and even basic attractions to an instrument, that ought not be ignored. It's relatively rare for a kid to be able to play easily over "the break" early on, or cover the open holes of a clarinet deftly, or reach into the altissimo without instruction. I was like this, and therefore could have been one of those kids put in a bind wanting to play jazz. Which brings me to the personal part of this response.
The question of doubling came at around the same age for me. By 13, I had been casually transcribing jazz for a few years (though I wouldn't have known the word for it--I just copied recordings for fun), I had learned to improvise some basic blues, and was reaching into the altissimo as a regular feature of my improvisations. When the question of whether or not I should switch to saxophone to follow my love of jazz came up (this was in the mid-1980s), I was fortunate to have asked the question in the company of  some old New York veterans of the Big Bands, and a unique trumpet maker named Jerome Callet.
Callet, who has a specialty of teaching altissimo trumpet, put it best when he heard me play at age 13 and said "He has a natural sound on the clarinet: don't ruin that. Let him develop his voice." This concept of personal voice and distinctive sound is unfortunately growing less common, and I fear that if we lose it, as a society we're going to opt even more for a utilitarian approach to music rather than something that enhances basic human dignity. While this might sound very heady, the old jazz musicians I spent time with as a kid felt exactly this way, and often expressed it in similar terms--they saw voice and sound development as spiritually and culturally important. Rather than becoming cogs in a wheel (as classical orchestras have too often turned into), the jazz community was supposed to be a bastion for respecting and encouraging the unique and personal.     
Fortunately, my High School Band director agreed with these assessments--he was one of those enlightened jazz musicians too--and while our school didn't have a jazz band, he comped for me daily during Study Hall, featuring me during Concert Band concerts. He also lobbied at the County Band level, suggesting to those who ran the auditions that I might perform as a "featured soloist" if there were no charts with clarinet. I continued this approach at music camps, and was never turned down.
It has been my experience that jazz band directors are among the more open minded people in this world; usually quite enthusiastic about what they do. Jazz is a medium that prizes originality, risk-taking, creativity, and non-conformism--it's one of the few paths in our education system that actually encourages many of these qualities.  If a kid really wants to play jazz clarinet, or tuba, or flute, unless you're dealing with one of the very worst personalities in the music education business (and if so, I haven't met them yet), chances are they're going to reward that enthusiasm and determination with a chance.
My advice: If you're a kid who is addicted to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw; if you're wailing the blues on the clarinet and feel great doing it; don't feel you need to switch to sax. When all is said and done, there probably will come a time when you play sax (even Benny and Artie did--and so have I), but if you really feel the clarinet is your thing, let your band director know. Tell him or her about the recordings you're into, and how much they mean to you. Suggest that you might read out of a trumpet or tenor sax book, if it's a question of method materials. Show that you're willing to be flexible. Chances are your band director will be impressed and want to encourage such enthusiasm.  
If it doesn't work out, and you have a very rare closed minded teacher to deal with, well, then  you have to look at your options again. Playing sax can be an extremely valuable experience, and even help your clarinet playing, so there is certainly more than one way of looking at this. But for me, a decisive moment happened when I asked this very question: it was a moment when a bunch of enlightened jazz musicians heard me and said my "voice" was important and worth something. A kid doesn't forget that lesson any time soon, believe me.
Best of luck to your son, M.C. Keep swinging, and please let us know how it turns out.