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Have Clarinet, Will Noodle

Richard Stoltzman fits in just fine with orchestras, combos and big bands. His secret? Just being himself.

September 06, 1998|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Ask clarinetist Richard Stoltzman to label himself as an artist, and the answer is short and sweet: "My life," he says, "is in classical music."

No argument there. Stoltzman has performed with most of the world's major symphony orchestras, recorded almost all of the major clarinet repertory, made hundreds of chamber music and recital appearances, and won two Grammy awards, for Brahms sonatas (with pianist Richard Goode) and the trios of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart (with Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma).

But look beyond the classical music bins in your local record store, and the name "Stoltzman" pops up in the jazz racks and even, occasionally, in the pop music racks. He was nominated for a Grammy for his work with the Woody Herman band, and has made appearances or recorded with Mel Torme, Judy Collins, Joe Williams, Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea.

Asked about his range, Stoltzman, whose wry wit tinges much of his conversation, replies, "Well, you know, I once had a teacher who told me, 'If you don't learn to fit in pretty soon, you're never going to get a job.' "

That's a problem Stoltzman hasn't had to deal with in a long time, in part because he didn't take the hint.

On Wednesday, along with his violinist wife, Lucy, and his two children, Peter, 20, and Margaret Ann ("Meggie"), 14, (both of whom play piano), Stoltzman, 56, performs at the Hollywood Bowl in a program that will display a selection of his far-ranging musical interests. The concert features a family performance in the first half, and a collection of pieces from his latest RCA/BMG album, "Danza Latina," in the second half. The eclectic set of material provides an opportunity for him to display all the ways he's stretched the envelope of his career.

Stoltzman's gravitation toward jazz is particularly unusual for a classical musician. There are those who've made the journey--including Itzhak Perlman (who recorded with Oscar Peterson) and pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (who performs transcriptions of Bill Evans piano solos)--but, more commonly, it has been jazz players who have gone in the opposite direction. Benny Goodman commissioned and premiered Bartok's "Contrasts" and Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto; pianists Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea have recorded a variety of classical works; singer Bobby McFerrin now largely devotes his career to conducting; and Wynton Marsalis has famously worked in both genres.

Stoltzman, who improvises effectively and expresses a compelling sense of swing, describes his jazz abilities in modest terms.

"Let me put it this way," he says, as circumspectly as possible. "When I get to play with the very best players, and I can listen as much as possible, and the players are extremely supportive and understand all my frailties, lack of education and shortcomings, I can express something that's honest inside of me in a jazz way that's not embarrassing."

If it's "not embarrassing," it's undoubtedly because Stoltzman, unlike many classical artists, has a personal history overflowing with jazz connections.

"I can vividly recall when I first heard jazz," he says, "because it was always so present. My dad worked for the railroad, and he loved the big bands. His name was Leslie, and he was an amateur tenor saxophone player. I remember that if people really wanted to make him feel good, they would call him 'Lester' for Lester Young.

"But actually, he sounded more like Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins than Lester Young, playing with a big, wide vibrato the way they did. I remember, as a tiny, tiny kid, hearing him put on their records and try to play along with them."

Stoltzman, who was born in San Francisco and raised in Cincinnati, remembers being taken to hear outdoor concerts by touring big bands.

"Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Maynard Ferguson," he recalls. "I heard them all. I remember what it was like when the band buses would come in, and these guys would step out, all mysterious-looking, wearing sunglasses, kind of hung over--although of course I didn't know that at the time.

"But then they'd get on the bandstand and the leader would snap his fingers to count off the time, and, wow! They'd play these unbelievably energetic, roaring kinds of tunes. And there I was sitting out on the grass, listening with my father. That made a huge impression for me, because he loved it, and I loved it."

So why did Stoltzman become a classical rather than jazz player?

"Oh, I didn't really have any plan to be either," he says, "not at first. My father wanted me to be a dentist. I think I had a lot of cavities, and he could see the bills coming in."

He wound up, instead, taking a path familiar to many young musicians, playing saxophone and clarinet "for bar mitzvahs, dances and beers" before heading off to Ohio State University for a bachelor's degree with a double major in music and mathematics.

But even then, his goals were unclear. At least until he heard a performance of the Brahms Quintet for clarinet and strings.

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