Barney Bigard Biography

Albany Leon Bigard, 3 March 1906, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, d. 27 June 1980, Culver City, California, USA. Born into a highly musical family, Bigard began studying clarinet at the age of seven, taking lessons from the noted teacher, Lorenzo Tio Jnr. He worked in street parades but then switched to tenor saxophone in 1922 to join the band led by Albert Nicholas. During the next two years Bigard played in several bands in New Orleans before going to Chicago to join King Oliver. While with Oliver he reverted to clarinet. In the mid-20s he played in Chicago and New York in the bands of Charlie Elgar and Luis Russell before joining Duke Ellington in December 1927. In common with so many Ellingtonians, he remained a member of the band for many years, but eventually left in mid-summer 1942 and for the next few years he led his own small bands, worked in the film studios of Hollywood and was also briefly with Freddy Slack. In 1947 Bigard joined Louis Armstrong’s newly formed All Stars. He was with Armstrong for five years and then, after a period leading his own band, returned for a further two years in the mid-50s. After working with several bands in the late 50s he rejoined Armstrong for another stint in the early 60s and then played in various bands, including those led by Johnny St. Cyr, Muggsy Spanier, Rex Stewart and Art Hodes. In the 70s he toured with Hodes, Eddie Condon and many others, including the Legends Of Jazz. In his later years he worked in many places, appeared on television and radio, thoroughly enjoying his role as an elder statesman of jazz.

Bigard’s was one of the most distinctive jazz voices, his playing characterized by a rich, flowing sound and his habitual use of the lower, chalumeau, register of the clarinet. After joining Ellington, Bigard lost his previous close affinity with the musical forms traditionally associated with his birthplace. Nevertheless, there were always echoes of his origins in his best work, which came mostly during his years with Ellington. Among his classic recordings from this period of his career are ‘Clarinet Lament’ (‘Barney’s Concerto’), ‘Mood Indigo’, ‘Saturday Night Function’, ‘Barney Goin’ Easy’ and ‘C Jam Blues’. Some of these tunes originated in ideas and fragments Bigard created and that were fashioned by Ellington into minor masterpieces. Although this was Ellington’s common practice, in later years Bigard would occasionally disconcert interviewers by ferociously declaring, ‘I wrote that!’ whenever almost any Ellington composition was mentioned. Although Bigard was a pleasure to hear in later years, there was a great deal of repetition in his work. Indeed, some of his solos, especially on such famous features as ‘C Jam Blues’, ‘Rose Room’ and ‘Tea For Two’, were repeated night after night, year upon year regardless of the company he was keeping. In fairness, it might be added that, having achieved a kind of perfection, he might well have thought there was little point in tampering with what he knew was his best.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.