When it comes to jazz, there’s simply no place like New Orleans.
New Orleans is credited as the birthplace of the genre, with a distinctive sound that emerged in the early 1900s as musicians honed the sounds of wailing woodwind and brass instruments.
Early jazz clarinets, in particular, are unmistakable in their ‘incredible’ range of sound and tonal variety, according to a researcher who has dedicated years to studying the instrument – and, he says this boils down to their more ‘flexible’ style of producing tones.
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Clarinetists in the early New Orleans jazz scene used instruments grouped into the Albert system. The researcher has working to achieve the traditional sound made famous by New Orleans greats such as George Lewis (pictured)
WHY THEY SOUND SO DIFFERENT
Early New Orleans clarinetists used what’s known as the Albert system.
According to Michael G White, of Xavier University of New Orleans, these instruments were more flexible in ‘bending and producing a singing tone.’
Today’s widely used Boehm system is said to be easier to play.
The keys and finger holes are arranged differently between the two instruments.
The early New Orleans sound relies on the size and shape of the instrument itself, as well as the reed and mouthpiece, the researcher said.
According to Michael G White, a researcher at Xavier University of New Orleans, the haunting wail of early New Orleans jazz clarinets is a product of a number of different factors.
The sound relies on the size and shape of the instrument itself, as well as the reed and mouthpiece.
White was drawn to the ‘unique Afro-clarinet tradition of New Orleans, with its characteristic rich, full, singing – yet very individual tone possibilities.’
Clarinetists in the early New Orleans jazz scene used instruments grouped into the Albert system.
Today, however, another system has largely taken over.
‘The type of clarinet most widely used today in orchestras, jazz bands, and school groups is the ‘Boehm System,’ which although easier to negotiate technically, seems to be less flexible than the Albert in bending and producing a singing tone.
‘My goal has been to try to produce an Albert-like tone on a Boehm clarinet.’
The researcher has been experimenting with the modern instruments in effort to achieve the traditional sound made famous by New Orleans greats such as George Lewis.
In addition to the style of the clarinet, the musician’s own techniques are vital in shaping the distinctive sound.
‘Sound is produced by blowing through the mouthpiece, which has an attached reed,’ said White.
‘Different tones are produced by covering or uncovering a number of keys and holes with the fingers.
New Orleans is credited as the birthplace of jazz, with a distinctive sound that emerged as musicians honed the sounds of wailing woodwind and brass instruments. Early jazz clarinets, in particular, are unmistakable in their ‘incredible’ range of sound and tonal variety
‘The sound of the clarinet is affected by many factors, including internal bore shape and size, how the tone holes are cut, the size and shape of the mouthpiece, reeds and ligatures, and the oral cavity and throat of the individual player and their method of blowing.’
The researcher is also involved in preliminary studies to measure the tones of early jazz clarinetists, in efforts to better understand their unique sounds.
According to the Acoustical Society of America, White has so far had better success in achieving the Albert/early jazz sound than most post-1940 clarinetists.
‘I’ve constantly experimented to improve clarinet tone – and to make the Boehm sound more like an Albert – through various equipment combinations and the use of new and innovative devices and techniques,’ White said.
‘Along the way I noticed some surprising things, like how tongue position affects tone by controlling the speed and focus of airflow.’