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.