In this article we’re going to take you through 10 of the great jazz clarinet players of all time, covering a century of music. We’ll look at the very earliest pioneers of the instrument, as well as some of the musicians who established it as a niche but highly influential sound in modern jazz.
The clarinet played an important role in jazz’s early development.
The trumpet may have been the real star of the show, but 1920s pioneers like Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Bix Biederbecke all included clarinetists in their bands.
In the swing era of the 1930s and 1940s some of the most famous bandleaders played clarinet, but by the start of the bebop era it had been replaced by the saxophone as the reed instrument of choice in jazz.
Still, a select few musicians continued to opt for the warm, woody sound of the clarinet, regardless of fashion, and the instrument has had a small but notable presence in the worlds of bebop, avant garde, big band jazz and more contemporary styles.
In this article we’ll trace the history of the clarinet in jazz by taking a look at ten great players, with a recommended recording for each one.
Bechet hailed from New Orleans, and was one of the first major soloists in jazz, along with Louis Armstrong.
In fact, he made his recording debut in 1923, a few months before Armstrong.
He moved to Chicago, then New York before basing himself in Paris from the late 1940s onwards, where he found real acclaim and was treated as a national hero.
His highly dramatic style is characterised by a huge sound, use of a wide vibrato and virtuosic arpeggiated runs.
Even prior to his move to France he toured in Europe frequently, and it was in London that he discovered the soprano saxophone.
In fact, Bechet is perhaps best known as a soprano player now, but his clarinet work remains highly influential.
Duke Ellington was a great admirer of Bechet, and the two men worked together in the mid-1920s. Ellington’s long-time lead alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges was a major Bechet disciple.
A famously fiery character, he was imprisoned for a year in Paris, later claiming in his autobiography that he had accidentally shot a woman instead of his intended target: a musician who had insulted him.
Recommended Sidney Bechet album: Cafe de la Paix
This compilation album includes “Egyptian Fantasy”, which features some awe-inspiring clarinet breaks from Bechet.
Johnny Dodds was born in Mississippi in 1892, before moving to New Orleans during the period that the city was in its prime as the melting pot that birthed jazz.
Remarkably, he did not take up the clarinet until he was 17 years old.
A stint with the Creole Jazz Band, which was led by Louis Armstrong’s mentor and teacher Joe “King” Oliver, took him to Chicago, and it was there that he recorded with two of the most important bands of the 1920s: Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers and Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven.
He solos extensively on the recordings with Armstrong, his wailing high-register clarinet sound contrasting pleasingly with the trumpeter’s punchier approach.
Dodds was one of the most significant clarinetists of the 1920s, and Benny Goodman name-checked him as an influence, claiming that nobody ever surpassed the quality of his tone.
His younger brother was Warren “Baby” Dodds, an influential early jazz drummer who also played with Armstrong.
Recommended Johnny Dodds album: Kind of the Blues Clarinet 1923-1940
This compilation album includes tracks he recorded with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, as well as his own bands like Johnny Dodds and his Chicago Boys.
Known as the “King of Swing”, Benny Goodman was one of the most successful bandleaders of the big band and swing era.
But he was also a virtuoso clarinettist and a mercurial soloist: on “That’s a Plenty” from 1928, aged just 19, Goodman covers the entire range of the instrument with relentless eighth note runs.
And while he might be best known for fronting a large ensemble, 1930s recordings like “After You’ve Gone” showcase a brilliant, forward-thinking jazz small group in his trio with pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Gene Krupa.
Incidentally, by hiring African American musicians like Wilson and guitarist Charlie Christian, he led some of America’s first racially integrated bands.
He tried to embrace the new music of the 1940s by forming a bebop outfit, before soon returning to the swing style that he knew best.
Goodman also held a long-standing interest in classical music, and commissioned works for chamber ensemble and solo clarinet by renowned composers like Béla Bartók, Malcolm Arnold and Francis Poulenc.
Recommended Benny Goodman recording: The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert
This live performance was significant as the first ever concert by a jazz band on the hallowed stage of New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Artie Shaw came to prominence as a bandleader during the swing era.
His big band’s 1938 recording of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”, with Shaw’s sweet clarinet tone at the forefront, made him a huge star, replete with big salaries and high profile celebrity romances (he was married eight times, including to actresses Lana Turner and Ava Gardner).
Other hits during this period included swing era standards like “Stardust”, “Moonglow” and “Frenesi”.
While he was best known for fronting big bands, he also led a series of quintet sessions with a group called his Gramercy Five, which functioned as a kind of a ‘band within a band’ in the context of his larger ensemble.
Rather oddly, these often feature harpsichord in place of piano, and the excellent Roy Eldgridge is in the trumpet chair on some recordings.
His occasional use of a string quartet alongside his big band was innovative at the time, and is considered one of the first examples of what would later be called “Third Stream” music – a fusion of classical and jazz.
An intriguing and famously “difficult” character, Shaw retired from music in 1954, apparently tortured by his own perfectionism.
He wrote three novels and an autobiography, The Trouble with Cinderella.
Recommended Artie Shaw album: The Complete Gramercy Five Sessions
Shaw is best known for his big band work, but the quintet sessions showcase his virtuosic clarinet playing in a more intimate setting.
Pee Wee Russell
Pee Wee Russell began playing during the Dixieland era of the 1920s, but was later acknowledged as one of the first modernists of the post-swing era.
Early on he gigged with major musicians of the ‘20s including Jack Teagarden, Bix Beiderbecke and Frankie Trumbauer, before a move to New York saw him playing with Coleman Hawkins and Eddie Condon during the 1930s.
His extremely personal playing style, with frequently surprising note choices and a rather quirky sound, is uncategorisable, taking in the influence of Dixieland, swing, bebop and even free jazz.
Recommended Pee Wee Russell album: Swingin’ with Pee Wee
Russell is joined by Buck Clayton on the frontline of a great quintet on this 1961 date.
DeFranco began his career just as the swing era was winding down.
The new bebop movement of the 1940s and ‘50s favoured saxophone as the reed instrument of choice, but DeFranco persevered as a clarinettist, and was one of the few musicians to prominently and exclusively play the instrument during the era.
His flashy style made him quite the crowd-pleaser, but there was substance to his work too: he was often highly lyrical, displaying impressive harmonic sophistication.
He sometimes showed modernist tendencies, working with cool jazz pioneer Lennie Tristano and making an early recording of “A Bird in Ivor’s Yard”, which is inspired by both Charlie Parker and Ivor Stravinsky.
Indeed, he has sometimes been dubbed “the Charlie Parker of the clarinet”.
Although most of his recordings were with small bands, he also had big band pedigree: he did a stint with Count Basie’s band in 1950, and in the 1960s and ‘70s he directed the ever-popular Glenn Miller Orchestra.
Key Buddy DeFranco recording: Buddy DeFranco and Oscar Peterson Play George Gershwin
From 1954, this is a highly enjoyable set from two great jazz virtuosos, with lush orchestral settings of classic Gerswhin tunes.
Saxophonists are often expected to be able to ‘double’ on clarinet, especially in big band or more commercial settings.
This, added to the fact that many saxophonists begin lessons as children on the clarinet, which is smaller and lighter than an alto saxophone, means that many players who are principally saxophonists also have at least some proficiency on clarinet.
Art Pepper is a good example: although alto sax was very much his first instrument, he also played impressive swing-to-bop style clarinet on a number of recordings.
Jimmy Giuffre, however, was a true multi-instrumentalist, who switched between clarinet and various saxophones frequently and with ease, seemingly placing equal importance on the various horns.
His 1950s trio with guitarist Jim Hall and double bassist Ralph Peña played intimate, folk-infused chamber jazz – their debut The Jimmy Giuffre 3 (featured in our roundup of the best jazz trio albums of all time) is an excellent mix of jazz standards and Giuffre originals.
Later on he focused more exclusively upon the clarinet in a band with pianist Paul Bley and Steve Swallow, which played a subtle kind of free jazz that was quietly revolutionary.
Recommended Jimmy Giuffre album: Thesis
Thesis barely sold when it was released in 1961, but it was later remastered and re-packaged by the ECM record label and is now acknowledged as a classic that was ahead of its time.
Dolphy is best known as an alto saxophonist, but the avant garde legend also played the flute, clarinet and bass clarinet.
His work on bass clarinet on landmark recordings in the early 1960s was significant in establishing it as a jazz instrument, with bass clarinet now frequently heard in contemporary-style and left-field contexts in particular.
Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane were close friends who shared a forward-thinking approach to jazz, and Dolphy became a member of the tenor saxophonist’s band, playing expressive, gestural solos on alto saxophone and bass clarinet on 1961’s Coltrane “Live” at the Village Vanguard.
Following Dolphy’s tragic death from undiagnosed diabetes in 1964, his mother gave his bass clarinet to Coltrane, who played the instrument on several subsequent recordings.
Recommended Eric Dolphy album: Out To Lunch
Eric Dolphy’s most famous album Out To Lunch features bass clarinet on the first few tracks. He also plays the instrument on Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure, another mid-1960s Blue Note classic.
Daniels has gone on to be recognised as one of the most technically impressive clarinettists of all time, but the Brooklyn native did not intend to specialise on the instrument.
He had taken clarinet and other woodwind lessons from the age of 13, but held the tenor saxophone chair in the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, when one evening, during a live recording, he opted to take a solo on the clarinet instead of the tenor on the spur of the moment.
That was enough to win him the New Star on Clarinet award in DownBeat the following year, although he continued to play both saxophone and clarinet until the 1980s, when he switched his focus to the clarinet alone.
A true virtuoso, he has recorded straight ahead jazz (including his 1967 debut First Prize), a tribute to Brazillian composer Egberto Gismonti, various acclaimed classical albums, a duo set with swing guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, and Street Wind, an album of late-1970s fusion music.
His wide-ranging sideman credits include appearances on albums with Freddie Hubbard, Billy Joel and Arturo Sandoval. As an improviser, he is notable as a clarinettist who has incorporated post-1960s influences into his musical vocabulary.
Recommended Eddie Daniels album: Breakthrough
On this 1986 album Daniels is accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, effortlessly switching between the jazz and classical idioms.
Cohen, of Tel Aviv, comes from one of jazz’s most impressive families. One brother, Avishai, is an acclaimed trumpeter, while Yuval plays the saxophone.
Now based in New York, her impressively broad discography includes two albums with her own ten-piece band, a live duo recording with piano great Fred Hersch, and Notes from the Village, a 2008 quartet record.
Her repertoire spans jazz standards, original compositions inspired by her Middle Eastern heritage, and authentic interpretations of Brazilian choro music.
Ensuring that the tradition of the virtuoso jazz clarinet specialist continues into the 21st Century, she has won the Jazz Journalists’ Association’s Clarinettist of the Year award every year since 2007 and has topped multiple critics and readers polls in Downbeat Magazine, as well as being nominated for multiple Grammy Awards.
Recommended Anat Cohen album: Clarinetwork: Live at the Village Vanguard
Clarinetwork was released in 2010 to celebrate Benny Goodman’s Centenary. This no-nonsense, rip-roaring run through a selection of evergreen standards sees Cohen accompanied by a first-call New York straight ahead rhythm section.
That’s it for now – 10 of the best jazz clarinet players spanning a century of jazz music!
If you’re looking to stay with the clarinet, you might want to check out our run-down of 10 legendary jazz bass clarinet players, the best clarinet reeds guide or sample some of the greatest big band albums of all time.
The label ‘Discover Jazz’ is attached to articles which have been edited and published by Jazzfuel host Matt Fripp, but have been written in collaboration with various different jazz musicians and industry contributors. When appropriate, these musicians are quoted and name-checked inside the article itself!