Chances are, if you listen to classical, swing, or jazz music, or if you watched SpongeBob as a kid, you’ve heard about the clarinet.
Ever since its invention sometime around the year 1700, the clarinet has enjoyed a strong presence in music. It’s a staple of jazz bands, marching bands, and orchestras.
However, the clarinet wouldn’t mean anything without the musicians who play it. Here are 22 of the most famous clarinet players throughout history.
Famous Classical Clarinetists
The clarinet is most well-known for its place in classical music. Clarinets are an essential part of the orchestra, and classical music is still the main genre for clarinet music.
Since German composers played a key role in popularizing the clarinet, many classical clarinetists are German.
There are several famous classical clarinetists, from the 1700s through the modern day. Here are the top nine classical clarinet players.
Anton Stadler (1752-1812)
Anton Stadler was an Austrian musician who was a well-known clarinet player in his day.
In 1783, Stadler was invited to play second clarinet in the emperor’s “Harmonie.” These Harmonies were private groups of musicians, hired to compose and play music especially for nobility.
A few years later, Stadler and Mozart became colleagues, working together on musical pieces like Mozart’s “Clarinet Trio K 498.”
Two of Mozart’s most famous compositions for clarinet, Clarinet Quintet (K 581) and Clarinet Concerto (K 622), were written with Stadler in mind.
In addition to the clarinet, Anton Stadler played an array of other instruments, including a wide range of wind instruments. He could also sing well, and he sometimes composed his own music.
Stadler remains one of the most well-known classical clarinetists in the world.
Johann Simon Hermstedt (1778-1846)
Johann Simon Hermstedt was a German clarinetist.
He worked as the court clarinetist for the Duke Gunther I of Schwarzburg-Sondershausen. He also taught the duke how to play the clarinet.
A composer named Louis Spohr wrote several clarinet concertos specifically for Hermstedt. Many of his pieces were dedicated to Hermstedt as well.
Heinrich Baermann (1784-1847)
Heinrich Baermann was also a German clarinetist during the 19th century. He was well known for his skills in Romantic music.
After hearing Baermann’s music, Prince Louis Ferdenand of Prussia took an interest in him, and gave him a job playing clarinet for the Berlin court.
Baermann was popular with the other composers at that time, and several pieces were written for him, or dedicated to him.
Later in his life, Baermann played in the Munich court orchestra, a position he held for almost 30 years. He also passed down the love of the clarinet to his son, Carl.
Carl Baermann (1810-1885)
Carl Baermann was the son of Heinrich Baermann.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Carl became a well-known clarinetist for the Munich court orchestra. After Heinrich retired, Carl took his place as the principal clarinetist in 1834.
Carl Baermann developed the Baermann-Ottensteiner key system, which was the most popular key system during his life.
As well as playing the clarinet, Carl Baermann also worked as a composer, and wrote a number of pieces for the clarinet.
Harold Wright (1926-1993)
Harold Wright, the first American on this list, was a clarinetist from Pennsylvania.
He learned how to play the clarinet when he was just 12 years old, and soon after that, he started studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
Once he graduated, Wright received a spot in the Houston Symphony, and one year later, he earned the principal clarinet role in the Dallas Symphony.
After playing in the National Symphony in Washington DC, Harold Wright spent the rest of his career playing for the Boston Symphony, from 1973 until his death in 1993.
In this video, listen as Wright plays principle clarinet in Kolady’s “Dances of Galanta.”
Richard Stoltzman (1942-)
Richard Stoltzman, born in 1942, is one of the most well-known clarinetists of our time.
As a prolific musician who has played in over 100 orchestras, as well as many chamber groups and solo recitals, Stoltzman is best known for his classical performances.
Here’s a video of Stoltzman performing the classic hymn, “Amazing Grace.”
He has received two Grammy awards for Best Chamber Music Performances, one in 1983 and the other in 1996.
In 2013, Stoltzman was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences for his clarinet performances.
Sabine Meyer (1959-)
Next on our list is Sabine Meyer, a German classical clarinetist born in 1959.
Meyer comes from a family of clarinetists, and her father and brother Wolfgang are both accomplished clarinetists.
Sabine Meyer was one of the first female musicians to play in the Berlin Philharmonic. After that, Meyer launched her very successful solo career, and she continues to be a highly sought-after musician to this day.
Martin Fröst (1970-)
Martin Frost is a Swedish clarinetist, who also works as a conductor for the Swedish Chamber Orchestra.
In addition to his famous clarinet music, Frost works in light design, choreography, and he is a Master of Ceremony.
Frost is well-known for his cutting edge techniques in the realm of orchestral and classical music.
Sharon Kam (1971-)
Sharon Kam, born in Israel and currently residing in Germany, is another modern classical clarinetist.
A bit of a prodigy, Kam studied at the Juilliard School of Music, and had her first performance with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra when she was just 16 years old.
So far, Sharon Kam has had a very busy and successful music career, playing with orchestras like the London Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Famous Jazz Clarinet Players
After classical music, the second most popular genre for the clarinet is jazz.
The clarinet is one of the first instruments included in jazz and big band movements in the United States.
In fact, some of the most famous clarinetists of all time are the jazz musicians from the 1930s.
Here are some of the top jazz clarinetists in recent history:
Sidney Bechet (1897-1959)
The first solo jazz artist recorded was actually not Louis Armstrong, but Sidney Bechet.
Bechet started his career by playing with Duke Ellington’s early orchestra. He made a name for himself after people noticed his intense clarinet vibrato.
Through the 1920s all the way to the 1950s, Bechet played both the clarinet and soprano saxophone, and he became great at solo improvisation.
In 1949, towards the end of his career, he worked at the Salle Pleyel Jazz Festival in Paris. This helped him become quite famous in France during the 1950s.
Benny Goodman (1909-1986)
Benny Goodman is often called the “King of Swing,” and for good reason. He is arguably the most famous clarinetist in history.
When Goodman was a child, his parents took him and his 11 siblings to the free concerts in Douglas Park. By the time Goodman was 10 years old, his parents enrolled him (and two of his siblings) in music lessons.
Goodman reached the height of his career between 1930 and 1940.
Here’s a video of him performing “Sing, Sing, Sing!”
He also worked as a band leader. In 1938, he held a jazz concert at Carnegie Hall, which, to this day, is still one of the most famous jazz concerts of all time.
Artie Shaw (1910-2004)
Artie Shaw lead a career that was similar to Benny Goodman’s career.
Shaw played the clarinet, in addition to his work as a popular big band leader. He also dabbled in acting.
One of the highlights of his career came in 1938, when he recorded his own version of “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter. From there, his career took off.
Shaw was one of the first clarinetists to embrace Third Stream Music, a music style that blended elements of jazz and classical music.
Woody Herman (1913-1987)
Next up, we have Woody Herman, who was another big band leader that made it big as a jazz artist in the 1930s.
Herman’s music often went outside the box. He and his band, known as “The Herd,” liked to try new age styles and pieces.
In addition to the clarinet, Herman also sang and played the saxophone. He continued performing music until the end of his life in 1987.
Eric Dolphy (1928-1964)
Although he was most well-known as a saxophonist, Eric Dolphy also played the flute, bass clarinet, and clarinet, helping to establish the instruments in the jazz scene.
During his career, Eric Dolphy partnered with musicians including Charles Mingus and John Coltraine.
Much of Dolphy’s work centered around using new instruments and sounds that were not typically included in jazz music, such as the bass clarinet.
Even though he played several instruments, not just the clarinet, Dolphy helped boost the popularity of the clarinet within the jazz community.
Pete Fountain (1930-2016)
Pete Fountain was an American clarinetist, born and raised in New Orleans.
As a child, Fountain had a lot of respiratory issues. The doctor recommended that he learn a wind instrument, because playing music would help strengthen his lungs. Fountain chose the clarinet, and over time, his lungs grew stronger, and he became an expert clarinetist.
Fountain’s music had a distinct sound, more of a woody tone than other clarinetists. This came from a crystal mouthpiece, which he used instead of the standard rubber mouthpieces.
Fountain retired in 2014.
World Music Clarinetists
The clarinet can be found in folk music all across the world.
In different areas of the world, traditional music has certain styles and techniques. Clarinetists can use these techniques to try and match the feel of a certain traditional music style, such as Eastern European.
These three clarinet players are famous for their ability to recreate the sounds of their culture’s traditional music. Be sure to listen for the specific styles of each artist.
Giora Feidman (1936-)
Giora Feidman is a modern clarinetist who was born in Argentina and raised in Israel. He is known for playing Klezmer music, a type of traditional music from the Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish culture.
Klezmer music is often written for the clarinet, and includes dance songs, as well as ritual pieces for weddings and other traditional ceremonies.
At a young age, Feidman learned to play the clarinet from his father, who learned from his grandfather, who learned from his great-grandfather. A few years later, Feidman became the youngest clarinetist to play in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 1993, he was invited by Steven Spielberg to record the clarinet solos for the film score in Schindler’s List. The movie received a Grammy Award for the best score soundtrack in visual media.
Vassilis Saleas (1958-)
Vassilis Saleas, a gypsy who was born in Greece, built a career as a clarinetist at a young age. His father taught him the clarinet when he was nine years old, and by the time he was 14, Saleas started giving performances at the professional level.
In the 1990s, he worked as an accompanist for Vangelis, the musician who composed the soundtrack for the movie Chariots of Fire.
Saleas released four of his own albums, featuring his clarinet versions of traditional Greek folk music. While he has not performed in any large orchestras, Saleas undoubtedly had a talent for the clarinet, as well as a love for his home country.
Hüsnü Senlendirici (1976-)
The clarinet plays a crucial part in traditional Turkish folk music, and Hüsnü Senlendirici is the most popular clarinetist in Turkey.
At just 12 years old, Senlendirici began studying at the State Conservatory of Turkish Music at the Istanbul Technical University.
Since then, he has performed solos in many festivals, played in several bands (two of which he founded himself), and released his own album. He has also collaborated with other famous Turkish musicians, including Aytac Dogun and Dhafer Yousseff.
Celebrity Clarinet Players
And last but not least, let’s take a look at some celebrities who have played the clarinet at some point in their lifetime.
Since the clarinet is a popular instrument in middle and high school marching bands, it’s not surprising that there are several celebrities who played the clarinet in school. Some of them still play the clarinet today!
A famous actress known for her roles in Law & Order, Hook, and Wonder, Julia Roberts used to play the clarinet in high school.
As a self-proclaimed band nerd, Roberts enjoyed the clarinet and spent a lot of time playing music, before she got into acting. In addition to the clarinet, Roberts also learned how to play the oboe.
Woody Allen is best known for his unusual and eccentric work in the film industry. But not very many people know that Woody Allen is also an advanced clarinet player.
He’s a big fan of jazz music. In fact, Woody Allen has his own New Orleans Jazz Band, and at one point, they used to give weekly performances in Manhattan.
There’s a documentary called Wild Man Blues, that is all about Woody Allen’s band.
In addition to his jazz band, Woody Allen also performs the clarinet for his own film scores.
Jimmy Kimmel and Eva Longoria
Last but not least, we have Jimmy Kimmel and Eva Longoria.
Kimmel and Longoria are both well-known celebrities, Kimmel for his talk show hosting, and Longoria for her modeling and acting career.
In the past, both Kimmel and Longoria played the clarinet in school.
Eva Longoria was also a drum majorette when she was young.
While neither of them are famous for their musical talent, the duo received a lot of internet fame with their dueling clarinets segment on Jimmy Kimmel’s late night talk show.
Summing Up Famous Clarinet Players
These are only a few of the notable clarinet players in the world.
From Mozart’s favorite clarinetist, to the clarinet players that keep traditional folk music alive around the world, there are so many talented clarinetists in our recent history.
Aspiring clarinet players can look to these clarinetists for motivation and inspiration. Maybe someday, you will be the next clarinetist on this list!