The Bass Clarinet in Jazz: The Low End Theory

A look at the instrument's history and some of its masters

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Eric Dolphy (left) and Kenny Dorham, March 1964
By Francis Wolff
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Bennie Maupin
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Sha and Nik Bartsch, Photo courtesy of ECM Records

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Without fanfare, the bass clarinet projects one of the most alluring timbres in all of jazz—a warm, woody, atmospheric sound that acts as a secret ingredient on many classic recordings and gives woodwind soloists a softer alternative to the saxophone. Here, Geoffrey Himes relates the instrument’s history and talks to some of its masters.

James Carter still remembers the first time he heard the bass clarinet. It was in 1982, when a Detroit neighbor loaned the 13-year-old an Eric Dolphy album that included an iconic unaccompanied performance. “For me, hearing Dolphy play the bass clarinet on ‘God Bless the Child,’” Carter says, “was as potent as hearing Coleman Hawkins play the tenor saxophone on ‘Body and Soul.’”

Carter was struck not only by the bass clarinet’s low, rich tones, capable of a guttural growl or a tender murmur, but also, when he found the instrument in a school band room, by the instrument’s odd look. With history extending back to the 18th century, it resembles a science experiment gone wrong, as if someone tried to cross an armadillo with a snake. More than three feet long, its long central core is an extended version of the standard clarinet—a black tube with silver keys—but with a silver, swan’s-neck mouthpiece at the top and an upturned silver cup at the bottom. Because its bore is a wooden cylinder rather than a metallic cone, it produces a warmer, more resonant but quieter sound than the baritone saxophone, and it boasts a range that covers an additional octave.

Carter has included at least one bass clarinet track on almost every album he’s released, but he’s hardly the only one affected by such an encounter. Just as Hawkins’ 1939 solo launched hundreds of tenor sax careers, Dolphy’s 1961 solo has launched, well, not hundreds but dozens of bass clarinet careers. These days there seem to be more and more of those unlikely musicians every time you turn around. Among the noted players picking up the instrument are Don Byron, Louis Sclavis, Marty Ehrlich, Mark Turner and Chris Potter. When David Murray got rid of all his instruments but two, one of the horns he kept was the bass clarinet.

“I threw my flute away years ago,” Murray explains. “I wasn’t really good at it. I still have a soprano saxophone, but every time I practice on it my wife and kids stick their fingers in their ears. I decided I would only play the tenor saxophone and the bass clarinet. I got into the sound of the ebony, making that sound what it should be with breath and wood. People respond to it because it’s the opposite of electronic music. It’s so organic; it’s like playing a big bamboo flute, like taking a big tree and playing it. Whatever the oboe has, that hypnotic effect, the bass clarinet has too.”

Bennie Maupin made the low-register woodwind a key component of two classic fusion albums, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters. On both records, Maupin’s long, skinny horn flitted through the music like a mysterious shadow below the higher-register horns, mixing it up with the bass and tom-toms but with the vocal-like quality of a woodwind.

“Herbie was interested in group improvisation that encouraged an exploration of colors,” Maupin says. “To move through the music in that more emotional way, you have to play more than the notes; you have to play the feeling of the notes and the rawness of the sounds. That enables you to create nuances that audiences haven’t heard before. The bass clarinet is perfect for that; it’s a soft instrument but with a lot of warmth. The lower frequencies draw listeners in, so when you go up in register to play more chaotic passages, they’ll stay with you.”

Byron and Sclavis are modernists who use the regular clarinet—also referred to as the soprano, B-flat or straight clarinet—as their primary instrument but also often turn to the bass version. Potter, Turner, Ken Vandermark, Courtney Pine, Scott Robinson, John Surman, Walter Smith III, John Dierker and Gebhard Ullmann are saxophonists who double on bass clarinet. Dolphy, Ehrlich, J.D. Parran, Donald Garrett, Ken McIntyre, Doug Yates, Greg Tardy and Ben Goldberg have made the bass clarinet—and other members of its extended family—an important part of avant-garde classics by Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, Andrew Hill and Anthony Davis. Braxton himself plays a lot of bass clarinet.

“After Coltrane,” says Parran, “there was more interest in different cultures and that coincided with an interest in different instruments. The breakthrough came from the Art Ensemble of Chicago. When you saw their setup, you saw multi-instrumentalism gone ape, but it was well rehearsed, well conceived and well executed. Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell both played bass clarinet, but they also tried to play as much percussion as Malachi Favors. It was almost like a sound machine, but it always sounded like individuals doing it.”

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Originally published in June 2013

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