My Love Affair With the Clarinet

During the so-called Great Depression, aware of my immersion in music, my father bought a small soprano saxophone for me in a pawnshop when I was 10. When I heard Sidney Bechet, I put it away in despair. I turned to the clarinet, starting a lifelong love affair. My model wasn’t Benny Goodman; he had the chops but was deficient in soul. Artie Shaw had both, but for deep, warm waves of sound, there was Irving Fazola (of the Bob Crosby Bob Cats), whom hardly anyone mentions anymore.

For astonishing inventiveness—a surprise in every note and many cliffhangers—there was Pee Wee Russell. Years later, when I recorded him for Candid with Coleman Hawkins, a rejuvenation of their 1929 session, Hawkins told me, “Back then, they said he played ‘funny notes.’ They were not then, and they aren’t now.”

But the clarinetist I listened to for pure, lyrical intimacy was Lester Young—on the very few recordings he made on the instrument, notably the Kansas City Six date. Singularly, he used a metal clarinet, as I did, the only kind my father could afford.

And after reading Charles Edward Smith on New Orleans legends, I reveled in the parade of New Orleans clarinetists, among them Barney Bigard, Jimmy Noone, Albert Nicholas, George Lewis, Omer Simeon and Edmond Hall. I long yearned to play the glorious clarinet solo on “High Society,” but by then, knowing I didn’t have the gift to be a musician, I had laid down my horn.

Since the ascent of Bird and Dizzy, I rarely saw the clarinet in the frontline, but there were still players who made the instrument sing. Tony Scott had a passion for life and its surprises that continually fired his music. And Kenny Davern personified the joy of jazz. I heard him years ago at a New Year’s Eve party, and never again has the New Year seemed as inviting as it was that night. Kenny hated having microphones in front of him. He didn’t need them. His spirit filled the room.

With Tony and Kenny gone, while there are quite a few accomplished jazz clarinetists, none quickened my own spirit the way my personal hall-of-famers had. That is until I opened a new package from Arbors Records, owned by Mat Domber, who, like Norman Granz, only records music that makes him feel good. The Arbors recording that lifted me from my day job chronicling genocides in Darfur and in the Constitution here at home was Delta Bound, by 38-year-old Evan Christopher.

Christopher, both a master and scholar of New Orleans clarinet, exemplifies what Ben Ratliff writes in his valuable new book, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): “Structural newness, genre newness, is not necessarily what we are looking for. What we want is the musician’s individual expression: honor the past while being yourself. If a genuinely individual expression comes inside a familiar-sounding package, that shouldn’t reduce its value.”

Before going into the odyssey of this clarinetist with such deep roots and so personal a sound and story, I cannot resist sharing a dimension of John Coltrane from Ratliff’s book that may intrigue you as much as it did me.

I thought I knew John pretty well, but Ratliff tells of when composer and French horn player David Amram first met Coltrane, who suddenly asked him, “What do you think of Einstein’s theory of relativity?”

Amram, as I would have, drew a blank. Coltrane, always generously willing to reveal what he knew, told, as Amram recalled, “about the symmetry of the solar system, talking about black holes in space, and constellations, and the whole structure of the solar system.” Adding that Einstein had explained all of this simply (at least to Coltrane), John said that “he was trying to do something like that in music—something that came from natural sources, the traditions of blues and jazz. But that there was a wholly different way of looking at what was natural in music.”

There are many ways of looking at what’s natural in music, and in the notes for Delta Bound, Tulane University’s Dr. Bruce Boyd Raeburn, son of Boyd Raeburn, leader of an orchestra through which he showed highly adventurous new ways of jazz, wrote of Evan Christopher: “He understands that it’s not in the notes but the feeling behind them—and the human connections that result—that matter most in New Orleans jazz. … He places himself within this tradition, and it’s appropriate that he should do so, because he is advancing it at a time when some might assume that it is already extinct.”

In the next Final Chorus, I’ll discuss how Christopher, a young clarinetist in Long Beach, Calif., won the Louis Armstrong National Award while still in high school; traveled to New Orleans; was one of New Orleans Magazine’s Jazz All-Stars in 2002; and has a schedule that includes jazz festivals and other gigs in Israel, Italy, Switzerland, France, California and with the Sidney Bechet Society in New York.

I will also explore Christopher’s extraordinarily illuminating historical study, Licorice Stick Gumbo: The New Orleans Clarinet Style.

He began his research by digging into the extensive oral history collections at Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive, of which Dr. Bruce Boyd Raeburn is curator. “Seeking out the interviews with New Orleans clarinetists, I traveled back in time, ‘took lessons’ with musical ghosts.”

Now, as the extent and diversity of Evan Christopher’s venues indicate, he is not channeling those “ghosts,” but rather, in his own deeply personal appreciation of these forebears, he is indeed demonstrating that this New Orleans tradition is still very much alive.

Originally published in January/February 2008

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