Without the clarinet there would be an empty hole in classical music, prevalent in jazz, bebop, and swing, so today we are rounding up the best clarinet players of all time.
We will take you through the most famous clarinetists from classical chamber musicians to modern contemporary soloists.
Come scroll through the birth of jazz and the legends that have learned to play this beautiful instrument to perfection.
In our list of famous clarinet players, you’ll find talented improvisational players that have pioneered musical genres and child prodigies who never cease to amaze.
1. Benny Goodman
Our number one spot is taken by the number one clarinetist known as The King of Swing, Mr. Benny Goodman.
He is perhaps the most well-known too! The American icon rose to fame playing his clarinet in a jazz band which he preferred over orchestral performance.
He was influenced by New Orleans jazz musicians and made his debut in the early 1920s.
Within that decade he climbed his way to being a swing band leader.
During an era where racial prejudice was rife, he was forward-thinking and inclusive.
He had zero qualms, seeing a great musician as a great musician regardless of skin color.
In 1938 played at the most acclaimed jazz performance in history which took place in Carnegie Hall.
Music historians consider that particular concert to be the concert that brought jazz into the mainstream.
Benny Goodman has a plethora of awards and accolades to boast about and was inducted into the Jazz Hall Of Fame deservedly.
2. Artie Shaw
Another notable and affluent clarinetist working within the same circles as Benny was Artie Shaw.
He was also leading big bands and helping to bring jazz music into the spotlight.
Shaw had a penchant for genre experimentation.
If he was around today he would be in a bedroom mastering mashups with his clarinet for TikTok.
His innovative musical approach is what brought him the fame he deserved and the recognition as being one of the best clarinet players in history.
His career began with one of his blended jazz songs “Begin the Beguine”.
This song was just one of many to follow, his music papers were donated to Boston University.
They totaled more than 1,000!
During the war, Shaw went out to play for the troops and raise morale.
He, like Benny Goodman, had his contributions to music acknowledged with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
3. Sidney Bechet
While we are talking about jazz pioneers and clarinet players we have to mention the late Sidney Bechet.
He was one of the first soloists and was known for his improvisational skills.
Until clarinetists like Bechet came along the instrument was purely part of the package, blended into an orchestral set-up.
His playing style helped form the swing style of jazz music, one of his claims to fame.
He was an animated performer who could hold an audience and command a stage.
But the Creole was purportedly temperamental which hindered his early career.
It wasn’t until the 40s that he had the recognition he deserved and the platform to perform his music.
He often played alongside the legendary Louis Armstrong, a household name in the world of early jazz.
He was eventually inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Halls of Fame for his efforts.
4. Martin Fröst
For an example of a more modern famous clarinet player, we have Martin Fröst.
The Swedish clarinetist’s love of music began as a violinist which he took up at the tender age of five.
He switched instruments at just eight years old and began perfecting his craft to a virtuoso level.
He went on to be the first clarinetist to be awarded the very prestigious Danish Léonie Sonning Music Prize in 2014.
One of his career highlights.
Frost has been involved in many interesting projects.
Aside from his clarinet skills, he is known for experimenting with multimedia, bringing choreographed dance together with music with integrated light shows.
5. Vasilis Saleas
Another modern young virtuoso who has earned a spot among the best clarinet players of all time is Vasilis Saleas.
He began playing at the age of nine and made his professional debut at fourteen years old.
Born a gypsy he moved to Athens and is responsible for reviving the traditional Greek folk Music known as Laiko.
He also successfully gave the clarinet a place in Greek pop music, which is quite a feat as it is often overlooked as an instrument for commercial tracks these days.
In 1990, he released his first solo album which was incredibly well-received.
His playing style is modern and interesting despite its Greek Folk influences.
He has worked alongside some of the greatest Greek musicians, artists, and composers.
One of them was the late Vangelis famed for his electronic orchestral blend of music and film-score compositions.
Vasilis performed Vangelis’ Love Theme for Ridley Scott’s 1982 Sci-Fi movie Blade Runner.
6. Sabine Meyer
There were fewer women in the spotlight in the early era.
The birth of jazz was dominated by men.
But how about a modern female clarinetist?
One of the best female clarinetists in the world hails from Germany: Sabine Meyer.
She started early life destined to play the instrument, as she was born into a family of clarinet players.
Her father Karl Meyer and brother Wolfgang are well-known German clarinetists and she went on to marry a prestigious one too!
Each of them is successful in their own rights.
Sabine was one of the first female musicians to join the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra playing for many years before becoming a soloist.
She has won numerous cultural awards for her work and has some beautiful select recordings that explore classical works from Brahms, Mozart, and Franz Krommer.
7. Buddy DeFranco
We are taking you back to the budding bebop scene of the 40s with Buddy DeFranco.
Much like those we opened the article with, he was a pioneer who contributed a lot to the world of jazz.
The high-speed jazz style of Bebop evolved as clarinetists like Buddy changed up their styles and moved with the times.
Many soloists of the era were very set in their ways, and strict with their jazz when the genre was broadening thanks to improvisation.
Buddy DeFranco was a clarinetist who didn’t adhere to rigidity and went wherever the music took him.
He played alongside some of the late greats like Sonny Clark and was a staple addition to the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
During his career, he recorded over 160 songs which is an admirable catalog.
8. Larry Combs
Larry Combs is perhaps a less well-known name unless you are a dedicated clarinet player yourself or a fan of classical orchestras.
He is however highly accomplished having played with some of the biggest orchestras going.
With a clear command of his instrument.
Combs has been part of the woodwind section of the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Santa Fe Opera, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
After years of dedicated playing he rose through the ranks to principal clarinetist allowing him to work as a soloist.
His work outside of performance is also commendable.
Combs is one of the founders of the Chicago Chamber of Musicians.
He has also dabbled in instrument design, helping Leblanc in their clarinet design department.
9. Hüsnü Senlendirici
Although he is probably the most famous in his homeland, Husnu Senlendirici is another of the world’s best clarinet players.
The Turkish musician comes from a musical Romani family lineage and playing folk music is in his blood.
His great-grandfather was also a notable G clarinet player.
The G clarinet is very common in traditional Turkish music.
He is known for his Sulukule playing style, a type of gypsy-rooted Turkish Belly Dance music, and his playing style is perfect for the tonality of the G clarinet.
Hüsnü Senlendirici is involved with several bands, one being the popular folk group known as the Taksim Trio.
10. Paquito D’Rivera
When you hear the name Paquito D’Rivera you think saxophone, and if you give him a Google you will indeed be told he is an acclaimed saxophonist.
But “The Paqman” plays the clarinet like it is an extension of his physical being.
His early life saw him defecting from Cuba and blending the Latin jazz that he was exposed to in his upbringing with classical music to create his own unmistakable signature sound.
He was a renowned bandleader and soloist and has played at Carnegie Hall alongside some of the best orchestras and philharmonics.
He is the only musician to have Grammy awards in Classical music as well as the distinctly different Latin Jazz category.
These days in addition to his saxophone accolades he plays with the Bachrinets Barcelona Clarinet quartet.
11. Sharon Kam
Another great Middle Eastern clarinetist to get excited about is the Israeli-born Sharon Kam.
Her aptitude for the clarinet was bolstered by studying at the reputable Julliard School of Music.
She fell in love with Mozart during her formative years with Mozart’s clarinet masterpieces quoted as her artistic focus.
A lot of her work is classical, but she enjoys jazz and has a variety of contemporary styles recorded in her catalog.
She is a clarinetist that was considered a young prodigy, performing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra when she was just sixteen.
As well as her homeland orchestra she has played with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
The accomplished soloist now resides in Germany with her conductor husband Gregor Buhl and plays with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
12. Julian Bliss
On the subject of prodigies, we have Julian Bliss, one of the youngest clarinetists on our top pick list.
His tutor and mentor is none other than Sabine Meyer who already rightfully earned herself a spot in our article.
By the time he had turned thirteen, he had his first victory and award under his belt.
He was crowned winner of the Philadelphia 2001 Concerto Soloists Young Artists Competition and performed for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at her Golden Jubilee.
The 34-years-young clarinetist is a designer as well as a performer and is responsible for the Leblanc Bliss Clarinet.
During the Covid19 Pandemic, he began working on some ambitious recording projects under lockdown which demonstrate amazing musical talent.
Which we have shared above.
In his short career, he has performed extensively as both a chamber musician and soloist, and who knows what else he will achieve.
13. Woody Herman
Our list isn’t a ranking of any sort, if it was we would put the eminent Woody Herman at the top where he belongs alongside the other great American clarinetists of his heyday.
Herman played alongside and against Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, whom we opened with.
Herman was just as prominent.
Woody Herman is best known for leading The Herd, a fitting pet name for the musical groups he led.
The musicians in the group changed regularly but Herman and The Herd were wildly popular in the 1930s.
A fantastic bandleader, Woody Herman is also a distinguished saxophonist a bit like Paqman.
This is quite common with chamber musicians in the early days, the two instruments are often progressively taught to musicians, many starting on a recorder, then clarinet and sax or vice versa.
The final group he played with before his death was the Young Thundering Herd which was again very popular and successful.
Woody had three Grammy Awards wins and received a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award and star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
14. Richard Stoltzman
With an extensive classical musical repertoire, Richard Stoltzman is one of the best clarinetists of the modern era.
Stoltzman studied both music and math and was a longtime student of New York Based master clarinet pedagogue Kalmen Opperman.
He is an impeccable clarinet player with an illustrious career.
He has impressively played with over 100 different chamber groups, his accolades include two Grammy wins and a Yale School of Music’s Sanford Medal.
As he was also the first wind instrument player to win the Avery Fisher Prize, Stoltzman remains a widely sought-after soloist for both orchestral and jazz music projects.
These days he is part of the music faculty for both New England Conservatory and Boston University, shaping the next generation of clarinetists.
15. Karl Leister
Internationally recognized as one of the best clarinet soloists German clarinetist Karl Leister is the founding member of the Bläser der Berliner Philharmoniker and the Ensemble Wien-Berlin.
He recorded some notable classical works with the two groups in addition to playing for almost three decades straight with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
After a successful 30-year career as a soloist and chamber musician, Leister turned his hand towards teaching much like Stoltzman above.
Working as a professor for one of the leading European universities, the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler in Berlin, he continues to influence the next generation of players.
16. Anton Stadler
Anton Stadler: Der Dudler for Clarinet Solo
You will have noticed that many of the best modern clarinetists are inspired by Mozart, and most of them have recorded Mozart pieces.
This is because Mozart loved the sound of the clarinet and wrote some notable solo parts for it in his classical arrangements.
Mozart wrote his pieces with someone specific in mind, clarinetist Anton Stadler was his muse and musical colleague.
For many classical musicians and fans of classical music, the two are synonymous.
Stadler was an astounding clarinetist, and basset horn player Stadler published several musical works on both instruments during the 1700s
His wonderful playing ability inspired Mozart to write Clarinet Quintet (K 581) and Clarinet Concerto (K 662).
17. Heinrich Joseph Baermann
We are sticking with the late 1700s for another classical clarinetist who made a huge impact with his instrument playing.
Baermann is considered one of the greatest players of the Romantic era.
Importantly he made changes to the design of the instrument and notably made an enormous change to the physical playing methods at the time.
Until his embouchure experimentation, clarinetists would play with the reed making contact with the top lip.
Baermann played with it against his bottom lip and revolutionized how to play the clarinet.
He played with great skill and many composers of the time such as Mendelssohn and Danzi were inspired to write for him.
But like many other virtuosos, Baermann also composed his own musical arrangements for his instrument.
18. Carl Baermann
The resemblance in the surname here is a family one.
Heinrichs son Carl inherited his father’s gift for playing and unsurprisingly went on to be another of the world’s best clarinet players.
Given the leaps his father had made in the way to play the instrument and its construction, Carl benefited heavily from him firsthand.
Heinrich retired from the Munich orchestra in 1834 handing the role of principal clarinetist down a generation to his son.
But Carl’s prestige wasn’t simply handed to him on the coattails of his father; he also developed the instrument further himself.
Carl was responsible for the Baermann-Ottensteiner key system, which in its day became the most commonly used and sought-after key system.
Like his father before him, Carl also composed several notable original works.
19. Johann Simon Hermstedt
After the Baermanns in the late 1700s, Johann Simon Hermstedt became the most famous clarinetist of the 1800s.
He, like Heinrich Baermann, served as a court clarinetist.
Composer Louis Spohr began working closely with Hermstedt and the two hit it off forming a lifelong collaboration.
All four of Spohr’s clarinet concertos were composed specifically for Hermstedt.
Hermstedt also worked with Mozart, as part of his personal quintet and went on to compose a few proprietary pieces before he died.
20. Harold Wright
We are back to looking at the greatest American clarinetists with Harold Wright.
He took up the instrument at 12 years old and was a quick study.
After graduating from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music he landed himself a spot in the Houston Symphony.
With just one year under his belt, he earned the principal role and just one year later earned in the Dallas Symphony.
Wright then went on to play for the National Symphony in Washington D.C. and eventually the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
His playing style is heavily influenced by the European techniques that had been developed in the century before from the likes of the Baermanns and Hermstedt whom we mentioned above.
21. Giora Feidman
Another fantastic clarinetist who is a tad more modern than some of the classical musicians we have digested is Giora Feidman.
Feidman was born in Argentina, to a family of Israeli musicians who made their living playing at weddings and bar mitzvahs.
The Israeli clarinetist began his career in Buenos Aires with the Teatro Colon Symphony Orchestra.
He returned to his homeland not long after to play as part of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, where he spent two decades as a chamber musician.
He has performed alongside some of the best European orchestral groups.
But the average person might recognize him more for his clarinet solo from the Schindler’s List soundtrack.
He has a recognizable playing style, with lots of overtones, and employs screams, laughs, and ghost notes, things generally avoided in orchestral playing.
He founded a prestigious master class seminar called the “Clarinet and Klezmer in Galilee” and is still playing today at 87 years old!
22. Pete Fountain
In his youth, Pete Fountain was a weak, sickly child with a condition that affected his lungs.
Fortunately for him, his doctor gave his parents a left-field suggestion when medication provided no improvement.
The doctor’s recommendation of buying a wind instrument to blow into was just the ticket.
A young Pete chose the clarinet and not only did his lung capacity and strength grow but he also got pretty good pretty quickly.
With the support and encouragement of a high school music teacher, he decided to pursue a music career and went on to play with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra.
Most people would recognize him from his many appearances on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show.
Ironically for a boy with weak lungs, Pete Fountain is most famous for his fluidity and sweet clarinet tone, something which requires breath control.
23. George Lewis
In the early 1920’s George Lewis founded the New Orleans Stompers, a jazz musician group.
He played the clarinet with fat tones in a lively manner with a lot of liberation or as critics said very little technique!
Regardless he played in several other bands, most notable of which were the Eureka Brass Band and the Olympia Orchestra.
His rise to fame was brought about by serendipity that arose from a bad accident.
The passionate musician brought his real paycheck home by working in the docks of New Orleans.
One day in a twist of fate he was almost crushed to death.
He practiced his clarinet from his hospital bed where his band members would visit and jam with him.
He recorded Burgundy Street Blues from his hospital room which went on to be one of his most famous tracks.
Once healed and home he became more dedicated to his instrument.
He soon became a regular on Bourbon Street clubs and his highest-profile accolades came later in life.
Shortly before he died became the leader of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
24. Johnny Dodds
We already mentioned one fantastic clarinetist who graced the stage with Louis Armstrong, here’s another!
Jazz band saxophonist and clarinetist Johnny Dodds was also born in New Orleans and brushed paths with George Lewis above.
You may recognize the surname as his brother Warren Dodds was one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time.
Johnny’s early career was kickstarted when he joined his brother in New Orleans as part of the Bootblacks.
He later joined Armstrong alongside Joe Oliver, and Jelly Roll Morton in the 1920s and 30s.
He played as part of Armstrong’s Hot Five or Hot Seven lineup as well as Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers.
Dodds was an accomplished clarinetist with his own playing style.
Benny Goodman once said no one had ever demonstrated a finer tone than Dodds.
He became known as The King of New Orleans.
Dodds received posthumous induction into the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame for the mark he had made on the music genre.
25. Robert Marcellus
Born in the heyday of Johnny Dodds above, Robert Marcellus was a virtuoso who earned himself an orchestra position at a young age.
He played second Clarinet with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington when he was just sixteen.
After a stint in the United States Air Force, he became the principal clarinetist with the Cleveland Orchestra.
He remained with them and is known for having one of the longest tenures in history.
Eventually, health problems sadly ended his performing career.
But Marcellus continued to teach the next generation as a professor of clarinet at Northwestern University for a further two decades.
Best Clarinet Players of All Time – Final Thoughts
The clarinet continues to be a staple instrument in chamber music today.
There are some very note-worthy players with some serious accolades as you will have gleaned from today’s top picks.
Some of the aforementioned clarinetists are responsible for shaping entire musical movements.
Pioneers of their time with improvisational skills that helped push the clarinet into a solo instrument.
We tend to think of the clarinet as an orchestral ingredient but the most famous clarinet players of all time have changed opinions.
Our list of best clarinet players includes some legendary artists who have contributed to the musical evolution and birth of rich and diverse genres.
The instrument is as popular as ever and very versatile.
So you can expect the next generation of players, inspired by the feats of the best clarinetists of yesteryear, will only continue to take it to higher heights.
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