The clarinet is still making musical news -- and careers -- for musicians.
Fans of big bands still vividly remember their delight when Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw used their clarinets to introduce a "completely different" approach to popular music. Both artists clearly showed just what a clarinet could do. One fan told this writer, "the main thing about an instrument is to play it well." She reinforced another comment by retired band leader Chuck Kramer of Salem, Ind.: "And Benny and Artie were the best!"
Shaw had been retired since 1954 but his musical ear was not. In 1982, an unidentified musical buff sent him a tape of music he had made famous as played by another clarinetist, Dick Johnson. Shaw enthused to intimates, "Johnson's the world's best clarinetist and he can use that comment wherever he wants." Also around that time, band booker Willard Alexander had been striving to rouse Shaw out of retirement for a dozen years or so. This time, Alexander broached the subject to Shaw, just after he had heard Johnson. Artie assented "if Johnson would play for me."
Shaw may be right but Johnson modestly commented, "I don't consider myself the best clarinet player. There's some great ones out there like Buddy de Franco, Eddie Daniels, and Bob Wilbur. But I'm up there!"
Shaw's re-emergence on the bandstand has had at least two memorable results. He formed the all new Artie Shaw Orchestra, a 17-piece swing band which after eight years is still pulling them in, traveling eight months a year on the road. Then in 1985, Artie tapped Johnson to become orchestra leader.
Johnson and the Artie Shaw Orchestra were in town recently as guests of WXVW's Stardust Club. Station Manager Charlie Jenkins had predicted they would be a hit. Hardly had Johnson touched his lips to the clarinet for "Begin the Beguine" when couples were swinging and swaying from the four corners of the Galt House East ballroom. "Sounds just like Shaw. They couldn't have done a nicer thing for us senior citizens." "I could listen to them all night even if I didn't dance once."
Shaw's music was like magic for Johnson, too. "His hearing me and what followed was like a Cinderella story," Johnson told Louisville Music News. "The next thing you know, Artie, Willard Alexander, Bill Curtis (my manager) and I were involved in a four-way conference call, followed by extended meetings in New York."
And there were earlier "Cinderella" events in Johnson's life. Round the time when Shaw hit the big time with "Begin the Beguine," the then 12-year-old Johnson was becoming a rapt listener to Shaw recordings owned by his older sister. "It sounded pretty good and I kept listening. That continued and as World War II came on, I joined the Navy. The ship on which I served had some really classy musicians. I listened to them, we talked a lot and they helped me a bunch. Frequently I could practice several hours daily. As my time was ending, I thought, 'This is what I want to do!'"
"After discharge, I began to take private lessons and also studied for 18 months at the New England Conservatory. I learned to play both the alto and soprano sax (my first love!), the flute and the clarinet. The clarinet is a devilishly hard instrument to play." Before Shaw discovered him, Dick had played with such luminaries as Benny Goodman, Buddy Rich, Count Basie, Buddy Morrow, Xavier Cugat, Arthur Fiedler, etc.
More than 500 of us tripping the light fantastic have pleasing memories of such Shaw/Johnson sounds as "Begin the Beguine," "Concerto for Clarinet," "Moonglow," "Stardust" with its demanding high F note, "S'Wonderful," "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise," "Dancing in the Dark," "Gramercy 5," and "Frenesi." Most likely no one reveled more in these sounds and dancing than the youthful 91-year-old Forrest Hackley Sr. of whom WXVW folks told me, "He doesn't miss a dance." And it was something to watch this veteran of many a ballroom glide across the floor as he danced cheek to cheek and switch partners with aplomb. And if you watched Dick Johnson in action, one delighted in seeing his pleasure in what he was doing while marveling at the skill with which he did it. One felt that many dancers over 60 were reliving their romances and courtships.
Johnson revealed that one of his great thrills was a recent "Love Boat" cruise from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Barcelona, with Artie on hand. The band members average 25 years old, and trombonist Mike Paulsen told me, "We have had music school training after high school. We hail from Detroit, Chicago, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, my home town, Minneapolis and others. It's great fun playing with Dick and we like him."
The next Stardust Club Dance (a freebie) is September 23. The next big Hop is November 3, featuring the Russ Morgan Orchestra led by Russ' son Jack. For more information both about the Club and dances, call WXVW (812) 283-3577, where membership is free.