Clarinet Player facing Right

Clarinet Player facing left

The Rise and Fall of the
Jazz Clarinet: Dixieland to Swing
by OHRiley

The clarinet was the premier woodwind instrument in the developing years of jazz. It was quickly supplanted, and remains so to this day, by the saxophone.  The purpose of this study is gather information about the clarinetists who were key players as the music developed and evolved from the “Dixieland” Quintet to the Big Bands. More precisely, this paper will focus on the key New Orleans clarinetists who were active between 1880 to 1935 in the early and even pre years of jazz./p>

The creation of a database of names, dates, and key places was the initial step in this project.  Following the identification of the players in general, the next step was to reduce the number of players under study to those who are considered to be among the elite or most influential.  The final step in this project was to identify links between these core players.  These links may be geographical, chronological, key teachers, musical influences, and common bands or venues. 

In the final analysis, the guides employed in the more detailed study of prominent clarinet players were links of chronology and major teachers/influences.  This resulting structure of the data resembles that of a tree with each succeeding branch widening; albeit it is not tree that branched often due to the short time, only three generations, that the New Orleans tradition was in vogue.  Keeping this in mind, it also must be mentioned that since many of the players studied and played with more than one teacher or group, the tree structure would be more accurately portrayed as a tree entangled with vines. These vines in turn connect to multiple branches.  The structure might also be visualized as a terminal from which most of the players descend, each in turn becomes a node on the line.  As nodes are added below the initial terminal, each node begins to create links between themselves.

In order to fulfill the initial objective of identifying players a
two-step plan was employed.  These two steps were: 1) electronic and paper searches and 2) reading material about the formative years in jazz.  The electronic search was of The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. This online site,, contains over 3,600 entries concerning jazz from its earliest days to the present.  Through this initial search a pool of 115 players were identified.  This initial search was then supplemented through a search of The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz.  This provided an additional 15 players.  This list of players was then completed through a series of readings (Appendix 2), which uncovered an additional eight players.  Research in the second phase uncovered seven more players. The complete master list of clarinet players, now totals 145 clarinetists. They are listed in Appendix 1.   

After the initial group of clarinetists was compiled it was necessary to winnow this list to the most influential players.  This reduction was accomplished by surveying a group of eleven jazz sources (see Works Cited) in order to find those players who were listed and cited most often.  This core group (Appendix 3) was the initial focus of the final paper for this project.  From the core group, four men emerged as the wellhead of the tradition and, as such, they provided the  “trunk” of our tree. 

The data gathered on the group of 145 players provides some interesting analysis.  For instance, the time frame of “Dixieland” style ensembles can be thought of as beginning circa 1895 (Schuller, 63), starting to move nationwide in 1915 when Tom Brown’s quintet performed in Chicago, with Gus Mueller on clarinet (Sudhalter, 3), through the beginnings of the swing era with Goodman’s concert at the Palomar Ballroom on August 1, 1935 (Feather, 26).  If we analyze the birth dates of our clarinet players, we can see a rise and fall by decade that traces a similar, though offset, pattern.  The graph below groups the player’s birthday by decade.

 #          1860  1870  1880  1890  1900  1910  1920  1930  1940  1950
 of Births.(3)..... (1).....(6)....(15).....(61)...(23)...(22).....(7).....(4)......(1)

One can see that once the swing era starts in earnest the number of clarinet players born who are considered to be noteworthy drops of dramatically.  If we assume that an instrumentalist begins to study at about the age of ten, it is easy to see that those reaching age ten from the 1930’s onward were not inclined to take up the clarinet as a primary instrument.  It should also be noted that it was around 1912-15 that the saxophone was initially introduced to the jazz ensemble, thus beginning the shift that would end with its’ the dominance over the clarinet (Schuller, 67).    

If the list of clarinet players is analyzed by birthplace a pattern emerges that mirrors the growth of jazz from a regional to a nation-wide music.  In the early years of jazz until 1905 twenty-nine out of sixty-five players (45%) were from Louisiana.  After 1905, only nine players out of seventy-nine (11%) were from the state of the Crescent City. Obviously, our proto-typical ten-year old instrumentalists from throughout the nation were beginning to be exposed to and taking a liking to the music from the South. However, it should be noted that overall Louisiana has produced the largest number of clarinetists who have left their mark on the music.  Louisiana has a total of thirty-eight players, far outdistancing New York’s thirteen and Chicago’s eleven.  I am crediting both of the elder Tio’s to Louisiana although they were born in Mexico.  The parents of Papa Tio were originally from New Orleans but moved to Mexico around 1860.  They returned to New Orleans around 1878 (New Grove, entry #628351).  Furthermore, all of those from Illinois were born between 1899 and 1912, which puts them at the right age to be influenced by the Dixieland music the exodus of musicians from New Orleans to Chicago reached its zenith in the early to mid 1920’s (Schuller, 75).  Clarinetists from New York were born slightly later, once again reflecting the spread of this music throughout the nation.

In the initial research on this project I had the good fortune to come across many players of whom I was not aware. The work of these musicians helped to form and spread the music. New Orleans Jazz was the guiding force that transformed a nation’s music.  In the following section of this paper, I hope to establish some of the links between the players that created the synergy that propelled it far beyond the bayous of the delta and ultimately led to it being superceded by the second wave of jazz, the swing craze. 

It must be noted that this paper does not cover many of the men whose names are synonymous with jazz clarinet.  In the popular culture men such as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman were known more for their work in the swing era and the big bands as opposed to the New Orleans brand of jazz.  The purpose of this paper is to look at men that set the foundation for this trio of stars and others. Their absence is due to their slightly later chronology and should not be viewed as minimizing their contributions to the woodwind tradition.

The Players

The original woodwind players in jazz were clarinetists.  These musicians filled a unique niche in the new music from approximately 1890 to the 1920’s.  These players, especially in the early years as the nineteenth century became the twentieth, emerged from the rich bouillabaisse that was New Orleans music. A second “school” of players developed around Chicago as this city discovered the music.

But even as the new music and its musicians were enjoying the new found success the multi-lined horizontal musical vehicle known as Dixieland or New Orleans Jazz of the early days was evolving into the vertically integrated powerhouses of the big bands and the swing era.  The section players would soon replace the individual clarinetist; the saxophone would replace the clarinet.

The lineage of the premier Dixieland clarinetists can be traced back to the second half of the nineteenth century.  Four men, two born just prior to the Civil War, one born during the war and one born just after the war, are among the earliest clarinetist that have been identified as being influential in the development of the music.  Edward Hall Sr. (1860–1933) was a clarinetist in the Onward Brass Band in Reserve, Louisiana, Theogene Baquet (c.1858-c1920) was a clarinetist and the founder of the Excelsior Brass Band, and two brothers, Papa (Luis) Tio (1863-1927) and Lorenzo Tio, Sr. (1866–1902) formed the group within a group from which many clarinetists emerged.

Edward Hall stands at the head of a musical family. He represents the beginning of the Hall clarinet story, as Edward was the father of eight children. Five of his children became musicians, with three of those playing clarinet and the fourth taking up the saxophone. The most prominent of his sons was Edmond Hall (1901–1967).  Edmond began his playing career with local New Orleans groups in 1918.  He remained in New Orleans for the next ten years before moving north to New York City.  Over the years he played with a variety of bands and musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Ruby Braff, Eddie Condon, Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, and Billie Holiday.  He was semi-retired in 1958 but during this “retirement” he went to Ghana to play and teach, toured Europe with Condon and Jimmie McPartland and toured Japan with the Dukes of Dixieland. Hall was a highly regarded clarinetist by his peers and in 1942 when Barney Bigard left the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Hall was offered the chair but turned the position down (New Grove, refer. Hall).  Coincidently, he finally did become a replacement for Bigard in 1955 when Barney left the Louis Armstrong led All-Stars (Feather, 285).  Further evidence of the respect for Hall’s skills is reflected in his being given the Esquire Silver award in 1945.  Edmund Hall is considered by some to be second to only Pee Wee Russell amongst the Dixieland clarinetists.  Edmund’s technical skills were said to be second to none of the original New Orleans' players. On the other hand, Hall saw himself more in the swing school a la Benny Goodman (New Grove, refer. Hall).  This swing attitude can be heard in his work with two of Goodman’s more prominent collaborators, Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson. Hall worked with Hampton in 1939 and Wilson from 1942-44.  With Edmund leading the way, followed by his brother Herbert (1907–96), it is easy to understand how this family of musicians certainly can be considered a as a spring from which much of the early music would flow.

A second prominent family of musicians was the Tio family.  This family, it can be argued, had a more far-reaching effect on the music than did the Hall’s. In the case of the Tio family three players over two generations were involved in the clarinet business.  Two brothers, Luis “Papa” Tio (1863-1927) and Lorenzo Tio, Sr. (1866–1902), stand at the head of this influential group.  Both Papa and Lorenzo received formal training at an early age.  Depending on one’s sources, the Tio’s were of Mexican or Creole ancestry. The brothers were in fact born in Mexico as their parents immigrated there for a brief time (Kirchner, 525). Perhaps some of the confusion results from the fact that the brothers, like many of the Creole musicians, had formal musical training in the “classic” school.  The formal training that some of the early New Orleans musicians received, especially the Creole, is considered by many to be an important factor in the merging of the European and African musical traditions. Both of these men played in the minstrel shows and brass bands of the day.  Papa, being the oldest undoubtedly led the way. In fact, he supplied his younger brother Lorenzo with additional instruction.  Papa and Lorenzo were both members The Excelsior Brass Band and the Lyre Club Symphony Orchestra.

Excelsior Brass Band was formed in 1880 by the oldest of our group of four progenitors - Theogene Baquet.  Baquet was a clarinetist and conductor; he led the Excelsior Brass Band until 1904.  The name of the group is somewhat misleading as the instrumentation included two clarinets in what was a predominantly brass and percussion group.  Baquet has been included in the group of influential early clarinetists not (necessarily) for his efforts with the clarinet but for his work as conductor of the Excelsior.  In addition to the Tio Brothers, other prominent clarinet players from the ranks of the Excelsior include: Alphonse Picou (1878-1961), Louis Cotrell, (1911-1978), George Baquet (1883-1949), Willie Humphrey (1900-1994), and Lorenzo Tio, Jr. (1893-1933).  Gunther Schuller in his groundbreaking work of 1968, Early Jazz, Its Roots and Development, has said:

…men like the Tio family, Alphonse Picou, and George Baquet, … influenced or taught almost every clarinet player of the two succeeding generations… (Schuller, 195).

It is my contention that as each of these men passed through the ranks of the Excelsior they developed a tradition, a style that they passed on to others with whom they came into contact.  Membership in the Excelsior is a common thread among these men.  Theogene Baquet, as the group’s leader, clarinetist and also as the father, and, presumably, the first teacher of George Baquet, must surely have had an influence on the style, interpretation, and technique of these players.  For these reasons, he has been included among the “group of four” first generation clarinetists who had a direct influence in the earliest days.  Additionally, his son George is said to have had an influence on the playing of both Sidney Bechet, whom he briefly taught, and Jimmie Noone (Feather, 35).

Alphonse Picou was a member of many different groups in New Orleans from 1894 to 1930.  He played with Freddie Keppard and Wooden Joe Nicholas. It is interesting to note the differing opinions in regard to Mr. Picou’s skills.  Contrast, if you will, the Schuller quote above with the New Grove Encyclopedia excerpt below:

Picou became a doyen of New Orleans music…but his recorded works lack the fire and the passionate flow of the great New Orleans clarinetists, but his tone and graceful articulation won him admirers. (New Grove, entry 627382)

One the other hand, the Tio’s, in general, and Lorenzo Tio, Jr. in particular, are held universal high regard. Lorenzo Tio, Jr. was a member of the Excelsior and, not so incidentally, the son of Lorenzo Tio, Sr. He has been called the first “hot” clarinetist (Kirchner, 585).  In effect, the first hot player represents the start of the second generation of jazz clarinetists. Lorenzo, Jr. started playing the clarinet in 1897 at the age of four (New Grove, refer. Tio).  He started to play in the city’s parade bands in 1902, the year in which his father died.  By the age of fourteen he was playing in the brass bands including the Onward and the aforementioned Excelsior.  He led a journeyman’s life as a musician with teaching and freelancing in New Orleans, Chicago, and the New York City area.  In fact, his influence is felt more through his students rather than his own playing. Some of his more prominent students were playing more than forty years after his own untimely death in 1933 at the age of forty.  Among these celebrated musicians were: Johnny Dodds, Jimmie Noone, Sidney Bechet, Albert Nicholas, Paul (Pablo) Barnes, Barney Bigard, Luis Cotrell, Jr., Omar Simeon, and Albert Burbank.  Each of these men was a major talent with unique strengths and legacies and, as such, each will be reviewed.     

Johnny Dodds (1892-1940), though not the technical equal of Bechet or Noone, is considered to be among the New Orleans’ greats for his warm vibrato, strong blues inflections, and imaginative ensemble playing (Feather, 184).  In fact, for some aficionados his technical limitations place him closer than Bechet or Noone to the true New Orleans form (New Grove, refer. Dodds).  Ronald Atkins has written that Dodds was the “most gifted of New Orleans clarinetists in the forceful blues-based tradition” (Atkins, 107).  As mentioned above, Dodds did study for a brief time with Tio, but by and large he was self-taught.  (It should be remembered that even though many of the clarinetists were, for the most part, self-taught the effects on their music and technique by those to whom they listened and by those with whom they played should not be minimized.)  If the quality of the musicians with whom he worked is any gauge then Dodds most certainly was a prodigious talent.  Those with whom he worked include the legendary King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, Freddie Keppard, and Fate Marable.

Jimmie Noone (1894-1944) achieved his greatest prominence after leaving New Orleans and heading for Chicago.  He began his study of the clarinet at age fifteen and three years later he was sitting in for Sidney Bechet in the Freddie Keppard Band. Noone’s work must have been acceptable, for when Bechet left the Keppard band Jimmie was named as his replacement.  In addition to his study with Tio, Noone also took instruction from Bechet.  One can imagine that this instruction from Bechet was both formal and on the job training.  Once he had left New Orleans and traveled to Chicago he received instruction from the classically trained Franz Schoepp.  (Schoepp, it should be mentioned, also taught at least two other major clarinet talents: Buster Bailey and Benny Goodman.)  Noone aspired to more than just clarinet playing, he also had a predilection to be the front man.  He organized at least two groups over the years.  His first was the Young Olympia Band, which was formed in 1915.  His second and more influential group was Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra, which he put together in 1927-28. 

One of the more significant aspects of the Apex Club Orchestra was the use of the alto saxophone to play the lead with the clarinetist playing embellishments and a three-piece rhythm section of banjo, piano, and drums setting the rhythms and harmony.  It is worth noting that the pianist for the group was Earl “Fatha’ Hines from Duquesne, Pennsylvania.  Hines’ father played trumpet with the Eureka Brass Band and his mother was a church organist.  Earl himself was classically trained.  One of Hines’ hallmarks was his method of playing accents and figures that would be common to trumpet players (Feather, 320) Hines was one of the first players to use his right hand in a linear fashion which he dubbed “trumpet style” (New Grove, refer. Noone).  Hines was a member of the Apex Club Orchestra when Louis Armstrong “borrowed” him to play on his Hot Five recordings of 1928.  Schuller has said that it is obvious that Noone learned many of his ideas in regard to phrasing and style from Armstrong (Schuller, 206).  We might reflect that Johnny Dodds, two years Noone’s’ senior, was a major sideman for Armstrong. 

Thus we have a glimpse of how a relatively small group of musicians worked, influenced, and grew with each other.  Additionally we can see how New Orleans musicians were beginning to play and exchange ideas with musicians from outside of Louisiana.

Sidney Bechet (1897-1959) is considered to be one of the more influential reed players of the era.  Sidney started as a clarinetist but is noted for his trailblazing use of the soprano saxophone.  However, it must be remembered that he played the clarinet for nearly fifteen years before starting to work on the soprano sax in 1917, which he was exposed to when he moved to Chicago.  Bechet was largely self-taught but he did study briefly with some solid New Orleans teachers including George Baquet, Lorenzo Tio, Jr., and Big Eye Nelson (1880-1949).  

Big Eye Nelson is something of an enigma in the New Orleans story.  It is said that in addition to working with Bechet, he also influenced Dodds and Noone, however he left very few recordings, which makes his influence somewhat difficult to ascertain.  He was one of the earliest players in the New Orleans tradition and is said to have worked with the seminal Buddy Bolden.  In addition to Bolden, he worked with Alphonse Picou, Freddie Keppard, Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver. He spent most of his life in New Orleans, however he did make the obligatory trip to Chicago from 1916-1918.

It was in 1919 that Bechet, tending to another rite of passage of jazz musicians, toured Europe.  It was on this trip while playing the clarinet for Will Cook that he purchased his first soprano saxophone.  Cook’s music was mainly arranged concert music; Bechet was used for “blues” specialty numbers, as he could not read music notation.

This limitation did not keep Bechet from earning rave plauditudes during the tour.  The Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet described Bechet as “an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso” and “an artist of genius” (Feather, 47).  Ansermet went on to compare Bechet’s role in jazz to “those figures of the [seventeenth and eighteenth century] to whom we owe the advent of our art” (Giddins, 98).  Bechet is now considered to be the equal of Louis Armstrong as one of the earliest complete jazz musicians.  He has had considerable indirect influence on Johnny Hodges, Buster Bailey, and Duke Ellington.

Buster Bailey (1902-1967) was a classically trained musician from Memphis, Tennessee, where he played with the immortal W.C. Handy from 1917-1919. He settled in Chicago in 1919 and became one of the first important Dixieland clarinetists from outside of New Orleans (Atkins, 82).  He studied with the aforementioned Franz Schoepp and developed a prodigious technique.  This technique, when combined with the jazz sensibilities that he garnered from Bechet and Johnny Dodds, among others, placed Bailey at the top of his game.  He played with many of the best players of the day including King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson.  Henderson would later work with another top clarinetist – Benny Goodman.  It has been said that Goodman was the only player who could “cut” Bailey’s playing when it came to the Henderson charts (Giddins, 182). In the later years of his life Bailey continued to work with the “name” players, including a stint with Louis Armstrong’s All Stars.     

Bechet, in addition to his more indirect influence, had direct influence on one of the more active clarinetists of the second half of the twentieth century. Beginning in 1947 and lasting until 1949 Bechet taught Bob Wilber (b. 1928).  Wilber has studied with a veritable who’s who of reeds including Paul Dahm, Lennie Tristano, Lee Koonitz, and Leon Russinoff.  He also studied at the Eastman School and the Manhattan School of Music.  Wilber is among those few clarinetists who have carried on the New Orleans traditions.  In fact, in 1947 with Bechet’s help he formed the Wildcats, a traditional jazz group which helped to revive interest in the New Orleans style. He also helped to form the World’s Greatest Jazz Band in 1968.  In Wilber, we have a direct link to the earliest clarinet players from Baquet to Tio to Bechet.  Bechet’s influence has been further extended through Wilber’s teaching at Oberlin, Rutgers and Wilkes College.

Another student of Lorenzo Tio’s who, along with Bechet, spread the gospel of jazz worldwide was Albert Nicholas (1900-1973).  Besides Tio, Nicholas had additional ties to an earlier generation of New Orleans’ clarinetists.  His uncle, “Wooden” Joe Nicholas (1883-1957), had the unusual instrumental doubling of clarinet and cornet.  Wooden Joe is said to have learned the cornet under the influence of Buddy Bolden and Bunk Johnson, two of the earliest musicians in the New Orleans music pantheon. Albert is considered to be among the outstanding clarinetists in the New Orleans tradition (New Grove, entry 627118). Leonard Feather has further defined Nicholas as “one of the best clarinetist in the New Orleans Creole tradition” (Feather, 498).  He was from New Orleans but once he left to go to Chicago in 1924 he never looked back.  Among the top players with whom he worked are King Oliver, Chick Webb, Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and Rex Stewart.  He is known to have played in China, Egypt, and Paris, along with other European locales.  He lived and toured in Europe from 1953 until 1973.

The Tio influence was also felt in the playing of two brothers from New Orleans. Emile Barnes (1892-1970) and Paul Barnes (1901-1981) both studied and played with Lorenzo Tio.  Emile also studied with Alphonse Picou, George Baquet and Big Eye Nelson.  He also played with Wooden Joe Nichols.  His younger brother Paul had a more noteworthy career, playing with Chick Webb, King Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton. He took up the alto saxophone the same year (1919) that Bechet bought his soprano, making him one of the first clarinetist to begin doubling (though I believe that he remained primarily a clarinetist).  In the second half of his career he played in Dixieland bands at Disneyland, in New Orleans at Preservation Hall and at Dixieland Hall, and he toured Europe twice.  He played throughout his life with only a brief professional hiatus from 1952-57.  Ill health forced him to retire four years before his death.

Perhaps one of the more celebrated clarinetists, after Sidney Bechet, to have been associated with Lorenzo Tio, Jr. and Papa Tio was Barney Bigard (1906-1980). Bigard came from a musical family but was at first reluctant to become a musician (Atkins, 87).  His uncle, Emile, was a violinist having played with both Kid Ory and King Oliver.  Barney received his first musical instruction from this uncle.  Barney’s brother Alexander was a drummer who played with the Excelsior Brass Band as well as the Maple Leaf Orchestra.  His cousin Natty Dominique was a New Orleans trumpeter who played with Noone, Dodds, Morton, and Armstrong.  Another cousin was the violinist and composer A.J. Piron.  Bigard’s journey to clarinet prominence is somewhat circuitous.  He began on an Albert system Eb clarinet but reportedly was somewhat discouraged by his progress and he began to play the tenor saxophone (New Grove, entry 624272).  In fact, his reputation was first gained on the saxophone.  In 1922 when he first joined Albert Nichols’ band he was a “doubler” on clarinet and tenor sax (redhotjazz, Bigard).  He made the journey to Chicago in 1924 when he joined King Oliver at the Plantation Café where he played for the next two years.  During this period he gradually moved to the clarinet as a principal instrument.

In 1927 Bigard made the trip New York City that would lead ultimately to his greatest successes; within months of his arrival he became a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.  As was the case with many Ellington musicians, Bigard stayed with the Duke for quite awhile… fourteen years and five months.  During this time Bigard played the clarinet almost exclusively.  He became a distinctive voice amongst Ellington personnel.  Bigard’s clarinet was showcased by Ellington’s well-known ability to play to a musician’s strength.  As Bigard himself put it:

Duke studied his men. He studied their style, how they maneuver with their music, with their playing and everything. And he keeps that in his mind so if he wrote anything for you, it fit you like a glove (Gioia, 122).

Ellington’s proclivity to compose for the talent at hand, combined with Bigard’s diverse abilities such as having with a warm tone in all registers, his chromatic runs, and glissandos all became part of the Ellington and Bigard legacy.  Bigard was featured on hundreds of Ellington recordings and he assumed great importance in the development of the “jungle sound” that was a hallmark of the music from Ellington’s Cotton Club days (New Grove, entry 624272).     

Bigard left Ellington in 1942 and moved to California.  He had been at the right place at the right time in 1928 when Ellington needed a clarinetist and now lightening struck a second time.  In 1946-47 Barney worked with Louis Armstrong on the film New Orleans.  The association between the two men clicked and when Armstrong was putting together a new sextet in 1947 it was Bigard who got the call.  Never one to leave a job too soon, Bigard worked with the All Stars from 1947-55 and again from 1960-1. During this time they toured the world and recorded frequently.  It can be argued that the exposure he received during his tenure with the All Stars and with Ellington made him one of the most often heard clarinetist of the New Orleans school.  In 1962, after his second stint with the All Stars, Bigard went into semi-retirement but still worked from time to time with such luminaries as Earl Hines, Bugsy Spanier, Ben Pollack, and Rex Stewart. 

In the 1970’s Bigard evidently caught a second wind and was off on the road again.  In 1971 he went on a college tour with Art Hodes, Wild Bill Davison, and the ever-promoting Eddie Condon. He played at the Colorado Jazz Party in 1971-73. In the years from 1974-1975 he played at the Newport Jazz Festival, as well as festivals abroad, including festivals in Nice, San Sebastian and Bordeaux.  He toured Switzerland in 1975 and made a final appearance at the Nice Jazz Festival in 1979.  Barney Bigard was a reluctant musician, but once he developed his skills and found his “voice”, he was a talent of prodigious staying power.  Over a career that spanned more than half a century Barney played with two of the greatest talents in the business, not to mention the group of exceptional sidemen of which he was apart during his association with Ellington and Armstrong.  It is little wonder that Bigard stands above most of his contemporaries from the New Orleans tradition. He has earned a richly deserved place of honor not only amongst clarinetists but of all musicians involved in the playing of jazz.     

A contemporary and student of Bigard’s and (of course!) a student of Lorenzo Tio, Jr. was Luis Cotrell, Jr. (1911-1978).  As so often is the case with musicians, Luis Jr. was from a musical family.  His father, Luis Cotrell, Sr. (1878-1927) was an early New Orleans drummer.  Luis Sr. made one of the first treks to Chicago when in 1915 he went north with Eddie Atkins, cornetist Manuel Perez, and clarinetist Lorenzo Tio, Jr. (thus providing another tie to the Tio group). Cotrell Jr., though he had a long professional career and did do some touring, can be thought of more as a regional musician as opposed to Bigard’s international appeal. He is quite well regarded in his local circles especially in regard to his work in the 1920’s in forming the black musicians branch of the American Federation of Musicians in New Orleans. 

Omer Simeon (1902-1959) studied with Tio, Jr. for two years from 1918-1920. He was a favorite clarinetist of Jelly Roll Morton.  One of Morton’s better-known tunes, Black Bottom Stomp, was recorded with Simeon on clarinet. Simeon worked with many well-known players.  These include: King Oliver, Earl Hines, Kid Ory, and Coleman Hawkins.  In 1942 he joined the top-rated reed section of the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra. 

The final clarinetist of the group with a direct line to the Tio’s is Albert Burbank (1902-1976), in some respects he is one of the most intriguing.  Burbank was one of the few musicians of note that did not make the trip to Chicago.  He did spend time in the Navy but returned to New Orleans in 1945 recording with Wooden Joe Nichols.  At the age of fifty-two, Burbank traveled to Los Angeles to work with Kid Ory but soon returned to New Orleans.  He made a European tour in 1971 just two years before his playing career was curtailed by a series of strokes.  By all respects his brief resume would not seem to put him with the elite and therein lies the intriguing aspects of his career for I came across this extensive quote from The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz Biographies:

Burbank was one of the greatest New Orleans clarinetists. His tone in the chalumeau register of the instrument was full and rounded; a fine example of his playing may be heard on Nicholas's recording of Shake it and break it (1945). In the upper register, his urgent vibrato and distinctive tone, at once plaintive and sinewy, gave his work an intensity that was fiercely emotional; he would swoop and soar like a bird in flight, playing across and around the beat, alternating long, looping, baroque phrases with rushing, stabbing passages in double time to create an overall effect of great beauty (New Grove, entry 624527).

Obviously the author of this passage has the highest regard for Burbank and, there is no reason to doubt his or her opinion.  However, I could find no other reference to Burbank except in this New Grove passage.  This provides the question: what criteria are used to determine a musician’s worth and/or talent?  Certainly a combination of items is involved.  In addition to a player’s technical and musical skills, items such as with whom one plays, where one is willing to travel and the extent that one can promote oneself will, in many cases, ultimately determine a musicians place in history.  This poses yet another question: How many great musicians have remained unknown not due to a lack of skills but rather for the lack of a proper setting to display those skills?  In a survey of musical history, such as represented by this paper, this question must always present.

Another group of musicians from New Orleans from the early era but without a documented link to our original group of Hall, Baquet and the Tio brothers include George Lewis, Leon Roppolo, Larry Shields, and Alcide Nunez.   

George Lewis (1900-1968) is best recalled for his work in the New Orleans revival of the 1940’s and 50’s.  During the exodus of the 1920’s, Lewis remained in New Orleans working as a stevedore by day and a musician in the evenings. It was not until the 1940’s that he began to be heard outside of the New Orleans area.  He went to New York City in 1945.  He toured extensively after this time including the United States, Europe in 1957 and 1959, and three tours in Japan. He was playing at the Preservation Hall in New Orleans from 1961 until shortly before his death.  Author Rudi Blesh described Lewis as the finest clarinetists since Johnny Dodds (Feather, 412).

Leon Roppolo (1902-1943) was an influential composer and clarinetist though his career lasted only ten years due to mental illness.  He wrote such standards as the Millenburg Joys and Tin Roof Blues.  Leonard Feather has written that Roppolo was one of the most “gifted musicians”, especially at a stage in the music when many of the players where technically limited due to their lack of formal instruction.  His talent and soaring style have given him legendary status (Feather, 569).  Roppolo was a member of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.  This band was a direct competitor of the first recorded jazz band, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) with Larry Shields on clarinet.  Gunther Schuller wrote that the Rhythm Kings played a better “brand” of jazz and that Roppolo was the considered to be the “best white New Orleans musician” (Schuller, 186).

Larry Shields (1893-1953) and Alcide Nunez (1884-1934) are linked as two clarinetists from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.  Nunez was the first clarinet player for the group but left just before the first recordings were made.  Larry Shields took his place in the year before the recordings.  Most critics consider Shields to be the best performer in Nick LaRocca’s historic band. He remained with the group until 1921 when he began to play with the popular, though not especially “hot”, Paul Whiteman Orchestra.  He played infrequently after the 1930’s and his importance to our clarinet lineage lies mainly in his participation in the first recordings that were crucial to the spread of jazz.

Nunez is an example of being in the wrong place at the right time, and as such, his place in history is reduced.  He played in local New Orleans bands from 1902 to 1916 when he left for Chicago with Johnny Stein’s band.  The Stein band became the core of the ODJB. As often happens in mergers people lose their position due to shifts in the power structure.  This was the case with Nunez as he left the ODJB in an argument with LaRocca, the group’s leader and cornet player.

Nunez is another player that is hard to place due to conflicting reports concerning his playing.  Leonard Feather states that his tone was “warm and florid” (Feather, 500).  The New Grove online entry for Nunez states that his tone was “harsh and brittle” (New Grove, entry 627172).  Gunther Schuller states that on many recordings Nunez played the only things he knew how to do and that was a “high, shrill melodic lead” that he would embellish (Schuller, 185).  One wonders which of the descriptions is closest to fact. An interesting side bar to the Nunez-ODJB story is that when he left the ODJB, the group he formed was the Louisiana Five, a cornet-less ensemble (Sudhalter, 16). Take that, Nick LaRocca!  

This project has concerned itself with uncovering the roots of the New Orleans clarinet tradition and as such, it has focused on those men from Louisiana who from about 1890 through the first quarter of the twentieth century who worked in a new form of musical expression.  These men, for the most part, were the first, second, and even third generation of musicians of jazz.  The new music that they developed influenced another group of young musicians far removed from the delta country. 

This group of musicians from outside New Orleans included Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Pee Wee Russell, Mezz Mezzrow, and Artie Shaw, to name just a few. These men helped to propel the music beyond what it was and, in a very real sense, the original New Orleans tradition became relegated to a less dynamic more formula driven music.  The players that have been discussed in this essay were among the originals that provided the foundation for the reed traditions in jazz.  There are dozens more clarinetist who I am sure could easily have been included in any study of this sort.  Their exclusion does not denigrate their accomplishments nor look askance at their music, rather limits and choices were made in an effort to manage the vast about of information available.  The area of early jazz woodwind players could easily support additional studies in the areas of the northern clarinet players, the early saxophonists, the contribution of Latin music to the New Orleans mix, and the swing players, among others. The careers of many of the players that were mentioned in this paragraph could support a complete study of their own.     

The men covered in this project did not “fall” as the initial title of this project suggested, rather the music that was theirs was transformed because of their successes.  Many of these men continued to be true to the New Orleans tradition even at the expense of more lucrative career opportunities during the swing era.  Their tenacity and skill serve as a tribute to the men of the late nineteenth century who set the initial parameters of the music.  These parameters had enough strength and flexibility that allowed the music to transcend its parochial heritage and become a nation’s music.  Though today many of these men, and indeed even most of these men, are now largely forgotten, their efforts form the foundations of jazz.   The foundation that they labored to build has supported enormous style and form modifications of the music.  The music’s ability to be shaped and reshaped represents the real and lasting accomplishments of these men.

Works Cited

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Giddins, Gary. Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York: Oxford
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Kirchner, Bill, editor. The Oxford Companion to Jazz. New York: Oxford
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Schuller, Gunther, Early Jazz, It Roots and Musical Development. New York: Oxford
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Sudhalter, Richard M. Lost Chords: White Musicians and their Contributions to
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Williams, Martin, editor. The Art of Jazz Ragtime to Bebop. New York: Oxford
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Bechet, Sidney. Essential Masters of Jazz: Sidney Bechet. Proper Records,

Ellington, Duke. The Okey Ellington. Columbia, 1991.

Henderson, Fletcher. Tidalwave. New York: Decca/MCA, 1994.

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