Eddie Daniels: The Accidental Clarinetist

EddieDaniels_ResonanceStudio_3

Eddie Daniels (Photo courtesy of Resonance Records)

On a Monday night in the spring of 1967, a brilliant young woodwind player was on the bandstand at the Village Vanguard when he was struck with the sudden inspiration to take a solo on clarinet—even though he was expected to play tenor saxophone. The soloist was Eddie Daniels and the ensemble was the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, in the early days of its residency at the legendary New York jazz club.

Daniels remembers, “It was a very fast tune, ‘[The] Little Pixie.’ Each of us in the sax section—Joe Farrell, then Jerry Dodgion, then Jerome Richardson, and then me—had to solo for one chorus of rhythm changes. I totally surprised everyone, including myself, because it was [recorded] live. Later on, Mel told me that Thad had said to him, ‘What the hell did he do that for?’ But then, he loved the solo.”

The critics at DownBeat were also taken with the solo, giving Daniels the New Star on Clarinet award in 1968 solely on the strength of those 32 bars of exuberant inside-outside lines, as memorialized on the 1967 Thad Jones/Mel Lewis album Live at the Village Vanguard. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that Daniels shifted his focus almost entirely to the clarinet, where it has since remained.

At 76, Daniels isn’t just one of the great jazz clarinetists but also a classical virtuoso, celebrated as much for his astonishing technique as for the expressiveness of his playing in both worlds. A first-rate sideman in a variety of genres, he’s worked with Freddie Hubbard, Billy Joel, and Bucky Pizzarelli, among many others. He’s had classical works written for him—Daniel Schnyder’s MATRIX 21, a concerto for clarinet and orchestra, for instance—and some of his own compositions appear on his long string of albums as a leader. Daniels’ most recent album, Heart of Brazil: A Tribute to Egberto Gismonti (Resonance), reflects his longstanding love of Brazilian music.

Last June, Daniels was in San Francisco, where he was playing an SF Jazz tribute concert to Benny Goodman with Anat Cohen—the young Israeli-American clarinet phenomenon who’s clearly influenced by Daniels—and Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. When I visited Daniels at his hotel the morning of the concert to chat about his long career in music, he seemed warm and vigorous, a young septuagenarian. “So you want to know where I come from and where I am?” he said, settling into a chair.

Daniels grew up in a nurturing home in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. He started on his father’s old alto saxophone at age nine and had plenty of expert help in his formative years. “I wouldn’t be the musician I am today if I hadn’t had parents that supported me having the best teachers,” he said. “I had a Jewish mother who said I had to be the best, so I might as well have the best teachers. My parents paid $10 per lesson back then [nearly $100, adjusted for inflation], which seemed expensive.”

Among his first teachers was Aaron Sachs, a saxophonist and clarinetist who had been a protégé of Benny Goodman, and who was briefly married to the singer Helen Merrill. Daniels first encountered Sachs when he was 10, on a family vacation in the Catskills. “I’m hearing this guy in the band playing alto that sounded so cool. It was basically dance music, with very little improvisation, but it was just like, ‘Oh God, I gotta learn how to do this.’ My parents asked him if he could teach me, and I got a couple lessons from him when we came back [to Brooklyn].”

Daniels began playing clarinet at 13, not so much because he was drawn to the instrument but because woodwind teachers encouraged their students to play multiple instruments, in the interest of becoming competitive as professional musicians. “Eventually you’d be in a big band, and you would have to play the clarinet parts. And you’d also have to play the flute,” he added, explaining that he spent a good period in the woodshed with each of these instruments.

After graduating from middle school, Daniels continued his studies at the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan, eventually receiving his master’s degree in clarinet performance from Juilliard. “Along the way I studied with top players like Daniel Bonade and Jimmy Abato,” Daniels said. “And I’m going to answer a question you didn’t ask, which is: How come I mix classical and jazz? And I just thought of it. It’s because there I was, with the best teachers pushing me to have good technique and to study classical music.”

At the same time, Daniels had a deep interest in jazz, stemming from an early fascination with the saxophone lines on Frank Sinatra records, but since there were so few jazz curricula in the 1950s, he learned the language outside of school. “I never studied jazz formally,” he said, “but instead picked it up from my friends, guys I grew up with: Herb Mickman, who was a fabulous bass player and piano player, [pianist] Howie Danziger, and others.”

The mid-1960s was a fertile period, to say the least, for Daniels. Thanks to his doubling skills, he worked in Broadway pit bands and started playing jazz professionally. For his first jazz gig, in 1965, he was on tenor saxophone in an ensemble led by the clarinetist Tony Scott, at the Half Note in lower Manhattan. Thad Jones and Mel Lewis came in to check out the band one night, and a week later Daniels got a fateful phone call. “It was Mel,” Daniels said. “He just says, ‘We want you to join our band.’ How lucky can you get?”

That same year, Daniels took a risk when he shelled out $400 (more than $3,000 today) of his own money to travel to Vienna, Austria, to participate in the International Competition for Modern Jazz. “It was pretty intense,” Daniels remembered. “I was thrown in with all these serious young players like Michael Brecker and Jiggs Whigham, being judged by J. J. Johnson, Cannonball, Joe Zawinul, Ron Carter…”

Daniels easily came in first on tenor saxophone, an honor he would reference in the title of his first album as a leader, 1966’s First Prize!, on which he played both saxophone and clarinet. Back in New York, he worked every Monday at the Village Vanguard with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, and this demanding setting took his musicianship to new levels. “Just being in the presence of great players changes you,” Daniels said. “Whoever you’re around affects you. You have a president who’s a wacko, he affects you. You have a president who has a decency about him, he affects you. I won’t say which is which.”

After six years with Jones and Lewis, playing both in New York and on European tours, Daniels realized that he needed a change of setting. He said, “I liked playing ensemble parts, because Thad wrote great ensemble parts, but I didn’t necessarily want to be in a big band as a player. I wanted to solo more. So I thought of having my own quartet, so that I could play more solos, and that ended up happening. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.”

Daniels made a handful of albums as a leader in the ’60s and ’70s. He was playing clarinet all but exclusively by the time he recorded 1986’s aptly named Breakthrough—an album of Bach (J.S. and C.P.E.) transcriptions and pop-jazz tunes, along with Jorge Calandrelli’s Concerto for Jazz Clarinet and Orchestra—which displays his breathtaking technical facility as well as the jazz-and-classical duality he’s long explored. In the three decades since, he’s recorded regularly under his own name, primarily on clarinet.

Heart of Brazil was something of a challenge for Daniels. When his producer, George Klabin, presented him with a set of 1970s and ’80s Egberto Gismonti tunes for consideration, he wasn’t sure how he’d translate them to the clarinet. “Most of what I heard were vocals, baritone and tenor, singing in Portuguese, in such a beautiful and earthy way. And some of it was complicated music—especially ‘Baião Malandro,’ a very fast thing in a hard key [D-flat]. And I thought, How am I gonna do this?”

So I asked Daniels how he did it—and how he consistently seems to pull off the impossible on his instrument. He paused, eyeing a reed on an end table next to his chair. Then he said, “Malcolm Gladwell said that the minimum amount of time it takes to master anything is 10,000 hours. I’ve definitely put in many thousands of hours more than that. And anyone can do what I do. Anyone, if they’re willing to put in the time.”

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