Comparing Famous Clarinetists

by Barry Friedman
(Columbus, Ohio, USA)

How would you compare and contrast the playing styles of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Pete Fountain, and Woody Allen?


Hey Barry,

You know, that question is a dissertation waiting to happen. First of all, the simple answer is the style these gentlemen are known best to play is jazz.

So, what kind of jazz do they play? Goodman, Shaw and Herman are best known for playing swing. Pete Fountain plays New Orleans style Dixieland jazz and so does Woody Allen.

I will humbly compare and contrast the playing styles below as I’m not really a jazz clarinetist.

All of the players listed are icons in the clarinet world except for Woody Allen. His fame comes from the movies he has written and directed; not years of practicing and perfecting the clarinet.

I’m re-posting the You Tube videos that I have put on my Famous Clarinet Players page. I will reference that page several times below.

Benny Goodman. The King of Swing. In my opinion, the greatest of all of these listed in the question. On the Famous Clarinet Players page you will hear him playing Sing, Sing, Sing. Again, he is playing the swing style. He has complete control of the clarinet, was at the beginning of the swing era, and many say had no peer.

Goodman’s solo improvisations are often said to be flawless. From the teacher’s perspective, take a look at his embouchure on the video. It is beautiful and hand position is good, too.

Artie Shaw. On the Famous Clarinet Players page you will hear him playing his Concerto for Clarinet. This is an exciting tune in the swing style. I would say of the Goodman, Shaw and Herman examples I’ve posted, Shaw swings the hardest of the three. His technical facility is great as well as his range.

Looking a Shaw’s embouchure, the lower jaw juts out some and he always plays with the bell way high up. While Shaw is a master of the clarinet, these are fundamentals I cannot recommend to young clarinetists.

Woody Herman. I’ve posed his tune After Your Gone on Famous Clarinet Players. It has a nice smooth clarinet solo at the beginning by Herman but is mostly a band feature. Of Goodman, Shaw and Herman, I like Herman’s sound the least. He uses a heavy amount of vibrato. In checking some background on Herman, seems that he is known better as the organizer of extremely talented bands than soloist.

Herman’s embouchure I like the least. You will see a strawberry chin which is not conducive to the best clarinet sound (you can read more about the strawberry chin under number 9). However, make sure you catch the short, hot clarinet solo in the middle of the video. Holy cow! Again, who am I to compare and contrast these giants?

Of Goodman, Shaw and Herman, they were leaders of amazing swing bands with high energy, excitement and accuracy.

Pete Fountain.
The top clarinetist, historically, of Dixieland jazz. On the Famous Clarinet Players page I’ve included his Just a Closer Walk. He has great control of the clarinet, jazzy straight (not all swung) yet improvisatory. You will hear several scoops and flourishes in his playing.

Mr. Fountain’s embouchure looks great and actually I prefer the angle of the bell from his body to all of the others mentioned. Many jazz players tend to play with the bell way high up.

Woody Allen. Okay, let’s side track a little bit.

Clarinetists Goodman, Shaw and Herman were all house-hold names in their prime. Everyone listened to them on the radio, saw them in movies and bought their records. Pete Fountain is the top in the Dixieland clarinet world. On the fame side, he played TV on the Lawrence Welk Show and did several performances on the Tonight Show will Johnny Carson. That being said, all of these guys are famous because they practiced and performed on clarinet and led great bands.

Woody Allen has his fame from directing and writing movie scripts. Even though he played clarinet long before that, his fame is non-musical. I would doubt many people know about Woody Allen’s clarinet playing. However, in reading Mr. Allen’s materials, he took his stage name from Woody Herman. That, I have to say, is really cool.

I’ve tracked down a few Woody Allen videos of him playing clarinet. He is playing in a New Orleans Dixieland style. However, it is playing that is not attractive to me. His clarinet sound is squeaky, bad and with a thin sound. Mr. Allen has done some impressive things with the clarinet such as playing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on the soundtrack Sleeper and at the Montreal Jazz Festival. So, I’m holding out hope that the videos I’ve seen are not his best representation of playing.

One thing I’m really glad Mr. Allen is doing is playing clarinet. I’m sure he is keeping the music alive and having fun. I’d be happy if more people did this no matter what I think of the sound.

Well, above is the beginning of the dissertation. I’d love to hear more from the clarinet world on Barry’s original question, “How would you compare and contrast the playing styles of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Pete Fountain, and Woody Allen?”


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