Three very hot clarinetists celebrate Benny Goodman

Clarinetist Larry Combs

Clarinetist Larry Combs (June 13, 2013)

On Jan. 16, 1938, clarinetist Benny Goodman shook up the music world by bringing jazz unapologetically into a shrine of highbrow culture: Carnegie Hall.

That concert, with its spectacular solos and thrilling ensemble playing, has long since acquired mythic status, and several months later – on Aug. 3 – Goodman stormed another bastion of the classics: the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the Goodman triumphs, the Ravinia Festival on Friday night will present three superb but distinctly dissimilar clarinetists playing some of the same repertoire as the earlier concerts, including the immortal "Sing, Sing, Sing." No one is expecting clarinetists Anat Cohen, Larry Combs and Eric Schneider to mimic Goodman's sound, and no one should want them to – each brings an autobiographical approach to a deceptively difficult and unwieldy instrument.

But considering that they'll be backed by Jeff Lindberg's Chicago Jazz Orchestra, a seasoned and skilled ensemble, the clarinetists could come quite close to capturing the high spirits of Goodman in his heyday. Better still, they stand to remind listeners of Goodman's outsized role in the ascendancy of swing.

"He didn't start the swing era, and he didn't come up with the music first," acknowledges Schneider, referencing a musician who was born in Chicago in 1909 and grew up here in the shadow of Jelly Roll Morton and other New Orleans jazz pioneers.

"How many great arrangements did Fletcher Henderson write that Benny wound up (playing)?" adds Schneider, referring to the overlooked architect of big-band swing. But "I think (Goodman) put it on the map. He, along with guys like Artie (Shaw) and the Dorseys (Jimmy and Tommy) and Glenn Miller.

"For me, it's Benny and Artie. That's the music I grew up listening to."

Back then, too, Goodman and Shaw were widely perceived as rivals: colossal virtuosos who somehow managed to make a complex music an extraordinarily popular one, as well. Each had their devotees, each attained global stardom of a sort rarely accorded jazz musicians and each extended the possibilities of what the clarinet could achieve. Goodman reveled in hot swing playing even after his pop-star status inevitably faded; Shaw remained the restless intellectual, producing austerely beautiful and innovative music with his Gramercy Five ensemble before putting down his clarinet once and for all, in 1954.

But not everyone accepted the legitimacy of pairing Goodman with Shaw – least of all Shaw himself.

"I never the saw that as a comparison at all," Shaw told me in 1992. "I had lunch with Benny one time, and I was trying to talk to him about something that had nothing to do with music at all.

"And all he wanted to talk about was the clarinet. So I finally said: 'Benny, you're too hung up on the clarinet.'

"And he said to me: 'I thought that's what we both played, isn't it?'

"So I said, 'Well, I'm trying to play music, Benny.'

"It was like talking to a surgeon who's in love with a scalpel and saying, 'Look how good I can use this scalpel.'

"He's missing the point."

If Shaw was the mercurial, inquisitive soul who would go on to write introspective books such as his widely admired 1952 autobiography "The Trouble With Cinderalla: An Outline of Identity" and the 1965 novel "I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead!", Goodman was a very different personality, preferring to revel in the joy and sensuousness of his music.

"I think Benny had (something) closer to a true classical sound," says Schneider. "To many people, that's of paramount importance. ... My favorite clarinet player is Lester Young, who had a sound (that) if he showed up in the symphony with that, they'd kill him.

"I think Artie's sound was ... a little drier. They both had chops galore."

So do Schneider, Cohen and Combs, though each of a different sort. Cohen grew up in Israel and thrives in a broad range of repertoire; Combs long was principal clarinetist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra but has proved more persuasive in jazz settings than classical musicians typically do; and Schneider mastered his art working in bands led by Earl Hines and Count Basie, as profound a tutelage in swing as one might hope to acquire.

"This isn't a race, this isn't a contest – but if it were a race, we have two greyhounds in Anat and Larry – and then there's me, like a bad old asthmatic beagle," jokes Schneider, downplaying his well-documented virtuosity and deep conversance with swing-based improvisation.

CHICAGO

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