One of the premier clarinet players in the history of jazz, Barney Bigard remains immortal. Bigard carried the influence of his birth city, New Orleans, throughout his career. He played tenor sax but later concentrated on clarinet, which he studied with Lorenzo Tio. In 1925 he was hired by King Oliver and moved to Chicago. After two years with Oliver, he joined Duke Ellington’s Orchestra where he would remain for 15 years. Bigard’s New Orleans-style clarinet added another dimension to Ellington’s palette. His individual style and articulation were universally admired. His woody sound was a highlight of “Rose Room” and “Mood Indigo,” which he co-wrote with Ellington. He was also a valued ensemble player and capable improviser.
His mellow tone, graceful finger work and smooth sustain graced countless recordings during the peak of the Swing craze, including some of his own compositions. In 1936, Helen Oakley, the wife of journalist Stanley Dance, was the A & R (artist and repertoire) manager for Irving Mills’ new Variety label. She suggested to Mills that they try some small group recordings using musicians from the Ellington Orchestra. Given the go ahead Oakley arranged for a number of sessions, including a few led by Bigard under the name Barney Bigard and His Jazzopaters. Their December 19, 1936 session introduced the jazz standard “Caravan.”
After leaving Ellington, Bigard did sound track work in California, played with Freddie Slack and Kid Ory, and then joined the Louis Armstrong All-Stars in 1947, where he found a home until 1955 when he tired of touring. In the late ‘50s he played in Cozy Cole’s big band, rejoining Armstrong in 1960 for another year. He semi-retired in 1962 but played with a Dixieland band at Disneyland.He also found time to record with Earl Hines in the late '60's. From 1970-1973 he was a featured performer at Dick Gibson’s jazz parties in Vail, Colorado.
Bigard wrote several other songs with Ellington, some performed, some not, although Oscar Brown, Jr. recorded their “Ducky Wucky.” Bigard also co-composed “Lament for Javanette” with Billy Strayhorn, performed by the Ellington band. His autobiography is entitled With Louis and The Duke.
Barney Bigard passed in 1980.
Bio by Sandra Burlingame.