Wednesday, December 16, 2009

George Baquet

In the last 24 hours, I've listened to complete recorded works of George Baquet, the New Orleans Creole clarinetist who lived from 1883 to 1949. Not that it was time-consuming - Baquet only made four or five issued sessions. His playing fascinates me, although I suspect that many listeners will probably find it less than enthralling.

Baquet was the clarinetist with the legendary Creole Band, which was led by bassist Bill Johnson and which was extremely successful in vaudeville well before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band made the first jazz records in 1917. (Larry Gushee's Pioneers of Jazz tells their story in detail.) He settled in Philadelphia in 1923 and spent the rest of his life there.

Baquet was the son of the well-respected New Orleans clarinetist Theogene Baquet, who taught George and his brother Achille, also a professional clarinetist. The Baquets were Creoles, with French and African ancestry; I've always thought that it was an interesting statement on the meaning of racial identity that, when they came of age, George decided to be black and Achille decided to be white. Achille played and recorded with Jimmy Durante's New Orleans Jazz Band in 1918-1919; Durante felt obliged on at least one occasion to deny the rumors that his clarinetist was, in fact, black.

Brian Rust's jazz discography credits Baquet with the clarinet work on Bessie Smith's October 15, 1923 session. The booklet of the Columbia Complete Sessions Vol. 1 booklet is more cautious: George Baquet or Ernest Elliott. The clarinet is prominent on "Whoa, Tillie, Take Your Time," and it certainly sounds like it could be Baquet, based on his later recordings.

Baquet shows up again on Jelly Roll Morton's three July, 1929 big band sessions. This is Jelly's touring band with Baquet added, probably because Morton and Baquet were old friends and because the recordings were made in Camden, New Jersey, just across the river from Philly. Baquet sounds kind of odd in this context. Morton's arrangements were not state-of-the-art, like Ellington's or Don Redman's, but they were fairly modern for the time. Baquet sounds like he stepped out of another era. He's got the odd, old-fashioned tone that many older New Orleans clarinetists exhibit, derived at least partly from the double-lip embouchure (no teeth on the mouthpiece) they used. His articulation is also very 19th-century, and he doesn't really swing at all, at least in the way jazz musicians were expected to by 1929.

All that being said, I love these recordings. The contrast between the up-to-date band and the antique clarinet style just kills me, although it doesn't make any sense objectively. "New Orleans Bump" in particular is a delight - Baquet has a very cool flutter-tongued solo.

John Reid made some informal recordings of Baquet in 1940 that were released on an American Music CD, The John Reid Collection, in 1992. There are two selections by the jivey swing band Baquet was leading at the time; he plays clarinet and tenor sax in the ensembles, but lets the younger guys take the solos. But Reid also recorded two amazing documents - a slow blues on clarinet with just the rhythm section accompanying, and another version of the same blues with Baquet's former student Sidney Bechet added on soprano sax. Like some other early Creole musicians (Peter Bocage comes to mind) Baquet treats the blues as a chord progression rather than as a style; his playing is somewhat formal and detached. This must be how some of the earliest New Orleans blues sounded. When Bechet is added, Baquet ups his ante somewhat; without really changing his style, his playing becomes hotter and more involved. He and Bechet trade choruses; each plays beautiful, spare accompaniments to the other's melodies.

I love George Baquet's playing - not just for what it is, but for what it represents. Hearing his clarinet is like catching a glimpse of the light from a distant star - one we know has burned out, but whose light still reaches us. In his music we hear those first, halting steps of the musicians who first put together the music we call jazz.