Originally published in The Clarinet 50/4 (September 2023).
Printed copies of The Clarinet are available for ICA members.
The Jazz Scene
by Samantha Wright
The Early Clarinetists of the Duke Ellington Orchestra
“The Washingtonians,” “The Kentucky Club Orchestra,” “The Cotton Club Orchestra,” “The Jungle Band”—these were all names for what we refer to today as the “Duke Ellington Orchestra.” Quite like the ensemble’s name, the music and style of this famous band took many exciting twists and turns throughout its 50-year run, reflective of the changing times in history, the progression of jazz music and arranging, and the unique musical personalities of the players.
Duke Ellington’s compositions and arrangements are especially inspiring for clarinetists, as this instrument was a featured soloist in the majority of his music. There were a total of seven musicians from 1924 until 1974 who took on this role (eight if we include Harry Carney, the baritone saxophonist of the band who doubled on bass clarinet). When looking through the rich discography information available about the Ellington Orchestra, it’s insightful to be able to identify who was playing on which recording. However, in the earlier years of the band, some of the archival records are quite patchy, and missing some information. From November 29, 1926, until October 26, 1927, the clarinetist (or clarinetists) appear as “n/k.”1 In this article I will be playing detective as I outline the characteristics of clarinetists who were playing with Ellington at the time of these recordings, and share theories of who I think could have been playing on each recording. I’ve transcribed 12 early clarinet solos; four are excerpted here, and the full transcriptions are available at The Clarinet Online.
The first clarinetist to enter the orchestra in June 1924 was none other than Sidney Bechet. Before he discovered the saxophone in a shop in London five years earlier while touring with Will Marion Cook and his “Syncopated Orchestra,” Bechet was a sought-after clarinetist, having studied under the tutelage of the legendary Lorenzo Tio Jr. It’s said that Tio Jr., together with his father and uncle, were the first ever jazz teachers, and they passed on their knowledge of music theory combined with ragtime, blues, and the music of New Orleans to many other clarinetists at that time: Barney Bigard (who we will come to later), Omer Simeon, Louis Cottrell Jr, Jimmie Noone, and Albert Nicholas.2
Duke Ellington hired Bechet to help the band with New Orleans repertoire, but unfortunately Bechet didn’t stay long due to some personal clashes with members, missing concerts, and an amusing rumor that he decided to bring his full-grown German Shepherd to work.3 According to the archives from 1924 until 1925, there were no official recordings made of his time with the group. Nonetheless, here are some notes about Bechet’s clarinet playing.
When studying recordings of Sidney Bechet on clarinet, one can identify a few of his playing characteristics, including slides/pitch bending and free-flowing glissandi (see Example 1, a transcription of “Blackstick” from 1938). Bechet played an Albert System clarinet, which was the most popular system used in New Orleans at the time because it was cheap and easily available.4 Many argue that it’s more adaptable than the Boehm-system instruments, because the wider bore and less keywork allowed for a bigger and more resonant sound, and the lack of keywork also made bends and slurs easier to execute and control.5
I find his rhythmic placement interesting, particularly when beginning phrases. It’s important to note that Bechet didn’t read notated music at all, and played from memory. At the start of almost every two-bar phrase of this piece, he begins on beat 1 (from bar 13 onwards). Some could describe this approach as “controlled” or “disciplined,” even perhaps reflecting the music of the early New Orleans marching bands or reminiscent of ragtime.
When identifying a musician, of course sound is a big clue. Bechet’s tone on this recording is somehow light but still punchy, with a thick vibrato ringing out.
If we listen to another recording, “Egyptian Fantasy” from 1941, we can recognize the same characteristics in his playing: again the unique coarse tone and rich vibrato, and the almost-funeral-march-sounding phrases.
In 1925 Prince Robinson joined the Ellington Orchestra, a self-taught musician from Virginia, doubling on tenor saxophone and clarinet.6 The tenor sax/clarinet role was one that remained with the band for the majority of its existence, and it increased Ellington’s options for arrangements. According to discography records, Robinson stayed with the band for two years, but during this time Ellington managed to get him in the studio for a total of four sessions.7 Because of recording limitations at the time, tracks were notoriously short in length and arguably not a realistic reflection of how long they would have been played live in the dance halls and hotels. Furthermore, most harmonic progressions in the repertoire were quite heavily based around the blues progression, with not much deviation.
An example of Robinson playing in the band is “Parlour Social Stomp,” which was recorded in March 1926 (see Example 2). It’s said that during this time, the band’s sound was still massively influenced by Sidney Bechet’s previous musical contributions, and that as a result the orchestration of the band reflects the textures heard in a New Orleans front line. One thing which immediately stood out for me as I heard Robinson’s solo for the first time was his switches from jumping and almost “spring” like articulations (for example in the first 6 bars of the transcription) compared to the very slurred and flowing phrasing in bars 7-9. These details in articulation are identifiable in almost all of the recordings he made with the band, in addition to the range he plays in. He prefers to stay in the range above the break, perhaps reflective of the similar fingering system in this octave to the saxophone. In other recording sessions with Robinson, some more things I have noticed about his improvisations are clear phrase development and “question and answer”-style phrasing.
After Robinson left the band in 1926 (his last credited recording was on June 21), Ellington didn’t record again with the group until November 29. This is the moment where the elusive “n/k” joins the scene for almost a year of recording sessions!8
Upon listening to the clarinet solos from this time, and taking into account the playing characteristics and style, I believe that the clarinetist in this November recording session is still Robinson. It is, nonetheless, unclear why he isn’t credited for this. In the session three tracks were recorded: “Immigration Blues” and two takes of “The Creeper,” both composed by Ellington.
If we look at “The Creeper,” we can see the contrasting use of articulations, changing from short, “jumpy,” and animated in the first half of the solo, to very long and flowing sequential lines in bars 11-13 (see Example 3), extremely different from that in “Egyptian Fantasy” by Bechet for example. The sound is similar and the range (although higher than his previous recordings with the band) is more in Robinson’s style. Of course, due to the more “structurally arranged” nature of the only examples available of Bechet playing clarinet, we’re not able to have a complete overview of his playing, particularly in the 1920s.
However after taking into consideration these factors, in addition to his distinctive full and flexible tone and great time feel, I believe that this uncredited playing likely belongs to Robinson.
In written recollections and biographies about Duke Ellington, it is mentioned that Rudy Jackson joined the band as Prince Robinson’s replacement in the summer of 1927 and stayed for around six months only.9 However, this conflicts with Harry Carney’s account of the recording session on February 3, 1927, where he shares that Rudy Jackson was playing in the tune “Song of the Cotton field.”10 I personally agree with Carney and believe that Jackson was playing in this session, which marked the beginning of his time with Duke Ellington. I will attempt to justify this case in my analysis of these clarinet solos, in addition to speculating if Jackson played the whole time with the band until January 1928.
Rudy Jackson was born in 1901 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His parents were musicians, and he began to learn the clarinet as a child while growing up in Chicago. Ellington was seeking a replacement for Prince Robinson, and Jackson was subsequently invited to join the band on clarinet and tenor saxophone. He played regularly with the ensemble until January 9, 1928, when he was sacked. The story goes that Jackson brought an “original” compositional idea to Ellington and suggested that Ellington could orchestrate it. (With the addition of Harry Carney to the group in 1927, the band’s instrumental possibilities continued to expand, and allowed Ellington to experiment with three clarinet lines.) The blues tune that featured the melody harmonized for all three clarinets was completed and recorded four months later, and Ellington named it “Creole Love Call.”11 However, Jackson, who shared composing credit for the song, apparently neglected to inform his collaborators that it was in fact stolen from his former boss, King Oliver.12
On February 3, 1927, Ellington recorded two new songs in the studio, one of which may have featured Rudy Jackson (uncredited) on the clarinet: “Song of The Cotton Field,” written by Porter Grainger.13 The tone of the clarinet is reminiscent to the woody and chalumeau clarinet sounds of the Creole tradition, in an extreme contrast to Robinson’s bright sound. The playing is also a lot looser in time feel, with tone and expression taking the focal point. Because of the almost mechanical placement of the phrases and repetition rather than development or embellishment, I would also tend to view this solo as a “planned” passage, rather than improvised.
One month later, on March 22, 1927, the band returned to the studio to record another song, this time a much faster tune named “Hop Head.”14 In contrast to “Song of The Cotton Field,” the clarinetist breaks into the higher clarinet register here, and plays some fast and complex patterns, requiring high dexterity on the instrument. With a sound and feel that contrasts significantly with “Song of The Cotton Field,” it’s difficult to judge whether it’s the same player on both tracks.
One distinct feature that I can recognize from the start is the repetition and embellishment of phrases. This detail makes me think back to Robinson’s trait of phrase development.
There is a strong use of chromaticism and “enclosures” embedded in phrases that connect ideas together over the harmony, but in contrast to Robinson’s earlier solos, there are fewer arpeggiated lines occurring. With the archival material failing to provide a name, no one can be certain without further evidence.
In the same session, Duke Ellington and his band recorded “Down in Our Alley Blues.” Throughout the piece there are little solo features by most of the band, offering a seven-bar pocket for the unnamed clarinetist (see Example 4). Similar to the last solo, I am inclined to predict that it could be Prince Robinson playing on this track, due to the overall range of the solo; in all of the solos that we have discussed so far, Robinson very rarely touches the lower range of the instrument, mostly playing above the clarinet break.
Later in the year on October 26, 1927, the Duke Ellington Orchestra recorded a new piece titled “Washington Wabble.” This is the last session where the clarinet player is mysteriously unnamed, and from November 3 on, Rudy Jackson is officially a member of the band according the archives. Several factors leave me to believe that it is again Prince Robinson playing the clarinet in this last session. Firstly, as previously mentioned, the range of the overall solo fits; it’s out of character for Robinson to play below the clarinet break, and this solo is focused on the middle-high range of the clarinet.
Perhaps it could be assumed that the unnamed clarinetist from November 29, 1926, up until October 26, 1927, is predominantly Prince Robinson, with the possibility that Rudy Jackson sat in for a session on February 3, 1927, for “Song of The Cotton Field.” As I have mentioned, it is impossible to confirm this due to the lack of archival crediting, but the findings from transcription and analysis have led me to this verdict.
The clarinetists who took over after Bechet, Robinson, and Jackson all went down in history as longtime members of the band, each with very contrasting sounds and musical backgrounds: Barney Bigard (after a short contribution by Chauncey Haughton), Jimmy Hamilton, and Russell Procope (although predominantly doubling on alto saxophone).
What are your views on those early mystery clarinetists? Take a look at my full transcriptions of these works and more in the online version of this article. Recordings of all of these songs are also available to listen to online. While we may never be 100% certain who played on these recordings, studying them offers a great insight into some of the earliest examples of jazz clarinet.Jazz Scene Transcriptions
1 “Ellingtonia Discography 1924-1930,” Ellingtonia.com (www.ellingtonia.com/discography/1924-1930), accessed in August 2019.
2 Ian Carr, The Rough Guide to Jazz (London: Rough Guides Ltd, 2004).
3 A.H. Lawrence, Duke Ellington And His World (New York: Taylor and Francis Group, 2001).
4 Roger Heaton, The Versatile Clarinet (New York: Taylor & Francis Group LLC, 2006).
5 Stuart A. Kauffman, Investigations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
6 Lawrence, Duke Ellington.
7 “Ellingtonia Discography.”
9 Lawrence, Duke Ellington.
10 Mark Tucker, Ellington: The Early Years (USA: University of Illinois, 1991).
11 Lawrence, Duke Ellington.
12 Terry Teachout, Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (USA, 2013).
13 Tucker, Ellington.
Samantha Wright is a clarinetist, composer, researcher, and educator based in Hamburg, Germany. Since 2019 she has been part of the jazz department at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater, Hamburg, where she teaches jazz clarinet and directs seminars in transcription and analysis. She has performed as a guest soloist with leading ensembles, big bands, and symphony orchestras across Europe, and regularly presents
her research at conferences and workshops internationally.