The call of the clarinet

Even though American clarinetist Eddie Daniels has been playing for 60 years, he still believes that ‘practice makes perfect’ in all aspects of life.

Eddie Daniels (photo credit: Courtesy PR)
Eddie Daniels
(photo credit: Courtesy PR)
Eddie Daniels is an inveterate swinger, in more senses than one. The 71-year-old Jewish American clarinetist, who is one of the stars of the jazz-oriented section of this week’s Voice of Music Festival in Kfar Blum, has been mixing it in all kinds of musical disciplines for over half a century, including – yes – the Swing variety of jazz, but also plenty of other sonic domains, such as jazz-rock fusion, the third stream jazz-classical crossover area, klezmer and classical music.
This Tuesday evening (9 p.m.), Daniels will join forces with conductor-pianist Yaron Gottfried for a jazz trio and orchestra rendition of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The ranks of the ensemble players will be boosted by staff members of the Rimon Music School summer seminar, with double-bass player Yorai Oron and drummer Rony Holan completing the jazz threesome.
Now a longtime resident of New Mexico, Daniels had a typical Jewish upbringing.
“I came from Brighton Beach [in Brooklyn]. I was just a little chubby kid who went to a public school that didn’t have a music program,” he recalls. “But, thank God, I had good Jewish parents that wanted me to have good teachers.”
Daniels’s mother also offered some makeshift rhythmic support. “We didn’t have a metronome, so my mother would sit there with the little hammer that you break nuts with, you know, a nutcracker. She was my metronome. After a while I was practicing so much, she stopped with the nutcracker and said ‘get out of here!’ It got a bit much for her.”
In fact, Daniels’ first instrument was a saxophone, prompted by some paternal input. “My father had once played the saxophone and had studied with [legendary early 20th-century classical saxophonist] Rudy Wiedoeft,” notes Daniels, adding, however, that he was not exactly surrounded by music at home either.
“I never heard my dad play and there was this old cheap saxophone that I had to wait until I was nine until I could get. My parents wouldn’t let me touch it until I was nine.”
As any parent probably knows, there are few more efficient ways to pique your child’s interest in something than make it taboo. “I would sneak into the closet to open the case and smell the mothballs,” chuckles Daniels. “It was a really old saxophone case.”
Born in 1941, Daniels was a teenager when rock and roll exploded onto the western world, but the youngster had no time for Elvis’s hip shaking or Little Richard’s frenetic on-stage behavior. He was lured, exclusively, by the velvety textures and mind-stretching rhythms of jazz. “I was lucky to have some good local teachers who liked jazz,” he explains. “In fact, my second local teacher was [saxophonist and clarinet player] Aaron Sachs. My parents took me to the Catskills when I was 10 or 11, and Aaron was playing in a hotel at the time, and I got to take some lessons with him. I was just learning the basics back then. I didn’t know from nothing.”
Daniels got his first taste of jazz over the airwaves.
“My parents would listen to crooners like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby on the radio but, every once in a while, I’d hear a saxophone on a Sinatra record and I’d say ‘God, I wish I could that.’” He may have been beguiled by the saxophone but Daniels soon began devoting his attention to the clarinet. “I have been playing the clarinet since I was 12. That’s almost 60 years!” he notes. “I daven [pray] with the clarinet every day.”
There was also some formal educational encouragement for the young Daniels to spread his musical wings. “When I went to a high school for the performing arts, I went in as a clarinet major,” he explains. There was also a practical element to be factored in. “In those days, in the Fifties, your teacher wanted you to play the clarinet, saxophone and flute.
That would enable me to be a flexible musician, and to make a living from studio work or big band work, or playing bar mitzvahs and weddings. I did a lot of that. I strolled the tables many times.”
But Daniels favored the clarinet, and one of the most iconic 20th-century masters of the instrument was the source of much inspiration. “When I was 13, [Swing clarinetist and band leader] Benny Goodman was my idol,” he recalls, although adding that he puts in a lot of hard work to augment the inspiration.
“Look at me now. I am almost 72. I have been playing for 60 years and I am still practicing. I have always been a practicer. I play tennis a couple of times a week, and I practice that, too.”
Natural ability may be important but, according to Daniels, first and foremost your heart has to be in the right place. “I think it is about passion, and not about how good you are. But there is a book called The Outliers [The Story of Success], by Malcolm Gladwell, in which he says that he interviewed people in all kinds of conservatories, and that the ones who were most talented were the ones who practiced the most. Isn’t that interesting?” Daniels believes that practice makes perfect in any walk of life. “[Iconic jazz saxophonist] Zoot Sims used to get stoned a lot and still played great, and someone once asked him how he plays when he stoned, and Zoot said: ‘I practice being stoned.’ You’ll get good at anything you practice.”
Daniels has certainly proven to be good at his practice- based craft, from the moment he came to notice, during a 1966 berth at New York’s famous Village Vanguard jazz venue, with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. He has picked up several Grammy Awards en route, as he has plied his way through a very wide spectrum of musical approaches and disciplines with consummate facility. That should come in handy for Tuesday’s jazz-classical venture.
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