Friday, April 1, 2016

The Crepuscular Clarinet—Or—Songs For An Insomniac

There’s this word that entered into my world several years ago, “crepuscular.” It’s kind of an ugly sounding word, especially in juxtaposition to it’s meaning, as it describes anything relating to the time of twilight. It first came into my awareness either from a Fitzgerald passage, or maybe out of one of Stephen Fry’s creations, I can’t remember, and was used to describe the sky. As it has settled into my vocabulary, it bubbles to the surface whenever I see a particular shade of blue in the sky that only happens post-dusk and pre-dawn, well, as I said, during twilight. These days I often get my sleep in chunks—a couple hours late at night, and a few more after the sun rises. Many times during those sleepless middles, tonight for instance, I think, “Maybe I’ll get to see that crepuscular blue today.” 

There are creatures, insects and animals, which are most active during these times. I like to think of myself as a crepuscular animal, of a sort. I join the ranks of everything from the romantic firefly to the lumbering moose. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad description of my own range of existence. I’ve read that these animals do not necessarily confine their activity to those brief moments around sunrises and sunsets, but will extend the time during bright, moonlit nights and dull, cloudy days. Those are two of my favorite kinds of light. In my personal vocabularic sense, crepuscular also describes a certain feeling. 

I suffer a vague discontent that can come from examining my life in these quiet, still, most often alone moments. A washed out, questioning feeling. I’m usually tired, but have some sort of energy nonetheless. It’s dark, but not too dark to see. Just enough light left or just enough light coming on, illuminating the things I’ve left undone. But there is real beauty as well, not just in the sky, but also in the rarity of reaching a still point. You might be thinking, “Stop being so fancy, you’re just describing the blues.” But as you know, there are many kinds of blues. And finally that brings me to the music.

Certain songs, musicians and composers provide perfect soundtracks for these moments. Those three things usually met in any Duke Ellington orchestra that was blessed with Barney Bigard’s presence. Musical expression of the crepuscular was no accident for Duke. He came by it organically. Synesthesia is when a response is produced by one of your senses when another of your senses is stimulated. Duke was one of the most well-known of synesthetes. When notes, tones, and chords came into his ears, he saw colors. To me, he came closer than anyone else in capturing the crepuscular in a musical composition. He also didn’t just use notes and chords, he studied and used the specific strengths of each member of his orchestra. He composed for the specific man. When Barney Bigard was on his palette, that specific blue flourished. Barney played a Crepuscular Clarinet. Check out what I mean in one of my current favorite late night numbers:

As you hear from Sue Mitchell’s vocal, it’s a song of regret mixed with a little, perhaps unrealistic, determination. Barney only plays a small role in the beginning of the recording, but he perfectly sets up that feeling of regret before Sue goes ahead and explicitly tells the story. These are the kinds of sounds and thoughts a person experiences when facing a fast-approaching new day with no way to resolve a regret.

There are also darker aspects to the blue, a little more desperate: 

Barney actually composed this one with Billy Strayhorn, saying, “One night I just got tired and started foolin’ around on clarinet, and that’s how I made up ‘Javanette’.” Apparently he was lamenting the women—whom he said looked Hawaiian—who strolled from table to table selling cigarettes on set breaks when the Ellington band was working at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. What he lamented, he didn't say.

I’m going to take a slight detour now from Barney and Duke for a few minutes to play one of my all time crepuscular favorites. “Smoke Rings” was a huge hit and the theme song for Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra back in 1937. 

Clarence Hutchinrider is the clarinetist here. He was not really well-known outside of his work with the Casa Loma band. If I’m honest, much of the credit for the songs crepuscularity (please forgive me, it’s late) goes to Gene Gifford for his arrangement of muted horns for the first full minute of the song. But Clarence took advantage of this gorgeous backdrop. He flirted with the melody, mixing in blue notes and fragile high notes to give the song an extra keening which balances the subdued nature of the muted horns. 

Back to Barney, the ultimate purveyor of the Crepuscular Clarinet. I couldn’t leave off without one of the most perfect expressions of said blueness, “A Lull At Dawn.” I mean, it’s right there in the title! I’m getting crepuscular all over just thinking about it. If you're not sleeping tight, I hope all of this helps.

The Bigard story about "Lament For Javanette" came from Jazz Talking: Profiles, Interviews And Other Riffs On Jazz Musicians by Max Jones