Great jazz clarinetists
The clarinet has become a key instruments in jazz. The early marching jazz bands and trad jazz bands included clarinet amongst the brass instruments. The big bands of the Big Band jazz era included clarinet together with saxophones and the more traditional brass instruments. The modern-day Lounge jazz band will often include clarinet together with piano and double bass. Why has the clarinet moved from the music of Mozart through to the Symphony Orchestra and then on to a completely new genre of music that is jazz? The reason could be one of Economics and practicality.
Jazz began it's life in North America incorporating the music of black Americans then blending in the music of European Americans. It began as the music of the poor people comma being used for outdoor events such as parades and funerals. If you're playing Outdoors you need an instrument that is loud, as you haven't got the acoustics of a concert hall to help reflect sound. If you're playing in a marching band then the instruments have to be portable comma although the degree of portability is brought into question with instruments like tubers, sousaphone and bass drums. But nevertheless, one criteria of a marching band instruments is portability and the clarinet is small, held in front of the musician with a good symmetrical position of the arms that makes it easy to walk and play, and a mouthpiece that is large and simple unlike the double reeds of an oboe, which could be very difficult to play whilst marching.
The instrument is also extremely robust being made from hardwood and in the case of some clarinets used in jazz bands, being made of brass or other metal. Indeed the later development of the clarinet into the saxophone uses entirely metal instruments comma and the smallest and highest of the saxophones looks remarkably like a clarinet. And finally and possibly most importantly for the early jazz players, because the instrument could be mass produced in a factory, it was much cheaper than the handcrafted stringed instruments of the day.
Having mentioned stringed instruments, consider trying to make a marching band from the violin viola and cello of a string quartet. Instruments would be relatively expensive, would get damaged if played outside in the rain and would be destroyed if banged or dropped. A Clarinet can tolerate affair a degree of dampness, and also (though a musician would be horrified if I said this), is fairly resilient to knocks and bangs. It's easier to bend the keys of a clarinet back into shape than it is to repair a cracked or holed violin sound box.
Another consideration is that it's really quite difficult to walk and play violin bouncing motion of walking makes the bow bounce from the string. Having said that I remember going to a concert in the Royal Albert Hall in London where youth orchestras from around the UK were performing. I was bowled over by an ensemble of violins and violas who walked onto the stage playing Vivaldi with two lines of musicians walked intricate intertwined movements whilst play. Incredible!
Having said that, I suppose I have played my violin or should it be fiddle was marching. It was many years ago on the seafront in Poole Dorset common were somehow I got roped into the opening of the towns Illuminations at the beginning of this summer holiday season. I remember March along with accordionist and a troupe of dancers following on. It was totally ridiculous but I suppose great fun and as I was a student at the time the money I got paid for doing it was invaluable!
But the main thing against stringed instruments in a marching band is that you just don't make enough noise. Sure enough you have jazz violinists like Stephane Grappelli, but they always use amplification for their instruments in a concert hall are any situation than a small intimate lounge. I remember going to a concert of Stephane Grappelli with his trio in the Usher hall in Edinburgh. It was amazing musicianship and he was playing a very high quality violin, but it was amplified with a set of large speakers on stage. Not exactly suitable for the marching jazz bands of the late 1800s and early 1900s in the Southern states of America.
Although most people think of the clarinet as an orchestral instrument for classical music, with many symphonies having important solo parts, it also appears in many other form of ensemble.
There is, as with many instruments, an extensive repertoire of concertos to be played with Symphony Orchestra. These are moderately popular, but not as generally performed as the major violin, cello and piano concertos. Here are some examples:
Weber - Clarinet Concerto No. 2
This is a major work for clarinet. The second movement of this concerto demonstrates the calming and relaxing quality of the instrument
Copland - Clarinet Concerto
This work displays the great character of the clarinet, ranging from placid and deeply reflective to begin with, then suddenly leaping into acrobatics to end. From the musician’s point of view, Copland’s concerto is so well written for the instrument that it sits beautifully under the fingers.
Finzi - Clarinet Concerto
Finzi, an English composer known mostly to the musical connoisseurs, wrote mostly for the human voice. Here though, he somehow Finzi manages to bend the pastoral with the highly flamboyant, and consequently it’s a concerto that defies categorisation.
Mozart's Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581
This is the work referred to earlier in the year musings, which sounds fantastic played on a period instrument that which I personally find quite unpleasant when played on a modern clarinet.
Then, as with the violin and cello, there are a whole range of sonatas comma such as these:
Brahms - Clarinet Sonata No. 2 in E flat
That opening melody is captivation. Brahms was writing in the romantic period where melody was important, and fortunately for clarinetists everywhere he kept one of his very best for this clarinet sonata
Bernstein - Sonata for Clarinet and Piano
This is not the Bernstein of the musicals, this music is angular, dark and strange: this is Leonard Bernstein at his most extreme. The melodies are definitely in there, but you have to winkle them out, and use all your musical intuition to turn them into something attractive. And if you can do that it is an amazing work
Mozart's Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, K. 581
This is the wonderful clarinet quintet that I referred to earlier in my musings, which sounds fantastic when played with a period clarinet but which I personally find becomes annoyingly unbalanced against the string quartet when played on a modern instrument.
There is also a huge repertoire for woodwind ensembles of varying sizes containing a whole variety of woodwind and brass instrument along with the clarinet. Here are some examples of ensembles on our website full stop The music isn't everybody's cup of tea, often sounding harsh to the ears of the string player who is used to the gentler tones of the string quartet and the stringed instruments with their great range of harmonic colouring. But it can be spectacular music with a selection of instruments that have such power and precision.