While he’s now famous for playing clarinet with Duke Ellington, Barney Bigard’s first break was playing tenor saxophone for King Oliver. Bigard recalled “When I went to Chicago and joined King Oliver’s band, he had two good clarinetists in Albert Nicholas and Darnell Howard. I wouldn’t even pick up the clarinet at that time.”
Records made with other bands from this period also find Bigard sticking to tenor sax (with some spots of soprano sax). Yet Bigard had studied hard to master the clarinet as a youngster in his New Orleans hometown, including lessons with the legendary teacher Lorenzo Tio, Jr. During one interview, Bigard said he found it “funny” that he started as a saxophone specialist:
All the studying I had done to master the clarinet, yet I hadn’t really played it so much since I left New Orleans…I was self-taught on tenor and yet here I was making all my living on tenor and not on clarinet.
This comment may be just self-restraint on his part. Tenor titan Ben Webster offered that “Barney Bigard played tenor [in Ellington’s band], but he hated it, he just wanted to play the clarinet, so I think Barney became really glad when I joined the band.” Even Metronome magazine introduced Bigard as someone who “hates playing tenor but dotes on clarinet.”
For an autodidact doing something he never intended to and apparently abhorred doing, Bigard was a fascinating tenor player. His legacy as a clarinetist casts a long, well-deserved shadow. No one likes to hear about people—especially creative people—hating what they do. So, history has not been kind to this part of Bigard’s discography. Still, listening to the music reveals an always capable, often exciting, and surprisingly multifaceted saxophonist.
His ensemble playing alone—often alongside just one alto saxophonist—reveals a surprising number of textures and rhythmic tattoos. Bigard took pride in the “whole load of tight breaks” that he and Albert Nicholas worked out as youngsters playing at Tom Anderson’s New Orleans club. He goes as far as to say that they were “the only group in town with the instrumentation of two saxes” around 1923/24. This may be a stretch, but it’s reasonable to assume some of these routines appeared on records with the Nicholas/Bigard sax duo. It’s even safer to say that live listeners must have been impressed if the routines resembled their work on recordings.
The two saxophones respond like a Greek chorus to Thelma La Vizzo’s lyrics of lovers’ rejections and other amorous dead-ends on “New Orleans Gofer Dust Blues”: stomping away from her in lockstep double-time, “going cold” in humorous full-stop cadences, and crying like a half-sympathetic, half-mocking friend who’s heard this lament before.
With Luis Russell’s Hot Six backing Ada Brown, the saxes imitate the train in burnished metallic pops and Bigard’s firm voice bottoming things out.
His dark sound opens the first chorus of Oliver’s “Deep Henderson” and crafts an instantly memorable texture.
Playing the loping country bass line at the beginning of Oliver’s Brunswick-issued “Snag It,” Bigard’s rich tone offers a good explanation as to why Oliver didn’t seem to need a baritone sax in his reed section.
Bigard displays several different approaches on tenor as a soloist and even as an ensemble player. On “Plantation Joys” with Luis Russell’s Heebie Jeebie Stompers, he plays the saxophone like it’s a big metal bass clarinet. Bigard mentioned that he got ideas from playing saxophone when he started playing clarinet in King Oliver’s band. On this record, the reverse seems to be the case: the clarinet’s dense scampering phrases are now transplanted to the bigger horn’s coppery tone and booming volume with no loss of agility.
For “Every Tub,” Bigard fashions a paper-thin upper register as a foil to Omer Simeon’s soprano in Oliver’s band.
He answers Oliver’s cornet and trombonist Kid Ory in faint sinewy affirmations throughout “Black Snake Blues.”
On “Melancholy,” with Johnny Dodds’s Black Bottom Stompers, Bigard’s vibrato-laden, sentimental straight lead may seem lackluster. But in a band with such gifted and energetic improvisers as Louis Armstrong, Dodds, and Earl Hines, a chance to hear this rather pretty melody unadorned offers contrast.
Dodds’s work with this impromptu all-star band is noteworthy for what he does and does not choose to play. Armstrong plays a beautiful, virtuosic lead, and Dodds was an energetic obbligato player. As Jan Evensmo puts it, Bigard “has to step aside for Armstrong and Dodds” as well as Hines. Simple but effective whole notes in the ensemble add body. The tenor’s drones fill out and pump up the band after the trumpet break in “Weary Blues.” Bigard could pull off some ideal ad-lib orchestration.
At the same time, the solo on “New Orleans Stomp” with this group shows a sense of humor. Barking like a heckler at one of the seedier clubs he’s played, Bigard seems to parody the tune and offer more release against the tension.
Tenor breaks open and close Oliver’s “Dr. Jazz.” The double-time phrases display fancy licks, but they’re answered by deadpan belly notes, another witty and musical moment.
For better or worse, as a tenor player, Bigard is most often associated with the slap tongue sound. Discussing his history with this technique/trick, Bigard remembered that:
On my feature numbers [with Charles Elgar], I would take the sax and slap tongue the hell out of it. Many years before, in New Orleans, [A.J.] Piron’s old alto player, Louis Warneke, had shown me how to get that sound like knocking on wood…A lot of those gimmicks, or tricks, in music originated with the old-timers in New Orleans….I was the slap tongue king in those days with the tenor because my tongue was so strong. What caused me to quit all that was that I broke so many reeds.
He goes on to discuss the cost of a box of reeds and the involved process of finding the right one. He doesn’t say much about his getting sick of playing this way or of changing audience tastes. It all comes across like a business decision.
Slap tongue has become one of the more hated artifacts of twenties music. It’s now dismissed as a corny fad aimed at entertainment rather than art. Nearly a century later, hearing slap tongue as a compromise between camp and avant-garde opens up some possibilities for appreciation. Bigard’s slap tongue has a few layers to it. Sometimes, he plays more like a percussionist whipping up rhythmic tension rather than a horn crafting melodies, as on “Too Bad.”
Over the band’s syncopated hits and combined with some well-timed honks, the heavy slap tongue on “Sweet Mumtaz” with Russell comes across like a hypnotic drum beat. Later on, he shows off a pliant middle register decorating the melody while Darnell Howard’s alto plays obbligato.
Then, there’s the aggressive, humorous, and slightly defiant reed popping exposition on “That Creole Band.” It’s a lot of fun, but if that’s not good enough, there’s also the simple fact that Bigard doesn’t squeak once while turning his reed to toothpicks for the sake of a 20-bar solo.
None of these recordings show someone struggling through their distaste to play tenor sax or bandleaders hiding a reluctant player. Bigard may not have liked playing this instrument, but that didn’t stop him from playing it well! Still, when Nicholas and Howard left King Oliver’s band, Bigard took over as clarinet soloist, and he “lost all interest in saxophone.” Ben Webster joining the Ellington’s band sealed the tenor’s fate when it came to Bigard. Supposedly, if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. I’m glad Barney Bigard had to work as long as he did.
Likely the part of the story using smaller reeds.
Thanks to P.M. for the inspiration for this post.