It is hard to believe now, but three quarters of a century ago the functional equivalent of the superstars of rock guitar were–clarinet players. Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman were the Hendrix, Clapton and Allman of their day, and young boys eagerly subjected themselves to clarinet lessons in the hope of someday serenading swooning bobby soxers standing at the edge of a bandstand.
The white stars of swing clarinet were preceded by an earlier generation of African-American clarinetists whose contributions to the development of the instrument are now largely forgotten when the so-called “Big Band” era that made wealthy men of Goodman and other later greats is discussed.
Johnny Dodds, born in 1892 in New Orleans, was the first. He is heard on the Louis Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven records and, while not quite a soloist of Armstrong’s calibre (who is?), his unadorned melodic inventions and strong tone in both upper and lower registers created a mold for profitable use by those who would take up the instrument after him.
Next came Sidney Bechet, born in 1897 in New Orleans, a protean figure whose forceful sound and apparently inexhaustible store of musical ideas made him the first jazz soloist (beating Armstrong by a few months) to be noted as such. He was such a powerful influence that practitioners of other instruments–notably Johnny Hodges on alto sax–used him as their model.
Known for his powerful vibrato (which annoyed as many as it attracted), Bechet made his recording debut with Clarence Williams in 1923, played occasionally with Armstrong, and joined an early edition of Duke Ellington’s orchestra. For the most part, however, his ego was too big to share the stage with other soloists, and he lived the life of a jazz maverick, traveling in Europe and missing out on the swing boom of the 30’s until 1938, when his recording of Gershwin’s “Summertime” was a hit for Hugues Panassie, leading to a contract with RCA’s Bluebird label.
Bechet was two years younger than Jimmy Noone, another New Orleans native, but he instructed his elder, who rebelled against his instructor’s teachings at least as far as vibrato was concerned, developing a smooth tone that was adopted by the white players of the swing era.
Noone moved to Chicago in 1917 and worked there steadily through the 1930s, first with Freddie Keppard’s Creole Band, then King Oliver, then Doc Cook’s Dreamland Orchestra.
Noone began to lead a band in 1928 at the Apex Club that featured Earl Hines, and together they recorded for Vocalion, including an early version of ”Sweet Lorraine” (which became Noone’s theme song) and “Four or Five Times,” a genial but ribald number on which the vocally-challenged Noone duets with Hines to amusing effect. “Four or five times,” they sing, “there’s delight, to doing things right, four or five times.” Contrast that with the sappy and sentimental “Three Times a Lady” recorded by Lionel Richie, and you will agree that not all modern developments represent progress.
Con Chapman’s biography of Johnny Hodges, “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges,” is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.