Clarinetist Lester Young

Responding to an earlier post about the loss of Joe Muranyi, a commenter recalled Muranyi trying out his own “metal Conn clarinet, a horn a more self-conscious player would recoil from.”  The open-minded Muranyi in turn “played the living heck out of it.”  Apparently for some musicians, the instrument is always a catalyst and never a compromise.  For Lester Young, a metal clarinet was a choice, maybe even a necessity.

Gunther Schuller notes that when Young put down his tenor, the influential jazz artist and part-time tragic hero “played a cheap metal clarinet that he picked up somewhere on his travels, but whose tone he loved dearly.”  Young kept the signature lightness of his sax on the smaller horn, and at fast tempos would use the same triplets and encircling, never inundating lines for the “little stories” he had to tell.  At slower tempos and in more reflective settings, he’d come up with a story like the one in “Blues with Helen,” from the 1939 Spirituals to Swing concert organized by impresario John Hammond [starting at 1:47 in the clip below]:

Hammond introduces Young as “switching over to clarinet,” but there is no sense of “switch” or adaptation here: Young is simply playing clarinet.  The tone could be called “thin,” but more like a leaf rather than paper, something likely to tear given the right force but able to support storms and sunlight on its own terms.  Sustained notes let the audience absorb that sound while always unfolding a narrative, never halting the action or merely displaying beauty for the sake of itself.  If anything is different, it’s that the clarinet’s brighter, at times childlike timbre brings out the fragility of the clarinetist.

Benny Goodman mentions purchasing a Selmer (wood) clarinet for Young while in Europe, an instrument fewer clarinetists might recoil from.  While it’s endearing to imagine Young gratefully accepting the gift and sticking to his cheap little instrument, the truth is that it doesn’t matter what kind of clarinet Lester Young played, only that he played clarinet.

About these ads
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

6 thoughts on “Clarinetist Lester Young

  1. tronepone says:

    Another Nice Nook! The leaf/paper simile is apt — and aren’t leaves translucent, too?
    Tone aside, in this example, Lester at times sounds like Pee Wee Russell. Both were superb in the blues, more wistful than sad.

    • M. Figg says:

      It’s funny, because while I was writing about a musician primarily known for his tenor sax playing clarinet, I was also thinking about Russell and the opposite phenomenon! Great minds, etc. I guess. Thanks as always for reading and keeping the conversation going.

  2. [...] Lester Young, clarinetist. He was known as a tenor saxophonist, of course, but also kept a cheap metal clarinet on his arsenal. From Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic, who also recontextualizes, say, early cornetist Red Nichols. [...]

  3. [...] Lester Young, clarinetist. He was known as a tenor saxophonist, of course, but also kept a cheap metal clarinet on his arsenal. From Aesthetic, Not Anesthetic, who also recontextualizes, say, early cornetist Red Nichols. [...]

  4. andrew t says:

    Beautiful! Thank you for sharing this. Although I’ve lived with this music for nearly 50 years, I sat listening with tears rolling down my face.
    Just one point (from Mr Pedantic) it wasn’t recorded at the ‘Spirituals to Swing’ concert – it was recorded privately by john Hammond (june 3rd 1938) – the announcement and applause were dubbed in in the 50’s, in a bit of kidology. This doers not detract from quality of the music, we should just be gald that Hammond recorded it.

    • M. Figg says:

      It is really “something,” Andrew. I’m glad it was recorded too, and glad we can all share it.

      Thanks so much for reading as well as commenting, and for information about the recording!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 101 other followers

%d bloggers like this: