The 4 Top Jazz Clarinetists

The Most Famous Clarinetists In Jazz Music History

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Jimmy Dorsey

Jimmy Dorsey

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One of the more diverse instrumentalists of the swing and big band eras, Jimmy Dorsey started his musical career as a trumpeter in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. Later, he learned saxophone and then began doubling on clarinet.

Along with his brother Tommy, who played trombone, Jimmy Dorsey formed Dorsey’s Novelty Six, one of the first swing bands to be broadcast on the radio. The pair continued to work together over the next 15 years until a brotherly dispute split them apart in 1935. He continued to run his own orchestra until rejoining Tommy during the 1950s when they began hosting Jackie Gleason’s Stage Show TV program.

As a soloist, Dorsey played with considerable subtlety, frequently giving a greater share of the spotlight to his band and his vocalists. Because Dorsey was primarily a sax player, it takes some work to find examples of his clarinet recordings.

Recommended recording: The Very Best of Jazz Clarinet & Saxophone, Vol. 1-4 (Platinum Collection).

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Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman, 1971

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Whether or not Benny Goodman was the greatest jazz clarinetist of all time is a matter yet to be settled. But there’s no question he was one of the most innovative.

His Carnegie Hall concert of 1938 was called a “coming out party” for the idiom, a performance that gave jazz credibility with the mainstream public. His decision to include Afro-African American players in his orchestra during the 1930s was unheard of at the time.

A prodigious player, Goodman made his first professional appearance at age 12. Two years later he made his debut with Bix Beiderbecke and made his first solo recordings by age 18. Over the course of his career, he played with just about every major star of his era, from Louis Armstrong to Billie Holiday to Charlie Christian, appeared in a number of movies (which was typical of the time) and made hundreds of recordings.

His playing speaks for itself: free-spirited and swinging but always under control, the epitome of class. His signature recording, “Let’s Dance,” might be the most recognized jazz tune in history.

Recommended recording: Essential Benny Goodman (Columbia)

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Jimmy Guiffre

Jimmy Guiffre, 1978

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Born in Dallas, Texas in 1921, Jimmy Guiffree was a ground-breaking clarinetist, saxophonist, and arranger. He began his career working with Woody Herman during the 1940s, where he created a well-known arrangement of the band’s tune, “Four Brothers.” During the 1950s, Guiffre became a key player in the Cool Jazz movement, working with Shelly Manne and Shorty Rogers.

In the 1960s, Guiffre pushed the clarinet into the free jazz arena, joining pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow to form one of the more important trios of the period. Whereas much “free jazz” was markedly aggressive, the Guiffre trio approached the style in a fashion more akin to chamber music. Guiffree became an educator and played well into the 1990s before dying of pneumonia at age 86.

Recommended recording: Jimmy Guiffre Trio Concert (Unique Jazz).

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Artie Shaw

Artie Shaw, 1942
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Another innovative instrumentalist and arranger who was active during the swing and big band years between 1925 and 1945, Artie Shaw became the first white bandleader to hire a full-time Black singer when he signed Billie Holiday to his band in 1938. He also gave Buddy Rich his start, enlisting him to tour with the band during the same period.

Shaw was also an innovative arranger, who looked to classical music as a basis for his arrangements, which sometimes included strings. Over the course of his career, during which he sold nearly 100 million records, Shaw also experimented with bebop, unusual instrumentation (like harpsichord) and Afro-Cuban rhythms.

His recording of “Stardust” is considered a swing classic.

Recommended recording: Essential Artie Shaw (RCA)