The Clarinet and Jazz

It is no accident that New Orleans is widely credited with being the birthplace of jazz. Over half a million African slaves were living in America by the early nineteenth century and New Orleans was one of the few places where slaves were allowed to own drums and where black musical ritual was openly tolerated – in fact it was enjoyed by black and white communities alike. This New Orleans crucible was the ideal environment for African and European musical traditions to come together, react and evolve into a new music, namely jazz.

Jazz’s evolution didn’t happen overnight of course. Many in the white community thought their European classical music socially superior to any of the native music styles in America. Pieces such as Edward MacDowell’s classic To a Wild Rose from his Woodland Sketches of 1896 were designed to be played in the front parlours and concert halls of the white community and were typically based on the European Romantic traditions of Grieg and Schumann.

Nineteenth century American classical composers would be expected to have studied in Europe, although the father of the American parlour song, Stephen Foster, was one of the first to break the mould, training in Pittsburgh. In the 1890s the Czech composer, Antonin Dvorák, was enticed to New York. His remit was to set up an American music conservatory and an American style of musical composition. Like MacDowell, Dvorák was entranced by Native American Indian harmonies, but when he introduced Indian and African inflexions into works such as the New World Symphony, and the Sonatina for Violin and Piano there was disapprobation in some quarters.

By contrast, African-American music was workers’ music, heard and played on the streets and in dance halls for festivals and funerals.  New Orleans clarinettist, Sidney Bechet, was the grandson of a slave who had been given special status because of his musical abilities.  He would beat out the rhythms on drums in the public square where all the slaves met on Sundays. His music was a celebration but also a way of remembering Africa, of remembering how a member of one tribe would signal to another beating the drums for a feast.

Legendary trumpeter, Louis Armstrong (born 1901), came from the poorest of New Orleans backgrounds and would supplement the meagre income from his day job shovelling coal by playing the cornet at funerals. He describes in his autobiography how his band would play a straight march as the funeral cortège processed into the church and as soon as the coffin was laid in its grave there would be a big drum roll signalling to the band to strike up a ragtime march which required swinging the rhythm for the dancing; in effect the evolution of jazz in paradigm. Whereas the European rhythmic tradition was built on equal pulse divisions ideal for regular marching, the African tradition used rhythms which crossed the pulse and which were born of the poly rhythms created when different musical ideas play simultaneously. These syncopated beats inject a lilt or a swing into music because they anticipate the pulse and make the listener want to dance. Scott Joplin’s great achievement was to marry the two traditions; an African-American from Texas, he nevertheless had a classical training on that most European of instruments, the piano, and therefore played classical rhythms with an African sensibility. His big hit, The Entertainer (1902), was a classic American parlour piece underpinned by the typical African Tresillo syncopated rhythm which was to become the basis of all jazz.

Another arena for cross fertilisation between musical traditions was the cakewalk, a kind of dancing competition held in the black community where couples were gradually eliminated until one winning couple was deemed to have superior grace and poise and was awarded a cake – a kind of Strictly Come Dancing of its day. On these occasions the slaves mimicked and played around with minuets and formal dances and waltzes they had heard at their masters’ balls. They “ragged them up” (literally made the rhythms ragged).  Combined with exaggerated dance moves, cakewalks were intended to poke fun at white people’s music and customs as Debussy slyly implies in the cheeky and exaggerated accents of his Golliwog’s Cakewalk of 1908.

New Orleans was uniquely placed to benefit from one other cultural influence crucial to jazz – Hispanic dance. Because of New Orleans’ location on the Gulf of Mexico it was full of migrant workers from Mexico and South America and there was regular passage to and from Cuba. Dances such as the Habanera, Tango and Conga are based on a variant of the Tresillo syncopated rhythm as you can hear in Ravel’s hypnotic Pièce en Forme d’Habanera from 1907. The way too in which beats are anticipated in Tico-Tico no Fuba, the Brazilian popular dance by Zequinha de Abreu, gives the music forward propulsion which anticipates the irresistible rhythmic drive of Swing. Jelly Roll Morton, one of the earliest practitioners of jazz called this element the “Spanish Tinge” without which music could not be called jazz.

For the harmonies, as opposed to the rhythms, of jazz we need to look to the vocal tradition amongst the African slave community, particularly the call and response patterns they used to keep them going at their strenuous work in the plantations. Many of the so called blue notes in jazz harmony come from pentatonic and modal scales originally from the African homeland. Religious rituals from Africa were banned and African-Americans were encouraged to attend Christian churches. Gradually with exposure to European chordalstructure their harmonies evolved to form the set chord progression of the blues.

Nobody better understood the emotional truth of the blues than clarinettist Sidney Bechet, who talks of black vocal music expressing “a crying inside itself”. In his autobiography he describes the music as a prayer: “the blues, they got that sob inside .. so much remembering .. so many bad things to remember, so many losses.” A spiritual like Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child had the power to take the slaves back home in their mind’s eyes. Part of a slave was always back in Africa: ” .. listening to someone from a distance .. hearing something that was a kind of promise.” Bechet’s hit single Petite Fleur is full of this sense of sadness; part of the reason he settled in France later in life was to be closer to Africa.

Bechet pinpoints the liberation of slaves as the flash point where jazz exploded into being. Once Emancipation came, the way for the black community to celebrate this momentous bursting out of shackles was through music; native music erupted into a spontaneous celebration, a joyous expression of freedom with a bit of everything in it. People would walk down the street and join in with one band, whilst another band played on the other side of the street and yet another marched past. The prevailing band was the one that kept its audience in thrall. Bechet remembers liberation being a turning point: “that music, it wasn’t spirituals or blues or ragtime, but everything all at once, each one putting something over on the other.  That one day the music progressed to the point where it is today.”

Soon practitioners such as “King” Joe Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong would travel north with their music and even make recordings to propagate their style of music making. Buddy Bolden is largely credited with starting the first jazz band but he didn’t make recordings because it would have detracted from the improvisatory nature of his art by setting it in stone. In fact the first official jazz recording was made by a white band, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band ‘Livery Stable Blues’ in 1917 sparking off a global jazz craze.  After this it wasn’t long before different styles of jazz soon took off in different areas of the US and Europe.

Chicago became a centre for jazz and its leading lights were members of the white and Jewish communities such as Bix Beiderbecke who came from a German immigrant family and the legendary clarinet genius Benny Goodman who was of Polish/Russian Jewish descent. Born in 1909, Benny Goodman was the 9th of 12 children. His father was a factory worker and the family often didn’t have enough to eat but with the help from the local Jewish synagogue Benny received some classical training and by the age of 13 he was earning a living from music. His clarinet playing shows the hallmarks of a great Jewish Klezmer player with its fast vibrato and the bending of significant notes but it is his sense of rhythm that marks out his art as the epitome of jazz. Goodman also had a keen business sense; he took jazz and rebranded it “Swing” thus ensuring its appeal to the white community, some of whom regarded jazz as purely for black people. In addition, he formed the first big band to have a big success playing live on radio; their sound was strong enough to cut through even in a large hotel ballroom. A big band necessitated the employment of skilful arrangers and Benny’s musicians needed some formal training to be able to read music as well as to let rip in solo improvisatory spots. His small group jazz is indeed almost like classical chamber music and even a favourite Goodman solo vehicle like Eddie Sauter’s Clarinet à La King has many qualities of a classical rondo with its repeated theme interspersed by music of different moods. However the rhythmic drive and sections of fast improvisation, even in a track that might normally have been treated as nostalgic such as Gershwin’s After You’ve Gone, make Goodman’s music principally great jazz dance music. Songs such as China Boy (Boutelje/Winfree) and Sheik of Araby (Snyder) contribute a piquant harmonic flavour to proceedings but it is the propulsive rhythms and sheer speed of his work with Gene Krupa on drums and Teddy Wilson on piano that typify the King of Swing’s brand of jazz.

The other great jazz clarinettist of the era, Artie Shaw, was born in 1910 in New York. A background of poverty and an absent father played their roles in driving Shaw to make his fortune. Eventually he would make millions, be fêted like a Hollywood star and marry and divorce Ava Gardner and Lana Turner amongst many other glamorous women. His jazz style was harmonically sophisticated and he had a fluid approach to the tone production that was exceptional. Such an ability to sing with the clarinet was due to his admiration of singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald but his sharp ear for half tone and quarter tone harmonies was probably more than a little down to his Jewish heritage. A moment of revelation occurred late in life when at his mother’s funeral, an unknown uncle who was a New York rabbi, stood up and sang the Kol Nidre. It was profoundly moving and Shaw realised that although his mother had seemed unmusical, in fact his music stemmed from her Jewish background.

Shaw was also bowled over by recordings of classical music by Stravinsky, Ravel and particularly Debussy with its progressive, sophisticated harmonies. He would listen to L’après midi d’un faune over and over: “changed my ear, changed my entire approach to music” and he even did a version of it with Billie Holiday singing the top line. Shaw’s Concerto for Clarinet nods to classical music in the sophisticated harmonies of the introduction but also plays with boogie-woogie rhythm as well as blues chord sequences. There is more than a hint of klezmer in there too.

Later in the twentieth century classical music would in its turn borrow from jazz. Leonard Bernstein derived his inspiration for Riffs from music played by big bands (a riff is a musical idea to be repeated and improvised on). The third section of his Prelude, Fugue and Riffs written for Woody Hermann in the 1940s, Riffs is a classical piece with a fugue at its heart but one which nevertheless conveys the excitement of improvisation. Bernstein regarded jazz, especially as it evolved into more harmonically advanced territory, as the first truly American serious music, as opposed to music that merely mimicked the European tradition. His hugely popular West Side Story, that American classic of musical theatre, drew deeply on jazz.

Eventually in the late 1940s jazz would go down more chromatic, less main stream pathways. Post Bechet, Goodman and Shaw the clarinet became less of a major feature, losing ground to that louder instrument, the saxophone. However what is without doubt is that the clarinet played a crucial role in that seminal, exhilarating, early twentieth period when the American melting pot was boiling up and mixing together the musics of Africa, Europe, America and the Orient to fashion its own distinct brand of music: jazz.

Emma Johnson

Wednesday 11 March, 7.30pm