Longtime readers of this blog (both of them) have probably noticed the wealth of fan nonfiction devoted to clarinetist Don Murray. Dead by the age of twenty-
sixfour, often overshadowed by his friend and fellow young talent cut tragically short Bix Beiderbecke and with a modestly-sized discography to his name, Murray is both a personal favorite and nowhere near overexposure in the history books.
Murray’s legacy is also complicated by a lot of commercial sessions that probably paid his rent but often didn’t leave room for improvisation. Everyone (or at least the 0.5% of the planet who enjoy hot jazz) knows that it is Murray cascading out of the opening stop chord on “Sorry” under Bix Beiderbecke’s leadership. It takes some patience to find his solo on “What A Wonderful Wedding That Will Be”:
Of course, it’s worth digging if you just like Murray, but his music is worth the effort. The repetition of the first eight bars after the bridge means he was either bored with the tune or simply liked those phrases. Either way, Murray’s clarinet (as well as Red Nichols’s squeezing and pecking on trumpet) adds rhythmic and technical interest to this affair. Murray did not get to stretch out nearly as much on commercial sides but they provide some of his most elusive and rewarding work.
It’s a pity the obbligato saxophone behind the vocal isn’t better recorded; it also gets some things done musically and it might well be Murray. Murray’s tenor on “Marvelous” is much easier to hear and the title might as well refer to Murray:
The rhythmic intensity of this side immediately skyrockets upon his entrance, with Murray’s triplets and hill-and-dale phrases injecting some hot virtuosity into a peppy but otherwise straightforward performance. Murray’s gauzy tone on tenor (heard here as well as on “Blue River” with Jean Goldkette) is similar to his light-toned baritone, while he kept a bright, open sound on both clarinet and alto saxophone.
It is likely Murray’s alto saxophone on the first chorus bridge of “Feelin’ Good” and possibly his clarinet on the eight-bar improvised bridge of the last chorus. The opening squeal is uncharacteristic but the tumbling arpeggios are pure Murray:
That alto’s rhythmic phrasing, especially of eighth notes, and tone are similar to the alto on “Just Like A Melody Out Of The Sky”:
Murray seems to have made a specialty out of these rhythmic paraphrases of non-refrain sections, such as the final bridge on “I’m Ridin’ To Glory” or his gorgeous texture and rhythmic recasting of the verse on baritone for ‘”Tain’t So, Honey, Tain’t So”:
The two records with Joe Venuti’s band are much jazzier charts that still don’t give Murray much spotlight. It’s easy to lament the infrequency or brevity of Murray’s solos (especially after, for example, you might have isolated the 240 or so records that Murray appears on and listened and re-listened to every solo, obbligato, ensemble descant and straight lead he ever waxed). Yet these records also demonstrate a musician working within constraints, responding to and enhancing a musical environment much different from out-and-out jazz settings. “Somebody Lied About Me” barely gives Murray ten seconds of audible space on clarinet and he still manages to make it his own:
“Commercial” is a dirty term in some jazz circles but it simply means the popular music of the time: melodic, danceable, often slickly executed, at times novel, other times trite and above all focused on different musical priorities than other genres, including jazz. So it’s impressive that Murray got away with the impromptu ornaments behind the band and awesome double-time decoration here. Maybe the business-savvy Sam Lanin was also a fan. Whatever the explanation, the sound of Murray’s clarinet piercing through Lanin’s spongy reeds is a very powerful example of musicianship and personality (even if it won’t gain admissions into any jazz anthologies).
“Maybe, Who Knows?” is practically a feature for Murray. He plays clarinet around the ensemble on the first chorus, switches to baritone for a swinging lead on the bridge, answers Ted Lewis’s vocals back on his clarinet and then improvises on the last bridge:
Not just any section man could pull it all off with the same tone, technique, style or those tasteful, spurring ornaments at end of the band’s phrases. I’m still hopeful that someone will unearth recordings of Don Murray playing in a trio a la Jimmy Lytell but, in the meantime, these records do very well on their own terms. There may not be much jazz in them, and some of it may not even be classified as “jazz,” but it is creative, confident and individual music.