In a JazzTimes article originating in 1997, but updated only a few weeks ago, thirteen critics were invited to sound off on which among the jazz greats were overrated and which were more underappreciated. Of note were the absence of clarinetists in the overrated category, but several clarinet greats mentioned as deserving wider acclaim.
Writing of the great Pete Fountain, who was still active as of the original 1997 publication, Doug Ramsey said:
"He underrates himself. His ear for harmony and mastery of time are among the best-kept secrets in jazz because all these years he has chosen to stick with the repertoire and sidemen that make him comfortable. I’d like to kidnap Fountain and lock him in a recording studio with Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Victor Lewis. He would surprise himself."
Then came Neil Tesser, writing of Buddy DeFranco:
"Probably because he came along just as the clarinet was fading as a jazz staple, DeFranco gets overlooked when the discussion turns to either (a) his instrument or (b) his metier, bebop—an idiom not known for producing great clarinet players. But he just might be the finest improvising clarinetist in jazz history, blessed with great harmonic knowledge, technical wizardry, and a meaty and expressive tone."Jack Sohmer added praise of Albert Nicholas...
"A paragon of the Creole style of clarinet playing, Nicholas worked and recorded with King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Luis Russell from the mid-1920s through the ’30s. His crystalline tone, impeccable technique, and command of the blues finally came to widespread attention during the New Orleans revival movement of the mid-’40s. Had he not spent his last 20 years in Europe, where he was almost as famous as Sidney Bechet, he would undoubtedly have been better known in America."
...and Pee Wee Russell:
"A genius to those who value originality, Russell had always been a controversial clarinetist. He was uniformly respected by Louis, Bix, Teagarden, Freeman and the Condon gang, but he was also derided by others who failed to understand his obstinate nonconformity. His highly personal sound, replete with growling rasps and wistful mutterings, coupled with his advanced harmonic sense and angular phrasing, combined to form a style unique in jazz history."
It's great to see these great clarinetists get some attention. Let's hope the reevaluation of jazz history continues in this century, giving more weight to the practitioners of this great jazz instrument!