Albany “Barney” Bigard-New Orleans Creole Clarinet

Albany “Barney” Bigard-New Orleans Creole Clarinet

While I don’t truly have a favorite jazz clarinetist, for picking only one would be impossible, one of my earliest and most significant influences is absolutely Barney Bigard.  I mean, how can you not love a clarinetist named Barney?  True aficionados of jazz clarinet will know that Barney Bigard was the first great clarinet soloist in the Duke Ellington Band, and they will probably also know that he played an Albert system clarinet.  From Wikipedia….The Albert system refers to a system of clarinet keywork and fingering developed by Eugene Albert.  It has been largely replaced by the Boehm system.  The Albert system is still used, mainly by clarinetists who perform Eastern European folk music. Often these musicians prefer the Albert system due to the ease of slurring notes provided by unkeyed tone holes.”  The definitive information regarding Albert System clarinets can be found here at the Albert System-The Jazz Clarinet website…..

A full overview of Barney Bigard can be found at his Wikipedia site……

As a young man in New Orleans, Barney Bigard took clarinet lessons with Lorenzo Tio Jr. and Papa Tio. He played the instrument in parades in New Orleans, but first became known as a tenor-saxophonist. After working with several groups in New Orleans, Bigard moved to Chicago where he played with King Oliver from 1925 until 1927.  Between 1927 and 1942 he was featured on many of Duke Ellington’s classic recordings, including Mood Indigo, which Bigard co-composed.  As a composer he made some monumental contributions to the Ellington book, including Rocking in Rhythm, Saturday Night Function, Clarinet Lament, Clouds In My Heart,  and Sophisticated Lady.  Bigard also played with Louis Armstrong from 1947 to 1955.  His delicate phrasing and  signature chromatic passages are a significant part of his style. 

While Barney Bigard had a significant run of concerts and recordings with Louis Armstrong, I am concentrating this blog post mainly on his work with Ellington and his solo recordings.  There is much to listen for on the recordings with Louis, and I would suggest you seek those out for additional listening. 

I have chosen four great Barney Bigard tracks, featuring amazing iconic Barney Bigard solos, to illustrate his significance and stylistic influence on clarinetists of his generation and beyond.  For clarinetists in particular to me these tracks are “must have” items and required listening—you cannot listen enough to the Masters of your instrument.

1.  The Original Caravan by members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra/Barney Bigard Jazzopators

The first version of the song “Caravan” was recorded in Hollywood, 18 December 1936, and performed as an instrumental by Barney Bigard and His Jazzopators. Two takes were recorded and were issued, although L-0373-2 is by far the more commonly found take. An often missed point with this version of Caravan is that while the A section that supports the melody is 16 bars, 12 bars of the dominant chord followed by 4 bars of the tonic minor, in the solo section the soloists only improvise over the dominant chord for 4 bars, followed by four bars of the tonic minor, making the A section 8 bars total.  This makes a lot of sense and allows for the form to be more symmetrical and keeps the harmony motion moving instead of the long 12 bar dominant that just seems to hang on forever……This influential solo should be learned note for note from the recording.  I play this solo often in my practice sessions.  The tune Caravan is a perfect vehicle for improvisation, and many generations of jazz musicians have played this tune—I remember twenty years ago I was in Turkey and found a recording of some Rom Gypsies playing this tune, including an amazing Turkish style A clarinet soloing in the middle of this thick Turkish groove!  A far ranging influence to be sure.

2.  Mood Indigo Clarinet Gumbo,  RCA 1976, APL1-1744

One MUST listen to the original Mood Indigo for historical purposes, but this version of Mood Indigo from the great Bigard RCA recording Clarinet Gumbo (love that title)  is a wonderful example of the low register, “woody” clarinet tone that people associate with Barney Bigard and many of the New Orleans clarinetists.  I use this transcription with my students and everyone enjoys playing along with this.  I hope you do too!!

Mood Indigo_Barney Bigard


3.  I Know That You Know-Django Reinhardt and His American Band

Django Reinhard, the amazing Gypsy guitarist, made a few sides with Barney.  You truly have to hear this Barney Bigard solo to believe it.  A medium up tempo tune here is thoroughly dissected by our man Barney, there is so much soulful stuff in this solo.  His virtuosity is amazing, the low register is fully exploited and some nice high register swoops are fit in for good measure.  This is a classic solo, give it a listen.  It will burn your ears!!

You can further investigate the amazing career and recorded legacy of Django here……



A CD called the Great Ellington Units, RCA 7651-2-RB, is a treasure trove of great small group Ellington recordings that feature the great sidemen Johnny Hodges and Rex Stewart.  Six tracks total of Barney Bigard, all of which are classics and feature some incredible clarinet work.

4.  A Lull At Dawn       

When I listen to this track I am struck by not only the totally personal and unique statement that Duke makes initially on piano, but by the “woody” low register clarinet melody, which makes me wonder who composed this melody?  And then, of course upon examining the recording more carefully, it is revealed that this perfect clarinet melody was written by no other than our man Barney Bigard.  The vibe or evocative atmosphere that this tune conjures is nothing short of incredible.  We hear some wonderful background figures from the horns and what follows in between these horn parts is some iconic Barney Bigard solo phrases…’ve got to hear this to appreciate it.

Which leads me to highlight an often overlooked aspect of Barney Bigard’s work, his fabulous gift for melody that is brought to light by his compositions.  I have compiled a list of original tunes here, which is no doubt far from complete, to give you an idea of how prolific a composer the man was.  I am always struck at the beauty and logic of his melodic lines, and the often interesting turn the phrases take in relation to the harmony.  In the research for this post I have pulled out all my LP’s and CD’s of Barney and have been surprised at how many of his own compositions he recorded.  Artie Shaw is the only other clarinetist of this era that comes to mind as another comparably prolific composer….

Barney Bigard Compositions-Partial List

From Clarinet Gumbo:

Easy On The Ears

Memoir De Bayou

Clarinet Gumbo

Satchmo’s Dream


Mood Indigo



From Barney Goin’ Easy LP/Tax Records, Sweden, m-8023

Barney Goin’ Easy

Just Another Dream

Early Mornin’

Mardi Gras Madness

Jazz A La Carte

Drummer’s Delight

I Thought You Cared

From Barney’s Bounce LP, Two Flats Disc, Italy, TFD 5-002

Barney’s Bounce



From Barney Bigard Jazz Hall Of Famer Series on Liberty Records, LRP 3072

Mardi Gras Time

Louisiana And Me

Steps Steps Up

Step Steps Down

Mood Indigo



From Barney Bigard, Giants Of Small Band Swing vol 3, Storyville LP, SLP 807


For Art’s Sake with Art Tatum

From The Great Ellington Units

A Lull At Dawn

Ready Eddy

A few years ago I decided to pay further tribute to Barney Bigard by writing a Clarinet Quartet arrangement of Mood Indigo.  I incorporated most of the original Barney Bigard solo into the arrangement.  The solo appears at 1:42 of the track.  You can hear the music here…..

I am also posting the Quartet parts into this blog post for any of you who might like to play this arrangement, I have used this arrangement in clinics that I do for younger students, and it is always a big hit with them…..

The score:

Mood Indigo:Clar Quartet


And the parts:

Mood Indigo:Clarinet 1
Mood Indigo:Clarinet 2
Mood Indigo:Clarinet 3
Mood Indigo:Bass Clarinet


In addition to his prolific recording and performing career Barney Bigard wrote a fantastic book about his life, With Louis And The Duke, edited by Barry Martyn, Oxford University Press, 1980.  I have read this rather short book many times.  At 150 pages more or less it is a quick read and if you want to really get a feel for what an extraordinary life Barney Bigard led, and what it was like in the early days of jazz in New Orleans, this book is a must read.  It is worth noting that Barney also appeared in five movies, the first of which was Black And Tan Fantasy in 1929.  This site lists these movies and years of their publication……

Here are a few short excerpts from the book……which can be found here at Amazon….

On the controversy surrounding the origin of Mood Indigo and the royalty issues with Duke Ellington:

Pages 65-65…..”Duke and I had gotten together on Mood Indigo.  I’ll tell you what happened, just to set the record straight.  My old teacher Lorenzo Tio had come to New York and he had a little slip of paper with some tunes and parts of tunes that he had written.  There was one I liked……I took it home and kept fooling around with it…..Duke had a date for a small group recording which in fact was supposed to be my group….Duke figured out a first strain and I had him some ideas for it too.  He wrote out a three-part harmony for the horns, we added my second strain and recorded it……all of a sudden it began to get popular…..I missed the boat for twenty-eight years on royalties……..Now it has finally been cleared up for Mood Indigo and I do get my royalties from it…..”

On the great New Orleans clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Sydney Bechet:

Pages 70-71…..”but now I’ll tell you about one of the greatest instrumentalists that I have ever heard in my life.  This guy didn’t have any knowledge about reading music but became one of the most famous players in jazz.  That’s Sydney Bechet. The one  and only-and I mean one and only-Sydney Bechet…..”

Brown Suede

Here is a chart a tune that I play often, this tune can be found on the Great Ellington Units recording.  It is attributed to Mercer Ellington as composer but it sure reminds me of the type of melody that Barney would write…..

Brown Suede:Clar


And once again from the Clarinet Gumbo recording there is a notable Barney Bigard composition entitled Easy On The Ears.  How’s that for a title?  The theme is a very beautifully crafted New Orleans style melody, and I was so taken with this tune that I recorded a version of my own on my first CD, Simple Beauty.  I updated the rhythm section groove and added a little clarinet duet horn section part at the end for good measure.  You can get an ear full at Soundcloud here……

Here is the lead sheet in case you would like to play the tune sometime.  Please note that these are the charts I used for my recording and as such they reflect my small stylistic revisions that fit the hip hop type rhythm that I assigned the rhythm section:


Easy On The Ears:Clar
Easy On The Ears:Concert

To my ears Barney Bigard is the link between the earliest New Orleans clarinet styles exemplified by Sydney Bechet, Alfonse Picou, the Tio’s, Edmond Hall and of course Johnny Dodds, among many other masters of this art form.  His playing to me displays a certain harmonic sophistication, presumably that he came by very naturally, and a refinement in tone and technique that was unmatched by his peers from his earliest recordings.  Add to that the advancement of recording techniques that he lived long enough to benefit from, and the stellar musicians that he kept company with, and you have to my mind the preeminent clarinetist of the New Orleans style.  I never ever get tired of hearing his recordings, and as my own understanding of this great music broadens, I hear subtle new musical inflections and find my admiration for his work expanding exponentially.  To me that’s Barney Bigard-and I mean the one and only Barney Bigard, New Orleans Creole Clarinet.

Post Script:

I have been made aware of a really cool website that has an incredible amount of information about Duke Ellington and related topics.  It is very well done and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in a great overview of the Ellington Band.  Thanks to Steve Bowie for contacting me……this is his site and it is a fantastsic resource….

Steve also turned me onto a  super hip Facebook page for the Duke Ellington Society……you can find them here….

Be sure to check these two sites out…..

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