Blowing from the roots

Jewish Boston-bred, New York resident jazz clarinet player Dennis Lichtman will tour Israel next week.

Swinging with Wilson (photo credit: LISA HAGEN)
Swinging with Wilson
(photo credit: LISA HAGEN)
The organizers of this year’s Hot Jazz series are touting Dennis Lichtman as “the clarinet magician from New Orleans.” While that ain’t too bad as a marketing moniker, in truth, that’s doing the man some injustice. Even the briefest of glimpses at his website soon reveal that the American musician, with a penchant for the sounds and joy of early forms of jazz, has plenty more to his instrumental arsenal, also listing fiddle and mandolin as his “main” forms of non-vocal artistic expression.
The Jewish Boston-bred, New York resident will head this way next week, for seven shows up and down the country, he will do so in the company of all the members of his quintet with Ken Gordon Au on trumpet, Dalton Ridenhour on piano and Sean Cronin on bass, with Larry Eagle sat behind the drum set.
Lichtman, it seems, always knew he was going to sing and play for his supper.
“My first instrument was violin and I started in first grade when I was about five or just turning six,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to grow up in a town which had, and still has, good funding for the arts in schools. Lichtman still remembers that fondly, and says he appreciates the support he received, for the initial steps he took along his musical road, even more these days.
“I know that funding is the first thing to get cut in our country, and probably in a lot of places around the world,” he says. “There is less and less arts programming in schools, which I think is a travesty.”
Luckily, three or so decades ago, when Lichtman was hardly knee-high to a grasshopper the state wherewithal was available to ensure he got himself a sturdy helping hand along his incipient creative way. There was also plenty of encouragement on the domestic front too.
“My mom was a big classical music lover, so she always has records playing in the house,” he says.
The youngster quickly took to the violin, spreading this instrumental line of attack three years later.
“In fourth grade they offered us group lessons on the other band instruments – horns, percussion and everything. I always liked the sound of the clarinet,” Lichtman says.
Eight-year-old Lichtman was expected to opt for one or the other, but he says he managed to juggle both instruments.
“My parents offered to let my try another instrument, thinking I would choose my favorite, but I never ended up choosing,” he laughs. Mind you there was a degree of imbalance between the two. “I took to the clarinet a little bit faster. I think the violin is the hardest of all the instruments. It is physically challenging and I always felt it was a bit more of a struggle to get thing under my fingers on the violin.”
Not that you would know that, from hearing him do his thing with the various groups with whom he puts out his jolly, insouciant-sounding sonic fare. His frontman role on a riotous self-penned number called “String-Pickin’ Fiddle-Bowin’ Horn-Blowin’ Fool,” for example, sees him shifting seamlessly between fiddle, clarinet and guitar, with plenty of mellifluous vocalizing betwixt. 
Still, the wind instrument won out for a while.
“I ended up studying clarinet at college and put the violin to one side for a number of years,” Lichtman explains. Thankfully, it was just a passing blip. “I picked the violin up again later.”
Even with all that varied music, making it took a while for Lichtman to find his way to jazz. Luckily, his arts school had a robust facility for teaching the improv-based art form.
“The college I went to has a pretty good jazz program that was founded and run by Jackie McLean,” he says. The latter gent was a stellar alto saxist, who was one of the leaders of the hard bop crowd of the 1950s.
“I was not in the jazz department, but I took some classes there,” Lichtman says. It proved to be an enduring departure for the young man. “I was surrounded by all kinds of music, even though most of my studies were in the classical department. At the time, I hadn’t really found my footing in that [jazz] world.”
As befitting his sensitive, and his teenaged social acceptance-driven mind-set, Lichtman took electric guitar in his youth, because he felt it was “a cooler instrument.” That not only went down well with the girls, it also helped him along his meandering musical path. “I taught myself electric guitar when I was about 13 or 14 – which I found to be a piece of cake compared to the violin and clarinet – and that led to mandolin, and I got really into bluegrass. It was on those stringed instruments, on which I never had any lessons, they were my first foray into improvising.”
And it was the roots jazz vibe that lured the youngster in. “I always had an affinity for the early stuff,” he notes. “I loved the rhythm of it. I loved the way it chugged along and grooved.”
That was fueled by an earlier formative event or two.
“I remember hearing a traditional jazz band, just playing really old Dixieland, playing in an outdoor concert in a park in my hometown,” he says. “I don’t know how old I was. I heard the clarinet player just weaving and bobbing and running loopy loops around the melody. I couldn’t understand what they were doing. I just knew I loved it. I thought it was amazing.”
The traditional jazz die was duly cast for Lichtman, which was later substantiated by some familial input. “My granddad was a big classical music buff. But, when I got my guitar, and I told him how excited I was about learning to play it, he told me there is this marvelous European Gypsy jazz guitarist who played with a marvelous violin player – Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. I ran straight out to a record store and bought a record by the Hot Club [quintet founded by Reinhardt and Grappelli in the 1930s].”
Lichtman has been following their lead now for more than 20 years, putting out a half dozen albums and doing the global gigging circuit in the process. The Lichtman quintet’s seven shows here next week will take in numbers written and performed by iconic swing jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, and Dixieland proponent Sidney Bechet, with some originals worked into the repertoire too. 
For tickets and more information: (03) 573-3001 and