From the early ages of classical music through modern-day jazz and swing, the clarinet has enjoyed a strong presence in the musical world. The success of the clarinet has been driven by some key players throughout history.
In this post, we’re going to take a look at 19 of the world’s most famous clarinetists from a variety of genres and career decades.
Famous Classical Clarinet Players
The clarinet gained a great deal of popularity during the classical music era, and it is still one of the primary genres played among clarinetists.
Many of the most famous classical clarinetists are German, as German musicians and composers played a key role in the advancement of the clarinet.
Here are some of the most notable classical clarinetists from the 18th century through the present:
Anton Stadler was an Austrian clarinetist who lived in the 18th century and was a well-known classical clarinetist in his time.
Two of Mozart’s most famous pieces for clarinet: Clarinet Quintet (K 581) and Clarinet Concerto (K 622) were written specifically with Stadler in mind.
While he may be best remembered today for these two compositions, it turns out that playing an array of other musical instruments (including singing) also contributed greatly to his making. Stadler was such an important and beloved figure during the Classical Period.
Johann Simon Hermstedt
Johann Simon Hermstedt was a German clarinetist from the 19th century.
He is most famous for his role as the court clarinetist for Duke Gunther I of Schwarzburg-Sondershausen.
He even taught the Duke how to play the clarinet himself!
Composer Louis Spohr wrote his clarinet concertos specifically for Hermstedt, and many of his other pieces were written for and dedicated to him.
Heinrich Baermann was another famous German clarinetist during the 19th century who was particularly well-known for his skills in Romantic music.
He played for the Berlin court after Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia took a particular interest in him.
He was also popular with a number of different romantic era composers writing pieces specifically for him.
His last main role was in the Munich court orchestra, where we sat for almost 30 years.
Keeping it in the family, the next clarinetist on our list is Carl Baermann, who was the son of Heinrich Baermann.
In 1834, Heinrich retired from the Munich court orchestra, and Carl succeeded him as principal clarinetist.
Carl Baermann was an important character in the history of the clarinet as he developed the Baermann-Ottensteiner key system, which became the most common key system during his time.
As well as performing and working on the clarinet, he was also an accomplished writer and composed several pieces himself.
The first non-European clarinetist on our list is Harold Wright, who was an American clarinetist from Pennsylvania.
He was 12 years old when he first began learning the clarinet and quickly began studying at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music.
Once he graduated, he earned a spot in the Houston Symphony and just one year later earned the principal clarinet role in the Dallas Symphony, then the National Symphony in Washington D.C., followed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the majority of his career, between 1970 and 1993.
He is known for incorporating German, French, and American techniques into his classical and chamber music performances.
Next, we have Sabine Meyer, who is a modern classical clarinetist.
Born, raised, and currently residing in Germany, Meyer comes from a large family of clarinet players and learned to play at an early age from her father.
Her brother, Wolfgang, and even her husband, Reiner Wehle, are both accomplished clarinetists as well.
She has played for the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and later the Berlin Philharmonic, where she was one of the first female musicians before leaving to launch her very successful career as a soloist.
Up next we have Sharon Kam, another modern classical clarinetist.
She was born in Israel and lives in Germany with her conductor husband and their children.
Kam was somewhat of a clarinet prodigy, studying at Juilliard School of Music and even making her first performance with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at just 16 years old.
She has had a very busy performing career playing with a number of the biggest orchestras in the world including the London Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Berlin Philharmonic.
Martin Fröst is a Swedish clarinetist who is also known for being somewhat of a Jack of All Trades.
In addition to his famous classical clarinet skills, he also conducts the Swedish Chamber Orchestra and takes on a wide variety of multimedia roles and projects.
He works in choreography and light design, and he serves as Master of Ceremony.
He is also known for his ability to push the envelope and try cutting edge techniques within the classical and chamber genres.
Famous Jazz Clarinetists
After classical music, the second most popular genre for clarinet parts is undoubtedly jazz with the clarinet being one of the first instruments included in the jazz, swing, and big band movements in the United States.
Some of the most famous clarinetists of all time are the jazz musicians who gained popularity around the 1930s.
Here are some key players in the clarinet’s jazz and swing movement:
Known as the “King of Swing,” Jazz player Benny Goodman is arguably the most famous clarinet player in history.
He hit the height of his career in the 1930s and 1940s.
As Jewish immigrants from the then Russian Empire, Goodman’s parents took their children to free concerts in Douglas Park and enrolled Goodman and two of his 11 siblings in music lessons when Goodman was 10 years old.
Goodman was also a well-known band leader, and his 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall is still one of the best-remembered jazz concerts of all time.
Artie Shaw was another famous jazz clarinetist who led a very similar career to Benny Goodman.
Shaw was also a popular big band leader during the 1930s and 1940s.
He enjoyed one of the most profound moments of his career in 1938, his recording of Cole Porter’s hit Begin the Beguine.
He was one of the first to embrace Third Stream Music, a genre that blended elements from classical and jazz.
Additionally, Shaw dabbled in composition and even acting.
Woody Herman was another clarinetist and big band leader whose jazz and swing career took off in the 1930s.
He called his bands “The Herd,” and they were known for playing outside the box with new-age music genres and pieces.
Herman also sang and played saxophone and remained present in the music scene until he died in the late 1980s.
Most people think of Louis Armstrong on the trumpet as the first recorded jazz soloist, but it was actually Sidney Bechet.
Bechet played both clarinet and soprano saxophone throughout the 1920s through 1950s, with some rough periods in the middle years.
He bookended his career playing with Duke Ellington’s early orchestra at the beginning and becoming quite famous in France through his work at the Salle Pleyel Jazz Festival in Paris in 1949.
He was known, infamously by some, for his intense clarinet vibrato and famously for his ability to improvise.
The clarinet is featured in traditional and folk music in many cultures and corners of the world.
Clarinetists who play this type of music use techniques and skills unique to each musical style.
Here are some modern famous clarinetists whose careers are centered around playing music traditional to their cultures and nations:
Giora Feidman is a modern clarinetist known for playing Klezmer music, a genre of instrumental music traditional among the Eastern and Central European Ashkenazi Jewish culture.
Klezmer includes dance and ritual pieces used in weddings and other traditional ceremonies and the clarinet is a principal instrument used.
Feidman, who was born in Argentina and immigrated to Israel with his parents at a young age.
Coming from a long musical lineage, he learned to play clarinet in the klezmer tradition from his father, who learned from his grandfather, who learned from his great-grandfather.
Feidman had already played for the Teatro Colón Symphony Orchestra by the time his family left Buenos Aires, after which he became the youngest clarinetist to date to play in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
He was invited by Steven Spielberg to do the clarinet solos in the score for his Academy Award-winning film Schindler’s List.
The clarinet is a crucial component of Turkish folk music, and Hüsnü Senlendirici is a well known modern Turkish clarinetist.
Both his maternal and paternal grandfather played clarinet, and his father played trumpet, so music is in his blood.
At the age of just 12, Senlendrici began studying at the State Conservatory of Turkish Music, part of the Istanbul Technical University.
From there, he has gone on to solo at several festivals and play in many bands, two of which he founded himself.
He released an album in 2005 and has continued to collaborate with famous musicians ever since, including Dhafer Yousseff in 2012.
Laïko or laïkó is a genre of Greek folk music, and Vasilios Saleas is a modern clarinetist well known for keeping it alive in the present day.
He is equally well known for adding clarinet to Greek pop music.
He started his career as an accompanist in the 1990s and eventually released his own solo album.
Saleas is of Gypsi origin, but his family settled in Athens when he was just a baby.
His father began teaching him clarinet at the age of 9, and by the age of 14 he was playing in public performances at professional level.
Celebrity Clarinet Players
There are a few more names that you might recognize…but not for playing the clarinet!
The clarinet is one of the most popular choices among young musicians and has a large presence in most middle and high school marching bands and wind ensembles.
It is therefore not entirely surprising that many modern celebrities were clarinetists in their youth with some of them still playing actively today!
Best known for his eccentric work in the film industry, few people know that Woody Allen is an advanced clarinet player.
He is especially a fan of jazz music, and he often plays clarinet in his own film scores.
He has a New Orleans Jazz Band that used to play weekly at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan.
The documentary film Wild Man Blues is all about Allen’s band.
Jimmy Kimmel and Eva Longoria
Jimmy Kimmel and Eva Longoria are both well-known celebrities, Longoria for her acting and modeling and Kimmel for his comedy and talk show hosting.
One thing they have in common is a past as clarinet players and mediocre remaining talent…
While neither earned their fame playing clarinet, they did delight many fans with their dueling clarinets segment on Kimmel’s talk show.
Eva Longoria was also a drum majorette in her youth.
Julia Roberts is thought of by many as one of the most beautifully stunning and successful actresses in existence.
It is therefore hard to believe that she describes herself as quite awkward and unpopular in high school.
A self-proclaimed band nerd, Roberts played clarinet in high school before she ever began acting.
Summing up Famous Clarinetists
These are only a few of the past and present notable clarinet players.
From Mozart’s favorite principal clarinetist, to the King of Swing, to the individuals who keep traditional and folk music alive, the clarinet has been in the hands of some extremely talented players.
These famous clarinets are the people who all other clarinetists of the world look to for inspiration and motivation.