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Any list of famous clarinet players would include clarinetists from around the world and since the early 18th century, when the modern instrument was introduced in Germany. From Anton Stadler’s mastery of the basset clarinet in the late 18th century to Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw's 20th-century jazz and swing, clarinetists have played an important role in music. As the superiority of any given musician is based somewhat on subjective judgment, no definitive list of famous clarinet players exists. Yet there are famous clarinet players in many musical styles, from classical to jazz and swing.
The Austrian Anton Stadler was one of the first famous clarinet players, even attracting the interest of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Stadler’s career spanned the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and he enjoyed a reputation for producing a beautiful, clear tone from what was a rustic version of the instrument known today. Mozart composed several pieces for Stadler, including the "Quintet for Clarinet and Strings" and the Clarinet Concerto."
Other early famous clarinet players include Heinrich Baermann and his son Carl, both active performers during the 19th century. The elder Baermann traded his oboe for a clarinet and found fame touring Europe. Romantic composer Carl Maria von Weber composed pieces for Heinrich, as did Felix Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn composed "Opp. 113" and "Opp. 114" for father and son clarinetists to play together. Heinrich’s son Carl authored many compositions popular with virtuosos.
One of the most famous clarinet players of the 20th century is American jazz and swing musician Benny Goodman. Goodman, known as the king of swing, was a bandleader as well as a soloist who toured performing classical and modern pieces. As a jazz bandleader, he was the first to sell out Carnegie Hall in 1938, a concert widely regarded as one of the most important in jazz music history. Goodman commissioned many pieces from contemporary composers during his solo career, thus ensuring that the instrument remained in the spotlight.
Like Goodman, American jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw was a bandleader in the 1930s and 1940s. His band’s signature song was a version of “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter. Shaw later performed with the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, winning a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
German classical clarinetist Sabine Meyer has produced many recordings as a soloist. As a result, she has helped promote the clarinet as a solo instrument across the world. She began her career performing with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra as solo clarinetest and later founded the Trio di Clarone in 1983. Meyer is a dedicated promoter of new music, and composers like Toshio Hosokawa, Jean Francaix, and Harald Genzmer have written pieces for her.
Martin Frost is a Swedish clarinetist born in 1970 who represents a physical performance style. He is known to move, dance, and sing during performances, encouraging the audience to engage with the music. Frost stands out as a soloist in part because of his dexterity and agility, which allow him to master complex, fast pieces and styles.
Although primarily famous for his films, American director Woody Allen is also a skilled jazz clarinetist. He took his stage name Woody from clarinetist Woody Herman. He performs occasionally in Manhattan with his New Orleans jazz band and at various jazz festivals. Woody Allen the clarinetist was the subject of the 1997 documentary Wild Man Blues, directed by Barbara Kopple.
There are many other famous clarinet players. The creation of an exhaustive or definitive list is impossible because the greatness of any musician is somewhat subjective. The clarinet remains an important solo and ensemble instrument as a result of the performances of many talented clarinetists.
Now, I have to say I can't believe the great Pete Fountain was not mentioned here. I know you can't talk about everybody, but Fountain has been a mainstay of the New Orleans jazz scene since the 1960s. Fountain on clarinet and Al Hirt on trumpet were an unbeatable combination. He should have rated at least a mention.
Certainly, Benny Goodman is also one of the greats on the American music scene. His band's theme song, "One O'Clock Jump" is a great showcase of Goodman's talent on clarinet.
I played clarinet for a couple of years in the beginning band. I learned a lot about reading music, but my skills never were very good.