9 June 2013


(This article was originally published 3 years ago. It had over 4500 readers at the time, so it obviously was on a topic people found interesting. I have now updated and revised it.)

Please note: this article was first written with clarinet playing in mind. But it applies to saxophone players as well.

To hear a clarinet player doing just what a traditional jazz clarinet player should, CLICK ON THIS VIDEO. The clarinet listens well to the trumpet lead and harmonises beautifully. It is a great demonstration of what can be achieved even with very limited resources.

My friend Jonathan Graham - a fine guitarist and a trumpet player - told me he has been listening to lots of jazz recordings from the 1920s and has come to the conclusion that the clarinet is usually the most important instrument in the band.
It is the clarinet player who provides the drive, the energy, the decoration of the melody, syncopation, tone colouring, most of the polyphony - in fact much of the 'jazziness' of the music.

A good clarinet player has to know the chord changes of every tune - either by rote or intuitively - and he has to be a master of rapid arpeggios. His fingering must be confident and fast. He must also be skilful at throwing occasional long bluesy notes into his playing - usually flattened thirds and sevenths.

I guess that good clarinet players have spent hundreds of hours practising scales and arpeggios, perhaps backed by recordings that give them a clear melody around which to weave their magic.

The best clarinet players avoid playing right on the beat - especially on the first note of every bar. Coming in after the first quaver or on the second beat contributes better to the syncopation. They also avoid playing too many bars comprising nothing but quavers and crotchets. Triplets, semiquaver runs, dotted notes and trills - as well as those 'hanging' long bluesy notes mentioned above - add so much to the excitement.

Above all, in ensemble work, where the trumpet is stating the melody, you won't catch good clarinet or saxophone players on exactly the same notes as the trumpet. Why? For three reasons.

First, such duplication means a waste of the band's limited resources.

Second, it misses an opportunity for harmony and polyphony.

Third: the timbres of the two instruments clash. Listen to a trumpet alone playing, for example, a C for four beats. Fine. Now listen to a clarinet alone playing the same C for four beats. Fine. Now have them both together playing that C for four beats. Not so good. The sound is much less pleasant.

So, where the trumpet is assigned to stating the melody, the clarinet and saxophone must steer clear of it. (I have recently heard a jazz performance ruined by a saxophone player who was very loud, very weak on 'teamwork' and trying to play - most of the time - the same notes as the trumpet.) And this includes Middle Eights. Although Middle Eights can be tricky, the clarinet or saxophone player should take the trouble to learn their chord progressions correctly rather than cop out and simply play the melody of the Middle Eight (duplicating what the trumpeter is doing and annoying the rest of the band into the bargain), as I frequently hear a clarinet player do.

The situation can be particularly bad if a band has both a clarinet and a saxophone playing, probably in addition to trumpet and trombone. If the reed players do not play as team members, with a high level of musical awareness, the result can be excruciating. 

It is acceptable for the clarinet or saxophone to play the melody only when it is agreed in advance that he will 'take the lead', while the trumpet player either drops out for these bars or switches to improvising around the melody. Also, when playing a 'solo' chorus, the effect can sometimes be very pleasant if the clarinet player stays very close to the melody, perhaps in a low register. This can make a good contrast after an ensemble chorus led by the trumpet.

Breaks are another feature of traditional jazz in which the clarinet or saxophone can contribute so much to the excitement of the music. (If you don't know what I mean by 'break', I am referring to those moments when all the instruments except one drop out after the first beat of the bar, leaving that one instrument to play something interesting and decorative. Breaks are often assigned to the clarinet.)

Consider for example the famous 4-bar break in Jazz Me Blues. A weak clarinet player may simply play this:
Technically that is all right. But it is hardly dynamic and exciting. It would be far better to play something on these lines:

In addition to all this, of course, the clarinet or saxophone often plays the melody - either because the tune is a clarinet feature, or because the band is a small group perhaps without a trumpet, or because the band has made an arrangement of the tune in which either the whole of the melody or one of the strains (in a rag, for example) is best played by the clarinet - if only for variety. All these situations give the clarinet player a great opportunity to demonstrate the instrument's beautiful tones and its expressive, soulful capabilities.

For an example of a modern clarinet-player and saxophone player getting things absolutely right, CLICK ON THIS PERFORMANCE. The clarinet player is John Doyle and the saxophonist is Ewan Bleach. It is also a joyous example of traditional jazz teamwork at its best.
My reedman friend Barrie has sent me these interesting comments after reading the above:

Hi Ivan,
I have just read your piece about the importance of the clarinet in traditional jazz. Very interesting.

You get mainly two types of clarinet players:
The unobtrusive guy who plays along with the band weaving around and ties the ensemble together, often very tasteful players.
The aggressive kind who really goes for it with power and projection (I sit in that camp) and often pushes the band more than the trumpet/cornet player.
One other thing about trumpet players: us clarinet players like gaps to fill so trumpet players should leave space. Many don't  - playing through everything.

I play in a New Orleans Marching band. The reeds are tenor, alto (me) and clarinet. When the reeds play the trio, I play the melody and the clarinet player does his stuff and the tenor is riffs and backing us. When I say I play the melody, I do; and I leave space for the clarinet to shine.