In this post, Berkeley reminisces about his father and his father’s metal clarinet.
It’s hard to believe that the clarinet was once the coolest of all instruments. For sixty years the guitar with its pomp and swagger has reigned over popular music, while the clarinet has been just that noodley, plaintive thing they stuck in your hands in first year band. But when swing was king and Benny Goodman was king of swing, the clarinet was one bad-ass axe. It was the lead voice of choice at that unique time when the hippest music of the day was being played by the top cats and the whole country was dancing.
Which is exactly why my father would have wanted to play it as a fifteen-year-old aspiring hipster in 1936. So my grandmother bought him a twenty-five dollar clarinet — a lot of money for a widow school teacher in Depression South Carolina. It was a metal clarinet of silver-plated brass, engraved on the bell were the words Easy Play. Metal clarinets were made for marching bands, being more weather-friendly than the thicker licorice stick version. They quit making them during the war and these days if you ever see one it will most likely have a lampshade on, making for a most attractive den appointment. In my life I have seen only three people other than myself play one.
Daddy played other instruments. For three summers we left Charleston in the green Chevy wagon with everything a family of five needed for three weeks in the mountains, a border collie named Mr. Dog, and a set of trap drums. (Mr. Dog sat right behind us three kids and often got carsick.) But the clarinet remained his first love and he would stay up late some nights, put on a Benny Goodman record, and noodle away.
When he went on to the great sock-hop in the sky, I inherited the metal clarinet and have been playing it ever since. I recently took it in for an overhaul and the repairman asked, “Are you sure you want to spend $200.00 on a $20.00 instrument?”
I said, “Yeah, it was my Daddy’s clarinet.”