Albany “Barney” Bigard-New Orleans Creole Clarinet
Updated: May 1
While I don’t truly have a favorite jazz clarinetist, for picking only one would be impossible, one of my earliest and most significant influences is absolutely Barney Bigard. How can you not love a clarinetist named Barney? True aficionados of jazz clarinet will know that Barney Bigard was the first great clarinet soloist in the Duke Ellington Band, and they will likely also know that he played an Albert system clarinet.
"The Albert system refers to a system of clarinet keywork and fingering developed by Eugene Albert. It has been largely replaced by the Boehm system. The Albert system is still used, mainly by clarinetists who perform Eastern European folk music. Often these musicians prefer the Albert system due to the ease of slurring notes provided by unkeyed tone holes.” Wikipedia
Definitive information regarding Albert System clarinets can be found here at the Albert System-The Jazz Clarinet website…..https://web.archive.org/web/20120325030127/http://usuarios.multimania.es/albertsystem/
Originally Barney Bigard took clarinet lessons with Lorenzo Tio Jr. and Papa Tio. He played parades in New Orleans, and first became known as a tenor saxophonist. After working with several groups in New Orleans, Bigard moved to Chicago where he played with King Oliver from 1925 until 1927. Between 1927 and 1942 he was featured on many of Duke Ellington’s classic recordings, including Mood Indigo, which Bigard co-composed. As a composer he made some monumental contributions to the Ellington book, including Rocking in Rhythm, Saturday Night Function, Clarinet Lament, Clouds In My Heart, and Sophisticated Lady. Bigard also played with Louis Armstrong from 1947 to 1955. A warm low register, delicate phrasing and signature chromatic passages are a significant part of his style.
I have chosen four great Barney Bigard tracks, featuring iconic Barney Bigard solos, to illustrate his significance and stylistic influence on clarinetists of his generation and beyond. To me these tracks are required listening.
1. The Original Caravan by members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra/Barney Bigard Jazzopators
The first version of the song "Caravan" was recorded in Hollywood, 18 December 1936, and performed as an instrumental by Barney Bigard and His Jazzopators. Two takes were recorded and were issued, although L-0373-2 is by far the more commonly found take. An often missed point with this version of Caravan is that while the A section that supports the melody is 16 bars, 12 bars of the dominant chord followed by 4 bars of the tonic minor, in the solo section the soloists only improvise over the dominant chord for 4 bars, followed by four bars of the tonic minor, making the A section 8 bars total. This makes a lot of sense and allows for the form to be more symmetrical and keeps the harmony motion moving instead of the long 12 bar dominant that just seems to hang on forever……
2. Mood Indigo Clarinet Gumbo, RCA 1976, APL1-1744
One MUST listen to the original Mood Indigo for historical purposes, but this version of Mood Indigo from the great Bigard RCA recording Clarinet Gumbo is a wonderful example of the low register, “woody” clarinet tone that people associate with Barney Bigard and many of the New Orleans clarinetists.
3. I Know That You Know-Django Reinhardt and His American Band
Django Reinhard, the amazing Gypsy Jazz guitarist, made a few sides with Barney. You truly have to hear this Barney Bigard solo to believe it. A medium up tempo tune is thoroughly dissected by Barney; this is a very satisfying solo. His virtuosity is amazing, the low register is fully exploited and some nice high register swoops are fit in for good measure. A classic solo, give it a listen.
Great Ellington Units, RCA 7651-2-RB, is a treasure trove of small group Ellington recordings that feature sidemen Johnny Hodges and Rex Stewart. Six tracks total of Barney Bigard, all of which are classics and feature some incredible clarinet work.
When I listen to this track I am struck by not only the totally personal and unique statement that Duke makes initially on piano, but by the “woody” low register clarinet melody, written by Barney Bigard. The evocative atmosphere that this tune conjures is nothing short of incredible. Some wonderful background figures and iconic Bigard solo phrases. A truly masterful performance.
Which leads me to highlight an often overlooked aspect of Barney Bigard’s work, his fabulous gift for melody that is brought to light by his compositions. I have compiled a list of original tunes here, which is no doubt far from complete, to give you an idea of how prolific a composer the man was. I am always struck at the beauty and logic of his melodic lines, and the often interesting turn the phrases take in relation to the harmony. In the research for this post I have pulled out all my LP’s and CD’s of Barney and have been surprised at how many of his own compositions he recorded. Artie Shaw is the only other clarinetist of this era that comes to mind as another comparably prolific composer….
Barney Bigard Compositions-Partial List
From Clarinet Gumbo:
Easy On The Ears
Memoir De Bayou
From Barney Goin’ Easy LP/Tax Records, Sweden, m-8023
Barney Goin’ Easy
Just Another Dream
Mardi Gras Madness
Jazz A La Carte
I Thought You Cared
From Barney’s Bounce LP, Two Flats Disc, Italy, TFD 5-002
From Barney Bigard Jazz Hall Of Famer Series on Liberty Records, LRP 3072
Mardi Gras Time
Louisiana And Me
Steps Steps Up
Step Steps Down
From Barney Bigard, Giants Of Small Band Swing vol 2, Storyville LP, SLP 807
For Art’s Sake with Art Tatum
From The Great Ellington Units
A Lull At Dawn
In addition to his prolific recording and performing career Barney Bigard wrote a fantastic book about his life, With Louis And The Duke, edited by Barry Martyn, Oxford University Press, 1980. I have read this rather short book many times. At 150 pages more or less it is a quick read, and it is worth noting that Barney also appeared in five movies, the first of which was Black And Tan Fantasy in 1929.
A few short excerpts from the book…
On the controversy surrounding the origin of Mood Indigo and the royalty issues with Duke Ellington:
Pages 65-65…..”Duke and I had gotten together on Mood Indigo. I’ll tell you what happened, just to set the record straight. My old teacher Lorenzo Tio had come to New York and he had a little slip of paper with some tunes and parts of tunes that he had written. There was one I liked……I took it home and kept fooling around with it…..Duke had a date for a small group recording which in fact was supposed to be my group….Duke figured out a first strain and I had him some ideas for it too. He wrote out a three-part harmony for the horns, we added my second strain and recorded it……all of a sudden it began to get popular…..I missed the boat for twenty-eight years on royalties……..Now it has finally been cleared up for Mood Indigo and I do get my royalties from it…..”
On the great New Orleans clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Sydney Bechet:
Pages 70-71…..”but now I’ll tell you about one of the greatest instrumentalists that I have ever heard in my life. This guy didn’t have any knowledge about reading music but became one of the most famous players in jazz. That’s Sydney Bechet. The one and only-and I mean one and only-Sydney Bechet…..”
Here is a chart a tune that I play often, this tune can be found on the Great Ellington Units recording. It is attributed to Mercer Ellington as composer but it sure reminds me of the type of melody that Barney would write…..
From the Clarinet Gumbo recording there is a notable Barney Bigard composition entitled Easy On The Ears. The theme is a very beautifully crafted New Orleans style melody. I recorded a version on my first CD, Simple Beauty. I updated the rhythm section groove and added a little clarinet duet horn section part at the end for good measure.
This website has an incredible amount of information about Duke Ellington and related topics. Well done and recommended to anyone interested in a great overview of the Ellington Band.
Barney Bigard to me displays a certain harmonic sophistication and a refinement in tone and technique that was unmatched by his peers from his earliest recordings. Add to that the advancement of recording techniques that he lived long enough to benefit from, and the stellar musicians that he kept company with, and you have to my mind the preeminent clarinetist of the New Orleans style. I never ever get tired of hearing his recordings, and as my own understanding of this great music broadens, I hear subtle new musical inflections and find my admiration for his work always expanding.
Thanks for stopping by my Blog……Markos