I have thoughts about the clarinet, so I hadn't been looking forward to this record. I started playing the alto saxophone in the fourth grade and continued through high school with two notable detours. I played baritone sax for a bit during the eleventh grade, but back in elementary school I tried clarinet.
I had been playing saxophone for two years at that point, and I was beginning to think of myself as more than just a sax player; I wanted to be a "musician." It's amusing to think about the level of delusion necessary for a ten-year-old to think such thoughts, but there I was. I knew that true musicians played multiple instruments, so I couldn't just focus on the saxophone. I needed to diversify my skill set. I'm not sure why I chose the clarinet, nor am I sure how I convinced my parents to buy me a new instrument when an old one was already sitting in my room, but somehow I managed the trick. That year I even auditioned (twice) for the district honor band. I missed the cut with my clarinet, but made it with my sax, so I actually played both instruments that year.
It's a cruel thing to put a clarinet into a child's hands. First, it isn't very cool. If my wife is reading this, she likely just spit her coffee all over the screen; I understand that "cool" is a very relative term. But there is a clear hierarchy in the world of elementary and middle school band. What's always been interesting to me is that while the band kids are typically on the fringe of the overall school society, the social structure of the band often mimics what's going on in the larger school. The trumpet, flute, and percussion sections are filled with the cool kids. The clarinet section? Not so much. (Quick but important side note: band kids are some of the nicest kids you'll ever meet. That was true then, and it's still true now.)
Beyond the coolness issue, the clarinet is a technically demanding instrument. Not only must the player navigate a maze of twisting, interlocking levers and keys running the length of the clarinet, there are also holes which must be covered with finger tips. And if you've ever had an aspiring clarinetist in your house (I have), you know that it's an instrument that's notorious for its squeaks -- immediate but painful feedback that the player is doing something wrong.
And so when I pulled this record out of my father's collection and looked at the cover, I had all of these thoughts and more. I'd heard of Woody Herman, so I knew he'd had a long and distinguished career, but it was a long career playing the clarinet. And the design of the cover seemed like such a transparent attempt to compensate for a poor choice he had made years earlier. I felt sorry for him. There he sits with his clarinet surrounded by the cool kids -- fifteen young women who had clearly just come from their audition for That Girl, which would debut only months after this photo was taken. Sure, they lost out to Marlo Thomas, but I'm certain they all went on to garner walk-on roles in Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. The cool kids always end up on top.
So I had low expectations for this record. Very low. But I couldn't have been more wrong.
I can't quite believe I'm writing this, but this record is incredibly cool. I had scoffed at a description of the opening track, "23 Red," as a "blistering swinger," but that's exactly what it is. Herman's band is phenomenal. He wisely filled it with all the cool kids from band class -- five trumpets, four saxophones, and three trombones. I should also note that Woody plays clarinet and alto sax here, just like I did once upon a time.
As I've written here before, I'm a sucker for horns in all genres, and I especially love them here. Each song has its own flow, but typically they play like this: big horns for a few bars, then a quieter interlude to allow for a saxophone or clarinet solo, followed by more big horns. Blistering, indeed.
There's probably nothing more cliché than judging a book by its cover, but I'm guilty here. I had thought about skipping this one altogether, and probably the only reason I even listened to it was because it would give me a chance to write about my dalliance with the clarinet. As it turns out, I can't stop listening. This is definitely a record I'll come back to.
When I started this project I expected that I'd be listening to a lot of good music and thinking a lot about my father. What I didn't expect were the tangents each record would inspire and the things I'd learn as I pulled on one thread or another. The album notes, for example, have almost always been treasures of information about the artists, the recordings, and the era. It truly is a distinct art form, and the Recording Academy has awarded a Grammy for Best Album Notes each year since 1964.
The notes are always credited, and when I finished reading about Woody's Winners and saw the credit at the end -- Herb Wong, KJAZ-FM, San Francisco -- I wondered about the obviously Asian name, so I investigated. It turns out that Herb Wong was a long-time jazz expert and deejay in the Bay Area. He fell in love with jazz as a boy when a package of classic jazz records was incorrectly delivered to his house, and he went on to live a life full of jazz, among other pursuits.
I think that says something about the inclusivity of jazz as a musical genre. We can talk about cultural appropriation -- take another look at the cover of this record -- or the fact that this medium, the first true American art form, was largely created by Black Americans and then performed by Black Americans for primarily white audiences. That dynamic led to the stories which may or may not be true about why Miles Davis famously played with his back to the crowd.
Like it or not, the issue of race is a part of the history of jazz, but there's also something more. I like the image of a young, Chinese-American boy serendipitously discovering a few Count Basie and Duke Ellington records and becoming enamored with an art form that couldn't have been further removed from his own family's history. It seems incongruous at first, but then it makes perfect sense. Jazz, after all, is all of our history.
My Funny Valentine
Greasy Sack Blues
Red Roses for a Blue Lady
Opus de Funk and Theme (Blue Flame)