13 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Jazz Clarinet Players

Written by Dan Farrant

Jazz stands as a genre that has consistently captivated audiences with its improvisational rhythms and soulful melodies. Among the many instruments that have shaped the sound of jazz, the clarinet holds a special place.

Its mellifluous tones and versatile range have contributed to the genre’s rich soundscape, encapsulating the spirit of jazz in every note. Musicians have taken this instrument and woven intricate auditory narratives for all to enjoy.

In this article, we’ll introduce you to 13 of the greatest jazz clarinet players you should know. Their contributions have not only defined their careers but also significantly influenced the evolution of jazz music. Let’s get started!

1. Benny Goodman

We begin with a clarinet virtuoso who was born in 1909 — Benny Goodman. He learned to play the clarinet at a local synagogue when he was young and took lessons from Franz Schoepp, a classically trained clarinetist.

Goodman’s career took a pivotal turn in the mid-1930s when he formed his own band. With the advent of radio, his music reached millions of listeners across the country, leading to his coronation as the King of Swing.

His collaborations with other jazz greats, like Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, and Gene Krupa, produced some of the most memorable recordings in jazz history. Tracks like “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and “Moonglow” remain jazz standards to this day.

2. Artie Shaw

A name synonymous with innovation and virtuosity in the realm of jazz is Artie Shaw. He was an American clarinetist, composer, and bandleader. He rose to prominence in the 1930s as a swing bandleader and master clarinetist.

Born in 1910, Shaw’s affinity for music was apparent from a young age. Before he was in his teens, he was already playing the ukulele and saxophone. His shift to the clarinet began when he was 16.

After this, he went on tours, led his own band, and collaborated with great artists of the time, like Jerry Gray, William Grant Still, and Jimmy Mundy,

Shaw’s contributions to jazz extended beyond his performances. As a composer, he crafted tunes that have since become jazz standards. His hits like “Begin the Beguine” and “Frenesi” remain timeless classics, encapsulating the spirit of the swing era.

3. Sidney Bechet

Known for his powerful sound and passionate playing style, Sidney Bechet was an artist who truly embodied the spirit of jazz. He was born in 1897 into a musical family in New Orleans and began playing the clarinet professionally as a teenager.

His career took off when he was invited to join Will Marion Cook’s Syncopated Orchestra in Europe. It was around this time he also began playing the soprano saxophone, pioneering the use of the instrument in the world of jazz.

Bechet achieved considerable success as a performer in Europe and America. He recorded numerous hits and performed with various bands. His recordings, particularly those from his later career, such as “Summertime” and “Blue Horizon,” are considered some of the finest examples of early jazz.

4. Doreen Ketchens

The American jazz clarinetist Doreen Ketchens is best known for her dynamic performances of Dixieland and traditional jazz. Born and raised in New Orleans, her style is deeply influenced by her hometown’s vibrant music scene.

Ketchens’ performances are a testament to her remarkable skill and unique techniques. She has performed at concert halls, music festivals, on the bustling streets of New Orleans, and even for US presidents! Her mastery of the clarinet is nothing short of impressive, earning her the nickname Clarinet Queen.

Ketchens stands as a powerful figure in the world of jazz. As she continues to perform and share her music with the world, she is not just building a successful career. She’s also making a significant impact on the music industry.

5. Barney Bigard

The jazz world was forever changed by the incredible talent of clarinetist Barney Bigard. Born in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, he grew up surrounded by music. This influenced his decision to pursue a career as a musician.

Bigard’s contribution to jazz music is immeasurable. His work with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra is particularly noteworthy. For 15 years, from 1927 to 1942, he played an integral role in the band. He contributed his distinctive clarinet sound to many of Ellington’s most famous compositions. These include “Mood Indigo” and “Black and Tan Fantasy.”

After leaving Ellington’s Orchestra, Bigard continued to make his mark in the world of jazz. He collaborated with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, resulting in some memorable performances and recordings.

6. Pee Wee Russell

Another exceptional clarinetist in the realm of jazz is Pee Wee Russell, born Charles Ellsworth Russell. His nickname, Pee Wee, stuck and became synonymous with innovative jazz clarinet playing.

Russell’s unconventional approach to his instrument marked a departure from traditional jazz clarinet techniques. His style was characterized by a highly individualistic and expressive sound, often described as “abrasive” yet deeply emotional.

Among his notable works, his collaborations with Eddie Condon’s bands in the 1930s and 1940s stand out. These partnerships produced some of the most memorable Dixieland jazz recordings of the era.

But perhaps what truly sets Russell apart is his ability to adapt and evolve his music style. In the 1950s and 1960s, he began exploring more modern forms of jazz. He successfully integrated his unique style into these new contexts. His album Ask Me Now! is a testament to this evolution.

7. Anat Cohen

Our next musician was born in 1975 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Anat Cohen‘s musical journey began in a nurturing environment that fostered her love for music and set her on a path to become an esteemed figure in jazz.

At the age of 12, she began her clarinet studies and played in the Jaffa Conservatory’s Dixieland band. Her passion for the instrument and the genre only grew from there. It led her to explore the tenor and soprano saxophone during her high school years.

Her career took a significant leap when she moved to New York City. Here, she not only honed her skills but also established herself as a bandleader, leading her quartet to perform at prestigious festivals and venues around the world.

The Jazz Journalists Association has consecutively honored Cohen as the Clarinetist of the Year since 2007. In addition, she has repeatedly secured the position of the leading clarinetist in both readers’ and critics’ polls conducted by DownBeat for several years.

8. Buddy DeFranco

Born Boniface Ferdinand Leonardo DeFranco in 1923, Buddy DeFranco is a luminary in the world of jazz. His technical proficiency in the clarinet was complemented by his innovative improvisational skills. His style was a bridge between the swing and bebop eras of jazz.

One of DeFranco’s most significant contributions to jazz was his ability to adapt the clarinet to the rapidly evolving styles of the genre. While the clarinet was a dominant instrument in traditional jazz and swing, it fell out of favor in the bebop era. However, DeFranco successfully navigated these challenges. He proved that the clarinet could indeed be a bebop instrument.

Furthermore, his collaborations with other musicians played a crucial role in shaping jazz. The Buddy DeFranco Quartet, which included talents like Art Blakey and Kenny Drew, produced some of the most memorable performances of the era.

9. Rick Bogart

New Orleans native Rick Bogart is a leading figure in jazz music. He is celebrated for his mastery of the clarinet, captivating vocals, and brilliant compositions. His dedication to the genre is evident in his frequent performances in midtown Manhattan, where he performs four to five times a week with his trio.

Bogart’s musical journey began early in his career when he played both the piano and clarinet. However, as his career progressed, he chose to focus solely on the clarinet. Later on, he incorporated vocals into his performances.

His style is heavily influenced by his New Orleans roots, bringing the vibrant NOLA style to his performances. This unique approach has earned him recognition as one of the great clarinetists of our era.

10. Jimmie Noone

Born in 1895 in Cut Off, Louisiana, Jimmie Noone‘s musical career spanned the early to mid-20th century. He is best remembered for his contributions to the Chicago jazz scene.

Noone’s professional music career kicked off when he moved to New Orleans in his teenage years. There, he received mentorship from the renowned Creole clarinetist Lorenzo Tio Jr. He played in various bands before joining the Original Creole Orchestra and later King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.

In 1920, he moved to Chicago, where he eventually became a prominent figure in the local jazz scene. His most significant work came about during his tenure as the leader of Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orchestra, a band that performed regularly at the Apex Club.

11. Woody Herman

Our next clarinetist, Woody Herman, was born in 1913. He began his music career as a child, singing and dancing in vaudeville acts. He later learned to play the saxophone and clarinet and, by his early 20s, had become a professional musician.

After several years as a sideman and vocalist in various bands, Herman formed his first band, Woody Herman and His Orchestra, in 1936. In the mid-1940s, he formed his second band, now known as The Second Herd or The Four Brothers Band.

This band included notable musicians like Stan Getz and Zoot Sims. It was characterized by its innovative arrangements and strong saxophone section. One of their most popular recordings from this period was “Four Brothers,” which became a jazz standard.

As a clarinetist, Herman was known for his warm, liquid tone and his technical prowess. He continued to perform and record music until his death in 1987.

12. Johnny Dodds

Born in 1892, Johnny Dodds was a pivotal figure in early jazz. He started his music career in New Orleans, playing with bands led by notable musicians such as Joe “King” Oliver and Freddie Keppard.

His big break came in 1922 when he joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago, which also included a young Louis Armstrong. This band is often credited with shaping the early development of jazz music.

In addition to his work with King Oliver’s band, Dodds also performed and recorded with other notable musicians of the era, including Jelly Roll Morton and Earl Hines.

Losing his teeth in the late 1920s greatly affected his ability to play. Nevertheless, Dodds continued to perform until his death in 1940. His final recordings were made in 1938, but his influence on jazz and the clarinet has endured.

13. John Carter

We end this list with John Carter. He was a renowned American jazz clarinetist and composer born in 1928 in Fort Worth, Texas. His career spanned several decades, from the 1960s to the early 1990s, during which he made significant contributions to jazz music.

Carter began playing music at a young age. He started with the saxophone before switching to the clarinet. He was a key figure in the free jazz movement, known for his blend of traditional jazz techniques with more avant-garde elements.

One of Carter’s most notable works is his five-album series Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music. This ambitious project, completed between 1982 and 1990, traces the history of African Americans from their origins in Africa through their journey to the New World and subsequent experiences.

Summing Up Our List Of Jazz Clarinetists

There you have it! As you have read, in the rich and diverse world of jazz, the clarinet has played a significant role. Numerous artists have made their mark through their mastery of this instrument.

From early jazz pioneers like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw to modern virtuosos such as Rick Bogart and Doreen Ketchens, these musicians have redefined the boundaries of jazz with their innovative styles and unparalleled skills.

Of course, there are undoubtedly other talented jazz clarinetists out there who deserve recognition. Let us know who we’ve missed, and we’ll add them here for you!

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.