Regular visitors to the GMC might remember that I once played the clarinet myself, and that probably contributes to my fondness for spotlighting clarinetists from the past. (The real thing, not hapless amateurs like me.) One of the best was Barney Bigard, whose career began in the 1920s and stretched for a half-century — even though he didn’t begin it as a clarinetist.
Bigard was yet another musically-inclined New Orleans native, a member of a prominent Creole family who studied music with Lorenzo Tio Jr., the legendary clarinetist who also taught Sidney Bechet. But by the time he reached adulthood and began appearing professionally, Bigard was mostly playing tenor sax, and he was very good — good enough to move to Chicago in the 1920s and play alongside some of the best of the early jazz era, including Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton. But within a few years Bigard had landed a job that would be a turning point in his career — playing in Duke Ellington’s band.
For a fifteen year period that ended in 1942 when he tired of the rat race involved with a touring band, Bigard built his reputation with Ellington’s renowned orchestra. Laying aside his sax and mostly playing clarinet, he became a featured part of the band, not only as a soloist but also as a composer and arranger on some of the group’s biggest hits, including “Mood Indigo.”
After leaving Ellington, Bigard found plenty of work with other groups, but in the post-war years he found himself on the road again, this time touring the world with Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars, an outfit that would find a lot of success for a number of years. Bigard was on board for a lot of that time, although he did take a couple of breaks from the grind to work with others, but by the 1960s he was slowing down. In his later years he remained active, sometimes leading small groups or just working alongside other pros, but was closer to semi-retired. He was 74 when he died in 1980.
Barney Bigard – “Farewell Blues”