Tag Archives: Joe Muranyi

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

RIP Joe Muranyi

Joe Muranyi, courtesy of Henning Janos

Joe Muranyi passed away last Friday.  A bad Internet connection and a busy weekend kept the news from me until Monday, and uncertainty about what to say kept me from commenting until today.

Muranyi was best known as the last clarinetist to play with Louis Armstrong, as well as a good friend of Armstrong’s, a prodigious jazz writer and a fine musician in his own right.  Muranyi was a link to a seminal force in music.  He was also the person who taught me how to give Louis Armstrong the benefit of the doubt.

As a younger listener,  I was one of those Louis Armstrong fans who just assumed that the great trumpeter’s career as a jazz artist ended some time around 1928, when big bands, vocals and Tin Pan Alley made him into a (mere) “popular entertainer.”  Joe Muranyi’s liner notes for the 1989 BMG/Bluebird CD Laughing Louie taught me better.  Knowing the man and his music well, he pointed out that Armstrong wasn’t holding back, he was playing just the notes he needed for maximum impact.  He wasn’t selling out by leaving jazz tunes behind, he was flexing his imagination and chops by looking ahead to new material.  Most of all, he was reaching more listeners.  Armstrong was all about reaching people.

Muranyi’s commentary moved like great sports casting.  It was also optimistic, open-minded and above all insightful, treating these 1932 and 1933 studio sessions not as popular concessions or the product of opportunistic management, but as the sincere work of a pensive yet joyful artist.  In short, Muranyi heard music, and from then on so did I.

And that’s all I have to say about him.  I’ll leave the rest to some other writers who help me to hear more and understand better:

Goodbye, Josephus” from Michael Steinman at Jazz Lives.

In Loving Memory of Joe Muranyi” by Ricky Riccardi at The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,