CLARINETIST, CENTER STAGE

"I'm an obsessive, compulsive, crazy person," said Eddie Daniels. "Last night, I played a concert to a full house, got two standing ovations, yet I came away thinking of all the things I didn't like about myself. I got home and looked at my clarinet and said to myself, 'Damn! What went wrong with this, and that, and that?' "

If there are faults in Daniels' playing, his listeners have failed to hear them. He has become, in the past year, the Wynton Marsalis of the clarinet. His "Breakthrough" album on GRP, part of it with the 80-piece London Philharmonic, proved this by displaying him to dazzling effect in both classical and jazz settings.

The irony of his present celebrity status is that for years he made a living as a saxophonist, doubling only fitfully on clarinet; in fact, some critics have compared him not to Benny Goodman or Buddy De Franco but to Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.

"The fact is I always liked clarinet best," said Daniels in his brash, New York-accented voice during a recent Los Angeles visit. "I began studying it at 12, three years after I'd started on saxophone, and it was clarinet that I studied at Juilliard, with Daniel Bonade, one of the great old French masters."

As a teen-ager he played sax and clarinet in the Newport Youth Band. "A lot of good people came out of that band. The drummer was Larry Rosen, who's now the R in GRP Records--my boss, right? I went on to get my bachelor's degree in education at Brooklyn College. It wasn't until 1966 that I graduated from Juilliard with my master's degree."

That he did not become a full-time musician immediately was due to parental influence. "When I started hanging out with jazz musicians, they thought that element wasn't healthy for their nice young Jewish boy. My mother associated it with drugs and that kind of stuff. So I became a schoolteacher. But now that I've made it as a musician she's unbelievably proud--'My son's the best!' My father came to hear me just before he died a few months ago, and that was a proud moment for us both."

Daniels began his brief teaching career at Westinghouse Vocational High. "That was a real blackboard-jungle type school, all boys, and I had to teach hygiene, which became sex education. They wanted to know about sex, so I would talk about it."

Crossing from sex to sax, Daniels moved into the jazz world, starting on tenor saxophone with the clarinetist Tony Scott. "I tried to play clarinet with him too, but he said, 'Put that thing away. You sound too much like Buddy De Franco.' Actually, Buddy was my inspiration; he made me turn the corner away from Benny Goodman, and he was always supportive, telling me for years to get out of the studios and play clarinet on the road."

Less supportive was Thad Jones, during Daniels' six years with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. "I had a ball playing tenor, but while we were taping a live album at the Village Vanguard I picked up the clarinet and snuck in a solo. Thad was very upset about it--but on the strength of that one solo I won the Down Beat New Star award on clarinet. That gave me the chutzpah to keep on doing it, even though Thad hated the clarinet."

During the Jones/Lewis incumbency, Daniels made the lucrative transition into the studio world, playing in the band on Dick Cavett's TV show from 1972 to 1974. He kept busy through the next decade, but ultimately came to the decision that took him out of the studios and back to the clarinet full time.

"What was happening in the studios became very clear to me. A lot of fine players, the cream of the crop who were making their living there, saw the synthesizers taking over, so that right now there is literally half the amount of work.

"Now, here was a chance for someone like me to come out with an acoustic instrument that hadn't been heard from that much and get the young people interested. It gives them a role model; maybe it will take a few of them away from the electronic revolution and back to this very primitive instrument, this piece of wood with holes in it, this wonderful thing called the clarinet."

One of Daniels' enthusiastic supporters in making his new move has been Mercer Ellington. Daniels has recorded on two albums with the Ellington orchestra, playing tenor sax only in the reed section but soloing extensively on clarinet.

He has consistently bridged the gap between the classical and jazz worlds, playing every summer at the Aspen Festival, and with such orchestras as the Cincinnati Symphony. Most significantly, in March, 1984, he premiered Jorge Calandrelli's "Concerto for Jazz Clarinet and Orchestra" with the New American Orchestra at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. He performed it again in 1985 at the Charles Ives Festival, and recorded it, along with compositions by C.P.S. Bach, Torrie Zito and himself, for the "Breakthrough" album.

That the clarinet has a logical place on today's music scene is obvious. That it remained in the shadows so long is inexplicable. In jazz, it produced such early giants as Jimmy Noone; in the Swing Era it was the chariot to fame for Goodman, Artie Shaw and others. Duke Ellington's orchestra was the setting for Barney Bigard and later for Jimmy Hamilton. The bebop years produced De Franco and Tony Scott. Daniels is simply picking up a torch that ought never to have been dropped.

He has had many honors along the way. Before joining Jones/Lewis, he went to Vienna, where he won a saxophone competition organized by the pianist Friedrich Gulda. He has been an annual winner of the NARAS Most Valuable Player award. Climactically, in December he won--by just two votes over De Franco--the Down Beat Readers' Poll.

"A lot of good things have happened as a result of the album," he says. "John Dankworth, who fell in love with it, had me play a Pops series; I've played with the London Symphony quite a few times, playing everything from Mozart to the things in the album.

"I want to stretch the clarinet to its limits, put myself on the hot seat so I have to keep playing better. At the concert last night I played Weber's Concertino for Clarinet and a piece by Prokofiev called 'Variations on a Hebrew Theme'; then the big jazz orchestra came on and I played 'Donna Lee' and a couple of big-band charts. Then John Patitucci and I played some bass-and-clarinet duos.

"It was a solid 2 1/2-hour concert in which I had to play everything . That's what I want--to be put through the wringer. I want a job where they put you up against the wall and say, 'Put that clarinet in your mouth, go ahead and play Mozart, play every bit of the classical literature, and do it as well as anyone ever did it, or better, and then you gotta play chamber music and jazz. You gotta do it all.'

"I love it. It's a challenge. Life is only exciting when you're really challenged."

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