Some instruments cross genres with ease and make major contributions to all of them. The clarinet is one of those. It has produced some great musicians, So I decided to take a look at some of the most famous clarinet players of all time.
As we all probably realize…
The clarinet has been around for quite a while. Its predecessor was an instrument called the Chalumeau. That was also a single-reed woodwind instrument.
It became the clarinet we know when a register key was added by German instrument maker Johann Christoph Denner around 1700. In later years, air-tight pads and more keys were added.
There are 15 different types of clarinet, mainly differentiated by the key in which they are set. But there are also bass and contrabass instruments. The most common is the Bb clarinet.
It is an instrument that has established itself wherever music is played. You will find it prominent in Classical Music, Jazz, and especially Swing, and Pop music. It is also a popular instrument for newcomers to music to learn.
Driven By Inspiration
In some ways, the clarinet has been the inspiration behind some players’ success. Great clarinet players have provided the drive and the impetus for other clarinet players to achieve greatness themselves.
There are far too many to include them all in an article of this size. But we can take a look at some of the best clarinet players from each of the three major genres I mentioned.
The German Influence
It is interesting that in the periods that we know as the Classical and Romantic, most clarinetists were German. German composers and musicians played an important role in the acceptance of the clarinet in their style of music.
I won’t have separate sections for each genre or timeframe. Let’s just look at them as they come and move around genres and time as we go along.
12 Most Famous Clarinet Players Of All Time
Anton Stadler was born in Bruck an der Leitha near Vienna in 1753. He and his brother both rose to become renowned musicians in Vienna. And, whilst they often worked together, it was Anton’s name that seemed to take precedence.
He played an array of instruments…
But, it was for his clarinet work that he was most noted. It was in the 1780s that he became known to Mozart.
Mozart was very impressed with him and wrote two of his most famous clarinet pieces with him in mind. These were the Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A, K.581 – 1. Allegro and A. Mozart: Clarinet Concerto K.622.
Once completed, Stadler embarked on a concert tour around Europe that lasted about four years, starting in 1790. On his return, he set up a music school in Hungary. He is best remembered today for these two pieces written by Mozart, and was clearly an accomplished musician.
Heinrich Baermann was born in Potsdam and was also a well-known German clarinetist of the 1800s. Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia was impressed with his playing and employed him at the Munich court.
He is considered one of the most influential clarinet players of the time. And he often worked with other instruments on a variety of works, such as Music for Clarinet & Piano.
During his lifetime…
The clarinet was undergoing several improvements and developments. The changes to the construction of the keys and the embouchure gave rise to a better-quality instrument.
At the time, the style was to play with the reed on the top lip. Baermann was one of many musicians who played in a new style with the reed on the bottom lip. This is the technique that is used today. Pieces were submitted to him by some of the great composers like Weber and Mendelssohn. Interestingly those two pieces are played by Sabine Meyer, a clarinetist we shall look at later.
Heinrich retired from Court in Munich in 1834, and the position of principal clarinetist was taken up by his son Carl. He was also an esteemed player of the time and had played many concerts with his father.
Carl continued his father’s work in the development of the clarinet. He helped to develop a key system known as the Baermann-Ottensteiner, which became used at the time. He was very interested in teaching the clarinet and his techniques to others. There are many of his writings available today in book and kindle form.
Let’s move up in time now to the 20th Century for this famous clarinet player and band leader. Shaw was born in New York in 1910 and is easily regarded as one of the finest jazz clarinetists.
During the 1930s and 40s…
He led one of the most popular jazz bands in America. Artie was relentless in his desire to revolutionize music, especially jazz. He helped to develop the ideas of what became known as “Third Stream Music,” a fusion between jazz and classical.
Shaw made many recordings. But, possibly the most famous of those was his version of the Cole Porter song “Begin the Beguine.” Released in 1938, it became a song that defined him and his band, lifting them from relative obscurity to international fame.
He was also well-known as a composer and wrote his own Concertos for Clarinet.
Closer to the modern day now for this clarinetist with dual Israeli-German nationality. Sharon was born in Israel in 1971. She was considered a child prodigy and, as such, went to study in New York at the Juilliard School of Music.
Her first performance with an orchestra was when she played with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. She was just 16 years old. She has since developed into one of the most respected and influential clarinet players of today.
Alongside personal commitments…
She also performs with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and also the London Symphony Orchestra.
Sharon is not a musician who has branched out into other musical fields, preferring to stay with her classical roots. Her recordings of the masters are of the highest quality, as we can hear from this brief selection.[bl]
- Clarinet Concerto, Clarinet Quintet by Sharon Kam.
- Romantic Clarinet.
- Sharon Kam – Works for Clarinet and Orchestra by Sharon Kam.
Let’s stay with a modern-day clarinetist born in 1959 in Crailsheim, Germany. Earlier, I mentioned Sabine Meyer and included her playing pieces composed by Weber and Mendelssohn for Heinrich Baermann.
She comes from a large and extended family of renowned clarinet players and was taught from a young age by her father. Wolfgang, her brother, and Reiner Wehrle, her husband, are also both accomplished players.
She has played with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and also the Berlin Philharmonic. In Berlin, she was one of the first female musicians included in the orchestra.
Along with her orchestral commitments…
She has become a committed player of Chamber music and has several respected recordings to her name.[bl]
- Sabine Meyer – Clarinet Concertos, Vol. 2 by Warner Classics.
- Clarinet Concerto / Premiere Rhapsody by Meyer, Sabine, Abbado, Claudio.
Let’s change now to something completely different and rather surprising. It may not be common knowledge, but the clarinet is a vital instrument in Turkish folk music. There are many clarinet players in Turkey, but Hüsnü Senlendirici is probably the best known.
Music was in Hüsnü’s blood. His paternal grandfather played, as did his maternal grandfather. Add to this his father’s trumpet playing, and he would have been surrounded by music from a young age.
He showed ability…
And, at 12 was sent to the State Conservatory of Turkish Music. Finishing his studies, he has played both as a solo performer and as a member of different bands. One of the bands is Laco Tayfa.
He leads them in directions that take Turkish regional folk music and adds modern western styles. That includes plenty of improvisation. Two of the many albums they have released include Harmandalı and Bergama Gaydası. And, as a solo artist, Both Sides Of The Aegean.
A long way from Mozart, but he demonstrates how the clarinet is such an important instrument in so many cultures. And it also proves why he is one of the most famous clarinet players of all time.
From Turkey to Greece now and a similar situation. “Laiko” is a particular style of Greek folk music that is very popular, especially in rural areas. As it is in Turkey, the clarinet is a very important instrument in Greek folk traditions.
Vasilios Saleas is of Greek Gypsy origins but was brought up in Athens. He is just about the most famous clarinetist in Greece. One of his aims is to ensure that Laiko is kept alive and its Greek traditions maintained.
He is very involved in Greek Folk music…
But, he is also known for playing on sessions for Greek singers making Pop music records. He has also released several albums, including Vasilios Saleas and Gyneka Pou M’Aresi.
His career started off accompanying other performers, but he quickly moved into making his own recordings.
Woody Herman was an American clarinetist and big band leader who rose to fame in the Jazz and Swing era of the 1930s. He named his band “The Herd,” and they were known and respected for pushing the boundaries of experimentation in jazz.
One of the tracks he was most famous for was “Woodchoppers Ball.” Released in 1939, it reached #9 on the American chart. A track that was also impressive came in 1948 with his version of “Sabre Dance,” taken from the ballet Gayane by Khachaturian.
Besides his excellence on the clarinet…
He also played the saxophone. That is quite common for most clarinetists as the embouchure is quite similar for both instruments. But, unlike many of his contemporaries, he also sang. Woody was still playing almost until the time of his death in 1987 and has to be considered one of the greats.
Sidney Bechet was another clarinetist who also played soprano saxophone and made an impact in the 30s. But, Sidney Bechet’s career lasted a bit longer, from the twenties through to the 50s.
Although, it wasn’t all plain sailing in those years…
Born in New Orleans in 1897, he was an important soloist. Furthermore, while many think that Louis Armstrong may have been the first jazz soloist to be recorded, it was actually Bechet.
Sidney was always considered a clarinetist of great potential. And, whilst he achieved much, his temperament, fiery at times, meant that maybe he could have done more.
Bechet played in London in 1919…
It was there that he discovered the soprano saxophone. He developed a style of playing similar to his clarinet work. He was the first jazz player to use the instrument and was influential in its increased importance.
One of his most impressive recordings was that of Gershwin’s “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. And, over the years, he also produced some great work, as you can hear on The Best Of Sidney Bechet.
He toured all over Europe from 1925, going as far east as Russia. He wanted to stay in Europe as he felt more freedom there as a person. However, that was ruined when he shot a woman and was imprisoned for 11 months in Paris. On his release, he was deported.
Later in his career…
Work became hard to find because of the things that had happened, and he opened a tailor’s shop. Musicians would gather in the back office and play.
He went back to France in the late 40s. Once again, he found appreciation for his playing at the Salle Pleyel Jazz Festival in Paris.
I suppose you could call him a “wayward genius.” But he wasn’t the only jazz musician to fit that description. His intense style, and at times, rather intense vibrato were either liked or otherwise. But you can’t dispute the influence he had.
Jazz player Benny Goodman was known as the “King of Swing” and is easily one of the most popular clarinet players of all time. Along with Artie Shaw, he was probably at his best in the 1930s and 40s with the Swing era.
His family was Jewish immigrants. His father was from Poland, and his mother was from Lithuania. They immigrated to America, and Benny was born in Chicago in 1909. When he was ten years old, he went to music lessons, and his love of all things musical was nurtured.
From 1936 to the end of the 40s, he led probably the most popular big band in America. He played a concert in New York at Carnegie Hall, which became legendary. Fortunately, it was recorded live.
During a period of intense racial inequality in America…
Benny had one of the only interracial bands in the country. He lived through the musicians’ strikes of the 40s and the decline of Swing, and the arrival of Bebop. He survived it all.
Session player, band leader, soloist, and lover of classical music, his name is always thought of in jazz circles when a clarinet is mentioned. Hear for yourself with The Very Best of Benny Goodman. His style was unique at the time, and in his heyday, he gave us what became known as ‘cool jazz.’
As We Near The End, How About A Bit Of Fun And A Little Surprise?
Someone you might be surprised to know that plays clarinet at a decent level is actress Julia Roberts. She has always loved big band music, and she played clarinet at her High School before acting was ever an option.
She may not be famous for clarinet for multiple reasons. But, there are one or two people that have heard of her, so you could consider her famous.
To close this look at the most famous clarinet players of all time, we go to a man who, it could be said, introduced Pop music fans to the instrument.
Bilk was born in 1929 in Somerset, England, where the slang word for friend is “Acker.” He had no early inclinations towards music, and despite his mother trying to teach him piano, he preferred being outside. He didn’t learn the clarinet until he was in the army.
Bilk was known for a breathy tone that had plenty of vibratos and often played in the lower register. He started to play jazz in the early 50s, and after a tour of Germany, he found himself playing the increasing number of “Trad” jazz clubs in London.
His first major success came after he formed The Paramount Jazz Band with the release of a song called “Summer Set.” A little ‘wordplay’ on the county in which he was born. It reached #5 in the UK and started a run of him having ten more consecutive Top 10 hits. That culminated in the release of “Stranger On The Shore.”
It was released in 1961 and reached #1 in the US and the UK, where it stayed for 55 weeks. That made him the second British artist to achieve that after Vera Lynn in 1952.
Gene Cernan selected “Stranger On The Shore” as one of the music items for his trip to the moon on Apollo 10.
Bilk’s distinctive appearance with a cheeky grin, bowler hat, striped waistcoat, and little goatee beard made him a firm favorite on TV.
The Arrival of Rock and Roll
The emergence of The Beatles was the only thing that could slow his career. Bilk had survived the early days of Presley and the rest, but this was too close to home. He continued to tour though with his Paramount Jazz Band and still had recording success in the 70s.
Acker Bilk played on three of Van Morrison’s albums, one of which was the impressive Down the Road. In later life, he was awarded an MBE and the BBC Gold Jazz award.
Other clarinetists may have been technically better. But Acker Bilk introduced a whole new audience to the clarinet. It is impossible to know how many picked up the instrument to learn because of him. I can’t think of a better legacy.
Are You a Fan of Jazz Music?
Well, have a look at our detailed articles on the Best Jazz Pianists of All Time, the Best Jazz Saxophone Players, the Best Jazz Musicians, the Best Jazz Songs, and the Best Jazz Albums of All Time for more incredible musical selections.
Most Famous Clarinet Players Of All Time – Final Thoughts
The clarinet has had a presence in music for nearly 200 years, and it shows no signs of waning. It might be considered an unpopular instrument. But, it has had an important role in music and how music developed.
It is an instrument that offers flexibility and style, and it can adapt to any situation. And, when it is played well, as the players we looked at could, it is a joy to listen to.
Want to learn this great instrument?
For the beginner, a budget option is the Mendini by Cecillo Bb Clarinet w/Case. Again, for a starter, but an instrument of slightly higher quality is the Jupiter JCL700NA Student Bb Clarinet.
And, for those who are already on the way to the intermediate level, there is this YAMAHA YCL-255 Standard Bb Clarinet. And another high-level instrument is the Yamaha YCL-650 Clarinet.
Playing an instrument like the clarinet becomes an addiction. There aren’t many things better than making music. And the clarinet is one of those instruments that makes it great.
Until next time, let the music play.