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23 Best Clarinet Players Of All Time

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The clarinet has played a major role in music from the early eras of classical music through the jazz and swing genres. Many of the greatest clarinet players were the leaders of some of the most influential bands in modern times, and the instrument has remained an iconic part of orchestras worldwide since its creation. In this article, we’ll go over 23 of the best clarinet players ever to pick up the instrument.

1. Benny Goodman

The King of Swing, Benny Goodman is perhaps the absolute number one clarinetist in history who became an American icon. While today we think of the clarinet as a classical instrument, he preferred playing it in jazz bands. In 1921, Benny Goodman made his debut after being influenced by the clarinetists of New Orleans jazz music.

Goodman was the bandleader for one of the best big swing bands in the 1930s, culminating in a Carnegie Hall concert in 1938. That event is acclaimed as the most important jazz music concert in history and introduced jazz music to the mainstream music world. Goodman continued playing until nearly his death in 1986, and his range and ability on the instrument are revered.

His awards and accolades include a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and an induction into the Jazz Hall of Fame, but his legacy was broader than just awards. In the 1930s, Goodman was well ahead of the curve regarding racial integration. While laws prohibited black and white musicians from playing together in some states, Goodman hired Charlie Christian, Lionel Hampton, and Teddy Wilson, forming the first integrated jazz group. 

2. Artie Shaw

Artie Shaw - Greatest Hits [HQ Audio]

Artie Shaw was around most of the time Benny Goodman was, and they worked in many of the same circles leading big bands and transitioning into jazz music. Shaw is most famous for his experimentation as a clarinetist, crossing boundaries with innovative music styles that blended jazz with modern classical compositions.

It was one of these songs, Begin the Beguine that set his career in motion. From 1942 to 1944, Shaw served in the US Navy, leading a morale-building band around the South Pacific. In 2004, Shaw was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Perhaps his largest contribution was his own music papers, accounting for 700 scores and 1,000 pieces of sheet music, all of which were donated to Boston University in 1980.

Next: The top jazz musicians of all time list

3. Martin Fröst

Martin Fröst - Vivaldi - Concerto for Clarinet & Orchestra No.1

Martin Fröst is a Swedish clarinetist who began his journey as a musician with the violin at age five. By eight years old, he switched to the clarinet and has become one of the greatest living clarinet players we have today. Perhaps the shining achievement of Frost’s career was in 2014 when he was awarded the Léonie Sonning Music Prize.

Frost was the first clarinetist to win the prize, which is the highest musical honor awarded in Denmark. In addition to his virtuoso skill on the clarinet, Frost works as a conductor, copywriter, and master of ceremony for his many multi-media projects that combine light, music, and choreography.

Next: Greatest conductors of all time (our full list)

4. Sabine Meyer

Non che non sei capace, K. 419

Sabine Meyer is another modern clarinetist from Germany and one of the best in the world. Her love of the clarinet started at an early age, as her family is full of clarinetists. Her father, brother, and husband are all successful clarinet musicians in their own right. Meyer eventually became one of the first female musicians to join the Berlin Philharmonic, her last stop before moving on to a successful solo career. Her select recordings include works from Mozart, Brahms, and Franz Krommer, while Meyer’s ability has landed her numerous cultural awards in both France and Germany. 

5. Julian Bliss

Julian Bliss Flight of the Bumblebee

Perhaps the youngest clarinetist on the list, Julian Bliss, was taught the clarinet by none other than Sabine Meyer. Born in 1989, Bliss is both a clarinetist and a clarinet designer, becoming the man behind the Bliss Clarinet from Leblanc and performing extensively as a soloist, chamber musician, and jazz musician.

A child prodigy, Julian Bliss began playing the clarinet at the age of four, and by the time he was 13, he’d won the 2001 Concerto Soloists Young Artists Competition in Philadelphia and performed at Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee in 2002 by royal invitation.

6. Woody Herman

Woody Herman And His Orchestra "Caldonia" on The Ed Sullivan Show

Woody Herman was an accomplished American clarinetist, but to only call him that would be a shame. Herman was also a saxophonist, singer, and big band leader that was influential in the early days of jazz music. Alongside the likes of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, Woody Herman rose to a place of prominence in the 1930s.

He’s best known for his time leading The Herd, a name that was used several times for different bands he was part of. Herman remained active until nearly his death in 1987, finishing his career with the Young Thundering Herd in 1986. During his career, Woody Herman’s bands won three Grammy Awards and were nominated 15 times. He would eventually be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys and be immortalized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

7. Richard Stoltzman

Preludes, Book 1: No. 8. La fille aux cheveux de lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) (arr. for...

Richard Stoltzman is one of the best classical clarinetists in recent history. Today he sits on the faculty list at the New England Conservatory and Boston University, but he’s had an illustrious performing career. His classical music repertoire is extensive, even mixing in a few jazz tunes and making him a sought-after concert artist. Stoltzman has played with over 100 orchestras and chamber music groups, as well as performed solo recitals. In total, his career has earned two Grammy Awards, and he was the first wind player to win the Avery Fisher Prize.

8. Sidney Bechet

Louis Armstrong is probably a name you’ve heard of if you’re into jazz music, but right next to him was Sidney Bechet. While they didn’t spend their careers together, the two were both early pioneers of jazz and recorded together for a while. The Creole jazz musician improvised jazz swing music and was the first person to develop the swing style of jazz.

Bechet was best known for dominating the stage and was an incredible performer, helping develop the clarinet as a solo instrument in jazz music. Eventually, Bechet would move to Paris and picked up the saxophone. He’s been inducted into the DownBeat Magazine and the Big Band and Jazz Halls of Fame.

Next: The greatest sax players of all time (our full list)

9. Larry Combs

Trio, Op. 7, No. 2: I. Allegro non troppo

Larry Combs is an accomplished clarinetist from West Virginia. He would go on to play with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and Santa Fe Opera before 1974, when he joined the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. By 1978, he was appointed principal clarinetist in the orchestra, playing as a soloist for them. Combs’ legacy goes beyond his performing career, though. He helped found the Chicago Chamber Musicians and helped design clarinets for Leblanc.

10. Paquito D’Rivera

Paquito D'Rivera - Millennium Stage (April 3, 2017)

Today, Paquito D’Rivera is better known as a saxophonist and bandleader whose signature style blended Latin jazz with classical music. But, D’Rivera is also an amazing clarinet player who, after defecting from Cuba, would go on to play in some of the most prestigious venues in the world. D’Rivera has performed in Carnegie Hall alongside numerous orchestras and philharmonics and is the only artist to win Grammy Awards in both Classical music and Latin Jazz categories. 

11. Hüsnü Senlendirici

Husnu Senlendirici - Avare

The G clarinet is one of the most widely used instruments in Turkish folk music, so it’s not surprising for a Turkish person to make the list of the best clarinet players. Hüsnü Senlendirici is a clarinetist like his father and grandfather and a member of several bands like Laco and Taksim Trio. Senlendirici is probably most famous for playing traditional belly dancing music with Sulukule, though he gives numerous concerts at festivals each year.

12. Buddy DeFranco

Another one of the great jazz clarinetists, Buddy DeFranco, is best known for being an improviser who spent a lot of time in the bebop scene, even when most jazz clarinetists didn’t change up their styles. DeFranco spent a year with Count Basie’s septet, played alongside greats like Tal Farlow and Sonny Clark, and even spent over a decade with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. His recording career was extensive, producing and playing on more than 160 albums.

13. Anton Stadler

Anton Stadler: Der Dudler for Clarinet Solo

Anton Stadler is forever inseparably linked with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, thanks to Mozart writing compositions specifically for Stadler. Stadler was a wonder clarinetist, and basset horn player. His skill inspired Mozart to write both Clarinet Quintet (K 581) and Clarinet Concerto (K 662). He began his career with a concert in March of 1773 at the Kartnertortheater. He would eventually tour Europe and publish several music works for both the clarinet and basset horn.

Next: Mozart’s greatest pieces & works (our picks)

14. Heinrich Baermann

H. J. Baermann | Adagio D flat major for clarinet and strings | Sebastian Manz | do.gma

Baermann was perhaps the best clarinet player of the Romantic era, a regular virtuoso on the instrument, and was also an avid composer. He was around as the clarinet evolved as an instrument, developing the embouchure and construction of the instrument that gave it a much wider range.

He pioneered the modern way to play the clarinet, which is keeping the reed in contact with the bottom lip rather than the top lip. His skill with the clarinet brought numerous composers to write for him, including Felix Mendelssohn, Franz Danzi, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and Peter von Lindpaintner.

Next: Top romantic era composers list

15. Johnny Dodds

Johnny Dodds - New Orleans Legend

Warren Dodds was one of the greatest jazz drummers ever to play, but his younger brother was one of the greatest clarinetists. Johnny Dodds played both the clarinet and the saxophone in jazz bands alongside Louis Armstrong, Joe Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton.

He also worked with his brother while in New Orleans as part of the Bootblacks and would become one of the most important figures of early jazz music. Later, players like Benny Goodman would claim that no one had ever surpassed Dodds in achieving a finer tone with the clarinet. Dodds was posthumously inducted into the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1987.

16. Karl Leister

Karl Leister: Schubert, Serenade

Karl Leister is recognized internationally as both a soloist and chamber musician thanks to spending 30 years as part of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Leister is a founding member of both the Bläser der Berliner Philharmoniker and the Ensemble Wien-Berlin. These two groups recorded incredible works of classical music, such as Brahm’s Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115.

After his time in orchestras, Leister would become a professor at the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler Berlin, one of the leading universities in Europe for musicians. The school works with some of the best and brightest musical talents and brings in help from several of the most prestigious orchestras across Europe. 

17. Pete Fountain

Pete Fountain "Tiger Rag" on The Ed Sullivan Show

Pete Fountain had a unique introduction to the clarinet. As a child, he was fairly sick and doctors confirmed that he had a condition that made his lungs weak. Medication didn’t help it, and one doctor recommended they purchase the child an instrument he would have to blow into, with Pete choosing the clarinet.

With practice, he not only learned the clarinet but greatly improved the condition of his lungs. He became a professional in high school, with a teacher notably telling him he should pursue music since he was already making more than the teacher was at that point.

Fountain would play with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra, the Dukes of Dixieland, and appear on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson a total of 56 times. Pete Fountain was famous for the sweet and fluid tone he produced with the clarinet and he played with crystal mouthpieces rather than rubber ones. 

18. Robert Marcellus

Robert Marcellus Clarinette Mozart Concerto en la majeur K. 622 The Cleveland Orchestra

Marcellus is mostly known for his time with the Cleveland Orchestra where he had a very long tenure as the group’s principal clarinetist. By the age of 16, he was the second clarinetist in the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington.

Outside of a stint with the United States Air Force, he remained in that position until being named principal clarinetist of the Cleveland Orchestra. While health problems ended his performing career, Marcellus would take a position as professor of clarinet at Northwestern University for 20 years, teaching week-long master classes in the summers.

19. Vasilis Saleas 

The Best Of Vasilis Saleas

Vasilis Saleas’ major claim to fame is keeping Laiko (traditional Greek folk music) alive today. He’s the main man responsible for reviving the genre and bringing it to mainstream European audiences.

Saleas is also known for adapting the clarinet to Greek pop music and adding it into songs there with great skill. He started the clarinet at the age of nine and began performing as a professional by the age of 14. His music releases are much more modern than many clarinetists on this list, debuting his first solo album in 1990 and releasing music through 2007.

20. Johann Simon Hermstedt

Clarinet Concerto No. 2 in Eb Major Op. 57 I - Allegro | Louis Spohr (1784-1859)

Hermstedt became one of the most famous clarinetists of the 1800s, serving as the court clarinetist to Duke Gunther I in Germany and teaching the duke how to play the clarinet.

He had a lifelong collaboration with composer Louis Spohr, with all four of Spohr’s clarinet concertos and much of his other clarinet works being composed specifically for Hermstedt.

As a composer, Hermstedt would create a few of his own clarinet works, but he’s better known as an excellent player of the clarinet and even spent time as the clarinetist in Mozart’s Quintet.

21. George Lewis

George Lewis: Burgundy Street Blues

George Lewis began his jazz career by founding the New Orleans Stompers in the 1920s. He would play alongside several bands throughout the next few decades, though a twist of fate would see him rise to fame.

Lewis worked the docks in New Orleans and was nearly crushed to death by a shipping container. While in the hospital, he continued practicing the clarinet, and his band members came and played by his bedside. That was the place where Burgundy Street Blues was recorded, which would go on to become Lewis’ signature work. Later on, Lewis would be one of the most prominent figures in the New Orleans music revival. 

22. Giora Feidman

Giora Feidman: The Klezmer's Freilach

Giora Feidman was born in Argentina to Israeli parents, and he would begin his music career right there in Buenos Aires as a member of the Teatro Colon Symphony Orchestra. He would only spend two years there, before immigrating to Israel and becoming the youngest clarinetist to ever play as part of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, where he would stay for more than 20 years.

In the 1970s, Feidman struck out as a solo artist and has performed alongside some of the best orchestral groups in Europe. The work you may recognize from Feidman would be the clarinet solos that featured on the soundtrack of the film Schindler’s List, a movie that earned seven Academy Awards. 

23. Eddie Daniels

EDDIE DANIELS, The Tonight Show, March 10, 1987 prproj

Eddie Daniels is an astounding wind instrumentalist, playing the saxophone, flute, and clarinet in both jazz and classical genres. His career would see Daniels play alongside Billy Joel and Bucky Pizzarelli, eventually focusing his multi-instrument career on the clarinet. In 1989, Daniels won a Grammy Award for arrangements on Memos from Paradise.

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