Art Pepper and the Clarinet


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Art Pepper recorded on clarinet sporadically during his career. He doubled on the instrument on his first recording session with Stan Kenton in 1943, while in Charles Mingus' bebop band in 1949 and in Kenton's Innovations Orchestra in 1950. As Laurie Pepper notes below, his decision to perform on the instrument in small groups later often depended on whether the sound system allowed him to hear himself blowing.

Recording in small groups, Pepper can be heard playing clarinet on Rose Room from The Early Show in 1952, on Anthropology from Art Pepper Plus Eleven (1959), on tracks from Barney Kessel's Some Like It Hot (1959), Joanie Sommers' Positively the Most (1959), Helen Humes' Songs I Like to Sing and Helyne Stewart's Love Moods (1960).

Among my favorite recordings of Pepper on clarinet is Swing Lightly, Castle Rock and Charleston Alley from Henry Mancini's Combo! (1960). In the years that followed, he doubled on the stick on Buddy Rich's Mercy, Mercy, Mercy (1968) and plays it on a few tracks recorded live at the Vanguard in 1977 and during his Galaxy studio sessions in 1979. There's also a live appearance in Japan that same year.

Pepper plays the clarinet on the new four-disc set, Blues for the Fisherman, recorded at Ronnie Scott's in London in 1980, newly remastered and released by Laurie Pepper's Widow's Taste label.

Here's Laurie on Art Pepper's clarinet playing:

“The 1980 trip was our first real European tour. We went everywhere—Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland and France. For this recording, we were in London for two weeks, which we all enjoyed.

“Art practiced clarinet a little every day, just around the house, and he doubled on it in Don Ellis' band and in a rehearsal band he sat in with pretty regularly. But he rarely brought it out for soloing in performance. Art just didn't have a lot of confidence in his chops, and he considered it the hardest wind instrument, not counting the oboe and bassoon, of course.

“Art did play it in Japan on tour in 1979 because the Japanese wanted him to, and the setup in Tokyo was perfect. Why? Because he could hear himself play. If I recall, under the applause for Anthropology on the new Blues for the Fisherman box, he said, 'I can't hear myself. It's just no good.  Never again."

“The problem always was with the mic-ing. He couldn't play the clarinet with conviction if he couldn't hear himself.

“I agree with you about the love shown to him. The warmth of the English fans was overwhelming and terrific.  Art just loved playing for them.

“My next release? It will probably be a concert from this same tour, up in Norway. And I even have video of the performance."

JazzWax tracks: Art Pepper: Blues for the Fisherman (Widow's Taste) is a four-CD box set that can be found here.

JazzWax clip: For those who haven't seen the tremendous 1982 documentary, Art Pepper: Notes from a Jazz Survivor, directed by Don McGlynn, here's Part 1:

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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