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Ten Essential Tunes For Jazz Clarinet Students

Updated: Jun 3, 2023

My Ten Essential Tunes For Jazz Clarinet students...

Jazz clarinet is an art form that has been in decline for 50 years now or more. Once the clarinet was overtaken by the saxophone in the 1940’s the clarinet fell out of favor. I often encounter students that want to learn to improvise on the clarinet; it’s not an easy task to begin and there are no shortcuts. One needs a solid technical background on the clarinet to begin this study. Total familiarity with major and minor tonalities along with some sense of diminished and whole tone tonalities is needed. Only at that point can one then begin to develop a repertoire that is friendly to the clarinet. The challenges of the clarinet are many, not the least of which are the awkward register shifts and the lack of volume relative to a saxophone or brass instrument. Above all else be patient and diligent in your work learning to improvise, and understand that where you start and where you end up several years later are what matters, not the small frustrations or difficulties you encounter along the way.

I have selected these Ten Essential Tunes for Jazz Clarinet Students with several criteria in mind. This list is not definitive, rather it is a solid starting point for students to begin to understand both the historical lineage of jazz clarinet, and to delve into repertoire that is playable while still developing the skills needed to become an accomplished improviser. Each of these tunes has a backstory, so let’s begin in no order of significance or priority.

1. Caravan

The roots and essence of jazz clarinet come directly from New Orleans, Louisiana, or NOLA if you will. There is also an abundance of clarinet information that can be gleaned from the music of Duke Ellington. The original Caravan features Ellington creole clarinetist Barney Bigard, who I’ve profiled in detail here:

Here is one of many very cool versions of this tune: Caravan gives the improviser a chance to try out plenty of various dominant to tonic ideas in the A section, and the Bridge sets up some typical cycle of 4ths movement that should be familiar to anyone with a little jazz harmony experience. Students should note there are two different melodies that can be applied in the Bridge section. Be sure to call this tune at any jam session, it’s a favorite jam session tune.

2. Petite Fluer

Made famous by New Orleans clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, one of the original jazz soloists to emerge right around the days of the earliest jazz recordings, Petite Fluer is a terrific combination of a classic melody that sits well on the clarinet, and a great set of chord changes to improvise over. It can be played with a variety of rhythmic background, Bossa and Bolero styles work very well. Find a groove that suits you and learn this one cold. Although many version of Bechet feature him playing this tune on soprano sax there are version, albeit hard to find, where he plays this tune on clarinet. It fits better on the clarinet and was most certainly originally written on the clarinet as Bechet turned to the soprano at a later point in his career.

Bechet on soprano:

3. When The Saints Go Marching In

This traditional NOLA nugget is a must for all jazz clarinet students. Sure, the tune itself is a bit overplayed, maybe even trite. But the chord progression is simple and a lot of fun to improvise over. As a student becomes more advanced it is possible to take this tune in many diverse directions. I have changed the meter to 6/8 and 3/4 time, I have reworked the chords into a minor tonality instead of the usual major tonality, and I have re harmonized the chords to give them more movement. These are the types of things that a player can do to personalize their approach to improvisation, making their way of interpreting a familiar tune unique, sophisticated and interesting. Don’t forget a request for Saints is worth big money in NOLA.

4. Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans

Do you see a NOLA pattern emerging here? You certainly should. The musical well of NOLA clarinet tradition is deep and wide. You cannot possible find a more interesting and enjoyable tune to improvise over than this one. I refer you to Pete Fountain here for a classic version of this tune:

This tune, in standard AABA form, has great lyrics, a wonderful melody, and a chord sequence that allows for all manner of improvising. Learn this in the standard key, C Concert, and then try it a few other keys as well. Modulating this tune up a whole step in performance is a nice device too.

5. Mood Indigo

Continuing in our NOLA tradition, another classic repertoire piece is Barney Bigard’s Mood Indigo. Recorded many times and many ways by the Ellington Band, this tune is the perfect vehicle to showcase your low register, warm woody clarinet tone. Here is a definitive version:

Check out my transcription of this classic clarinet tune:

Another fantastic melody with some great chords to play over, and a nod back in time to one of the greats. You can’t play a gig and leave out the Ellington Band, and this tune works perfect in small groups.

6. Memories Of You

Absolutely essential material here, both from a musical perspective and a historical one. Benny Goodman’s classic version from the Carnegie Hall 1938 recording is the touch point for this tune:

This recording of Benny was one of the high water marks of his career. Note the famous little clarinet introduction the he plays here. Another great melody with great chords. Learn the Benny version note for note first to inform yourself of his approach, then don’t be afraid to go in other directions with this tune if you so desire.

7. Nuages

It would be impossible to understate the importance of this Django Rheinhardt classic. My investigation has led me to his recordings of this tune; Django played this in a couple of different keys. And yes it does have a very specific melody stated by the clarinet. Be sure to learn it in the two keys just in case you get thrown a curve ball at some point.

Here’s a faster version featuring Django’s group with the clarinet stating the melody:

8. Rose Room

Rose Room shares a set of chord changes with Ellington’s In A Mellow Tone. Benny Goodman made Rose Room famous, and there exists a fine version from Ellington clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton that I like a lot as well. You have to know this melody and be able to navigate the chord changes.

Jimmy’s version:

This is what the melody looks like:

9. Triste

Triste is a personal favorite of mine. Both the melody and the chord changes are lovely. Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim wrote so many classic and memorable tunes, nearly all of which are worth learning and playing on the clarinet. The clarinet has a significant role and history in Brazilian choro music, a style akin to American Ragtime. Being able to handle Bossa Nova style is important to any serious student of jazz improvisation, and Triste is the perfect vehicle to begin learning how to play melodically and simply with a straight eighth note feel. Clarinetist Ken Peplowski plays a beautiful version of this with Charlie Byrd, dig how the tune modulates before Ken comes in with his amazing improvisation.

10. My Blue Heaven

Years ago I remember hearing a wonderful version of this tune by Johnny Dodds, an early pioneer of NOLA style clarinet. Known for his work with Louis Armstrong, Dodds’ rough and ready early clarinet style should to be studied and noted by all clarinet students. I love another version by Buddy DeFranco that I have transcribed that I am including here. Simple melody, simple chords, another perfect vehicle for clarinet improvisers to sink their teeth into.

Buddy’s version can be heard here:

My transcription is here:

Some final thoughts regarding improvising on the clarinet:

1. Try moving tunes into different keys on the clarinet. If you transcribe Buddy DeFranco you will find that he doesn’t always play tunes in the standard key. This allows for melodies to sit better on the clarinet and can make it possible to state the melody in as many as three octaves. Discover this sort of thing for yourself.

2. Take simple tunes and make them more harmonically challenging. Develop your own repertoire, write charts for your tunes and play them live as often as you can.

3. Write contrafacts which are alternate melodies to standard chord progressions, then play those on a gig. I discuss contrafacts in detail here:

4. Look for playing situations where volume is not a problem, playing duo with a piano or guitar or trio without a drummer are great contexts for the jazz clarinetist, this allows you to be heard and to hear yourself much better than a loud amplified quartet or quintet context.

5. Understand that some tunes just won’t be a good fit for the clarinet and don’t be afraid to discard them or rearrange them somehow to make them suit your tastes and abilities.

Thanks for stopping by my Blog…..Markos

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