Norman Field on Benny Goodman and the ‘French embouchure’

March 21, 2015 at 4:37 pm (jazz, music, posted by JD)

I asked my friend, the clarinettist and incredibly erudite jazz and dance music expert (in fact an expert on lots of things), Norman Field, about whether or not Benny Goodman is using the so-called “French embouchure” in the clip below. His reply follows:

Well, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.

I’d read about it before, but never knew any likely chronology, except that Goodman was said to have changed to the French embouchure (otherwise known as the ‘Old embouchure’) against the advice of the distinguished British classical clarinettist Reginald Kell. Goodman evidently studied under Kell for some time. This was most likely between 1948 and 1958, as Kell spent those years in the U.S.A., but then returned briefly to the U.K. before returning to the U.S.A., where he retired in 1966 and died in 1981. (Wikipedia).

If the video dates from 1953, this would be an ideal period for Goodman, the perfectionist, to have been studying under Kell.

However, the concern about the French vs. the Modern embouchure is indeed important from a Jazz point of view. All the early New Orleans pioneer clarinettists would have been taught the French style. That is, the mouthpiece and reed are supported entirely by the upper and lower lips. The characteristics of this are a light, sweet, flute-like tone (cf. Alphonse Picou & Big Eye Louis Nelson on the Kid Rena ‘Delta’ sides of 1940). Many of the N.O. guys who went on to fame preserved this characteristic – Noone, Bigard, Nicholas, Fazola come to mind. Whether they actually all kept the French embouchure, or just its inherent beauty, is a different question.

Another advantage of the French embouchure was that it facilitated great mobility: one could execute complex rapid runs & arpeggios with less effort. It may well have been this that appealed to Goodman about using it?

The démise of the French embouchure came about, as far as I understand, for three reasons

1: The introduction of vibrato. Ironically, Kell was one of the first players who began to play with vibrato, which was hitherto absent in classical music. I have no idea what embouchure Kell used, but Goodman wanted to adopt the French ‘Old’ style, and Kell advised him against it. It has been said the Kell did not wish to be known as ‘the man who ruined Benny Goodman’! But Goodman persisted. A slow and subltly controlled vibrato is quite difficult with the French embouchure. Indeed, lip-muscle control becomes more difficult still when a player is elderly, and they may then lapse into an excessively wide vibrato. (This will naturally attract condemnation by critics who have no idea of the processes involved.)

2. The introduction of the saxophone, on which most clarinettists were, sooner or later, required to double, at least in jazz. The saxophone was initially played with the French embouchure, and so had a plain, straightforward and rather dull sound. Indeed, Debussy described it as ‘That underwater instrument’. The saxophone in jazz benefitted considerably from vibrato, so this was naturally transferred back into the clarinet playing, and the New embouchure (as described below) was rapidly adopted as being more convenient for vibrato.

3. Volume. As the 1920 went into the 1930s, bands got louder. By the late 1930 they were very loud indeed, but mostly there was still only one microphone, for the bandleader out front and the vocalists. The idea of some guy getting up and playing piercing high notes on clarinet over six brass & fives saxes using the old embouchure is, to me, simply inconceivable! The clarinet was a delicate, ‘indoor’ instrument; trumpets, trombones and saxophones were ‘outdoor’ instruments. There was no contest. Only the most powerful & rugged clarinet players, using the new embouchure which was capable of being louder, might make themselves heard, faintly. Of course, Goodman would have been out the front, with a microphone to hand. You will understand that this is no criticism of Goodman. Bigard recalled that when Teagarden left the Louis Armstrong All-stars and Trummy Young came in, ‘I really had to crowd the microphone’. Q.E.D.

It’s a fascinating subject, and obviously, one very dear to my heart.

1 Comment

  1. kelliestrom said,

    Off topic, but this might appeal to you – feel free to cross-post if it does: http://www.syriauk.org/2015/03/ask-your-mp-to-support-syria-civil.html

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