The bass clarinet

The bass clarinet is easily one of the most interesting instruments to watch, whether your seeing an orchestra or a jazz band. With its curved bell near the floor and mixture of African blackwood and chrome, the bass clarinet is eye-catching. Its sound completely distinct.

Its became more common in classical music during the romantic era, appearing in all of Mahler’s symphonies and all but one of Richard Strauss’ tone poems. Stravinsky used the bass clarinet heavily in his three great ballets, and Steven Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians includes two of them as the piece’s only wind instruments.

But our favorite appearances of the instrument are in jazz. Perhaps the earliest appearance of the instrument is on a 1924 Edison Diamond Disc by Wilbur Sweatman’s Brownies, with the bandleader soloing on his bass clarinet. Jelly Roll Morton added a bass clarinetist to his Red Hot Peppers a few years later, and we have read that Benny Goodman recorded on the instrument but never seen such a recording (we’d love to hear it one day).

Herbie Mann recorded an entire album on the bass clarinet (Great Ideas of Western Mann), but it is not as easily found as those 70s soul jazz hits featuring him as a flautist.

The bass clarinet is a little more common on jazz recordings today than when Herbie Mann made that album in 1957. Chris Potter (heard with both Dave Holland’s and Dave Douglas’ bands as well as others) is a favorite of ours who occasionally plays the instrument. David Murray, a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet, has a remarkable timbre on the bass clarinet. Sadly, so many of his records are obscure imports, and even the Cds are difficult to find.

But you can’t think about the bass clarinet and omit Eric Dolphy, who was fortunately very widely recorded before he passed away at the young age of thirty-six. He recorded on the alto saxophone and the flute as well as the bass clarinet, and also on a couple occasions the uncommon soprano clarinet. His virtuosity on all instruments and versatility in all settings left an enormous imprint on jazz.

His style was so expressive, disarmingly personal, yet able to reach into the era of classic jazz with wit and confidence. And it was on the bass clarinet he most beautifully expressed his ideas, which could connect to Stravinsky as surely as to Sweatman.

He worked with such an enormous variety of musicians. As a sideman he worked for some of the era’s best composers (Charles Mingus, Oliver Nelson, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane) soaking up all kinds of insight. As a leader he put together unique ensembles and became a notable composer.

One of his last records, Out to Lunch!, opens with two of his original songs for the bass clarinet. The first, “Hat and Beard,” is a playful tribute to Thelonious Monk, and the second, “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” has him interacting inventively with the great bassist Richard Davis.

dolphy out to lunch

Dolphy’s death in June 1964 from an undiagnosed diabetic condition was an absolute tragedy all around. The world of jazz lost what could have been decades of great music like his new songs on Out to Lunch! That he may have been left by physicians in Berlin to die because they assumed he was a junkie is an example of the institutional racism jazz musicians faced even in purportedly progressive Europe.

eric dolphy copenhagen concert

Charles Mingus’ liner notes to Last Date, a posthumous live recording from Dolphy’s last month, are a beautiful tribute to the man. “Usually, when a man dies, you remember—or you say you remember—only the good things about him. With Eric, that’s all you could remember. I don’t remember any drags he did to anybody. The man was absolutely without a need to hurt”

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