Who should be the patron saint of jazz clarinettists?

One gig which has really caught my eye is the appearance of the 80-year old Bob Wilber at- I’m not kidding – Pinner Parish Church. The Rev. Stuart Nattrass and Peter Vacher of Pinner Jazz always put on interesting acts. But for February they really have quite a coup. A rare UK appearance for a very big beast indeed.

My title needs explaining:

Some of us are condemned. We lament our fate on most of the days when we pick up our twenty-six inches of grenadilla wood. The cross we bear is to curse the memory of Johann Christoph Denner of Nürnberg for having invented the clarinet. Ridiculously easy to play, but maddeningly hard to play really well. And so we worship those who really CAN.

I have no doubt that the classical sound I would want to capture if I had another lifetime to devote to the clarinet would be that of Bernard Walton playing Brahms Quintet.

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But whose is the jazz clarinet voice we will hear in heaven?

I once witnessed one old gentleman trying to trap another- rather celebrated- old gentleman into an argument. Who, he asked, was the greatest jazz clarinettist: Artie Shaw or Benny Goodman?

Point taken. This tricky beast has produced very few great jazz voices. But it has certainly produced more than just these two. There’s Buddy de Franco. And there’s Jimmy Giuffre. And possibly Eddie Daniels. But there is also, definitely, Bob Wilber.

The 1980 album Dizzyfingers is a strong statement to any clarinettist. And what it says is: “Yes, I can.” He is a clarinettist equally at home on his alto sax, and – life just ain’t fair!- his soprano as well.

Bob Wilber started off in life with the kind of advantages liable to make a lot of people jealous. Does a jazz musician need to seek forgiveness for being born into a moneyed New York family? Is it his fault that his teacher, his main teenage influence, his mentor and above all his promulgator was the great Sidney Bechet? Can he now be forgiven for having honed his arranging craft at the feet of… Lennie Tristano?

His Rainbow Room residency in the 1980’s is the stuff of legend, his Ellington re-creations for Coppola’s film Cotton Club (here’s a clip) are masterly. His more recent history/education projects have been for the illustrious and super-funded Lincoln Center.

Wilber lives part of the year in Chipping Camden, but sightings on the stand over here have become all too rare. Bob Wilber is a class act, a central figure with a deep knowledge of the evolution of jazz.

For more information about him go to the information page on his website . It seems not to have been updated for a while.

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