Arts Blog

Six Black Clarinetists To Know

The clarinet is one of the most ubiquitous and versatile instruments, has a wide range of natural habitats, from singing out through the symphony to famous jazz tunes. Our modern family of clarinets can be traced as far back as 1690 to a man named Johann Christoph Denner. At that time, there was another instrument already in existence called the chalumeau, which produced a lovely sound in lower registers, but could not match the rich sound of the clarinet in the wide range of sound it produces. In this article we focus on Black clarinetists without whom our musical world would not be the same.

Alex Laing is the principal clarinetist of The Phoenix Symphony and recently started The Leading tone, which is a nonprofit after school program. The Leading Tone project brings music to young people in the community and explores teaching artistry and creative youth development. He began playing the clarinet when he was 11, earned his undergraduate degree from Northwestern University, his master’s degree in Orchestral Performance from the Manhattan School of Music, his artist’s diploma from the Sweelinck Conservatorium Amsterdam, and his certificate in nonprofit management from Arizona State University. He is a frequently sought collaborator and has contributed his sound to numerous projects including the Sphinx Virtuosi at Carnegie Hall, the world premier of Tyshawn Sorey’s Cycle of My Being, Thomas Hampson’s Song of America: Beyond Liberty project, the Re-Collective Orchestra in the 2019 soundtrack recording of Disney’s The Lion King, and the Gateways Festival Orchestra. He has been an invited speaker at the annual conferences of both the Association of British Orchestras and the League of American Orchestras, as well as working as a frequent teacher/collaborator with the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Youth Orchestra Los Angeles program. He has also been a faculty member for the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America, the 2019/20 YOLA National Institute, and has served on the board of directors for the Gateways Music Festival as well as the Arizona School for the Arts. Currently, he is particularly excited about joining the creative team for From The Top which is a nationally broadcast radio show and platform for young musicians. In his role, he is going to have the opportunity to both contribute to the radio show and also mentor the development of From The Top’s amazing young musicians. Our musical clip below of Alex is his performance of “There is a Balm in Gilead” on From The Top’s Daily Joy segment. Listen in to hear his reflections on the importance of this spiritual to him and everything he does.

Bio and photo courtesy of the Phoenix Symphony

Shaniee Kennedy is based in Los Angeles, California, and is best known for her performances with Four Play (an all-girl clarinet ensemble), as the Music Director at Bishop Alemany High School, and as the Orchestra Manager and Librarian of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Chamber Orchestra. She is a first-generation college student, raised by her great-grandmother, and she completed her Bachelor’s of Music in Music Education and Clarinet Performance at CSU Northridge. There, she studied with Julia Heinen and also competed for the Miss California Icon Organization, winning in 2014. In 2015, she was named Outstanding Graduating Senior Finalist. She was also the assistant conductor of the CSU Northridge Youth Orchestra and she formed an Honors Youth Orchestra named the Parker Kennedy Orchestra. Through the Clarinet Academy of America, she was able to study at The Catholic University of America, the University of Maryland, and the University of Georgia. She earned her Masters in Music in Clarinet Performance at UCLA, studying with Gary Gray, and has since traveled throughout the US to promote both scholarship and her platform of “Keeping Quality Music Education in California Schools”. She paved the way at Music Advocacy Day in the State Capital for the passage of three Senate Bills pertaining to the rewriting of new state standards for music education. Below you’ll find a cover of Havana by Camila Cabello, by Four Play.

Bio courtesy of Buffet Crampon and photo courtesy of Four Play’s Instagram

Clarinetist and leader of Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans Doreen Ketchens was born in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1966. She wasn’t born into a musical family and the fact that she became the great clarinetist that she is was all due to her desire to avoid a pop quiz in the fifth grade at Joseph A. Craig Elementary School. Instead of taking the quiz, she responded to an announcement asking students that were interested in being in the school band to come to the band room to sign up. Even though her first choice was the flute, she opted for the clarinet because too many girls before her had chosen the instrument. “Thank God,” she mentions in an interview with Off Beat, “the clarinet projects far more than the flute does. The clarinet was my beacon, it was my guiding light because it set me in the place I was going to go every time.” She excelled in her elementary school band and went on to succeed at Bell Junior High, but hit a hitch in her plans when it came to high school. Kennedy High School was known for having a really good band but she didn’t live in the right district to attend so she had to apply for a permit. She was rejected initially, but upon a conversation with one of her mother’s housecleaning clients, she learned that if she applied for a permit to learn Latin, she might be accepted because there were only two schools in the area that taught Latin. Upon doing so, she was accepted and kept up her Latin studies diligently in order to stay enrolled. She also attended the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts where her curriculum included jazz, even though her heart remained in classical music. As a high schooler, she auditioned for and obtained an opportunity to perform with the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra, and then continued her education at Loyola University. It was there that she met her future husband, tuba player Lawrence Ketchens II, who became a vital musical influence and the love of her life. Both of them were on scholarships but as the yearly tuition increased, their financial aid did not, so eventually Doreen had to find another school. She received a scholarship to the University of Hartford Hartt School, supplemented by a scholarship from the New York Philharmonic, and while it was a great opportunity, it meant making her relationship with Lawrence into a long-distance relationship. She ultimately decided to attend University of Hartford and moving away from her comfort zone of the South ultimately was a great experience. After an incident with thieves stealing her car with her clarinets in it, Lawrence decided to join Doreen in Connecticut so she wasn’t there by herself. They married in 1987 and begin working their “New Orleans thing” where they performed jazz at corporate gigs and Doreen even took a position as a waitress, turned cook then executive chef. Eventually, both Doreen and Lawrence’s fathers passed away so they returned to New Orleans to be with their mothers, and it was then that Doreen came around to, and eventually fell in love with, the idea of performing music on the streets. From there, Doreen’s Jazz New Orleans was born. Since their formation, they have put out 28 CDs and three DVDs. They try to produce an album every year, and have produced a mix of live and studio recordings. In 2018, she had the opportunity to perform with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orhcestra, where she both sat principle clarinet and performed as the featured soloist with the traditional jazz classic “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”. Listen below to hear this sparkling woman from Treme and her “beacon”, her clarinet.

Bio info and picture courtesy of

Downshifting to the soprano clarinet’s bigger, lower brother, we’ve got Bennie Maupin on the jazz bass clarinet. Bennie was born in 1940 and began his musical career on the clarinet. He later added the saxophone, flute, and, most interestingly, the bass clarinet to his unstoppable arsenal of woodwind instruments. He moved to New York in 1962 and freelanced with groups lead by Marion Brown Chick Corea, and Pharoah Saunders. He also played regularly with Roy Haynes and Horace Silver. He recorded with McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Jack DeJohnette, Lee Morgan, Eddie Henderson, Andrew Hill, and Woody Shaw, to name a few. He is best known for his bass clarinet contributions on Miles Davis’ iconic “Bitches Brew” album and other Miles Davis recordings such as “Big Fun”, “Jack Johnson”, and “On the Corner”. He was a founding member of Herbie Hancock’s band The Headhunters and a performer and composer in Hancock’s Mwandishi band. Bennie’s current group is The Bennie Maupin Ensemble that is a call-back to the tradition of saxophone-bass-drum trios. His approach to music is intentional and sincere, while somehow managing to constantly evolve, born anew in each moment on stage. Listen in below to The Bennie Maupin Ensemble as they perform at the 8th Annual Amazonas Jazz Festival in Manaus, Brazil.

Bio and photo courtesy of Bennie Maupin Music

Anthony McGill was born on July 17th, 1979 in Chicago, Illinois, to Ira Carol and Demarre McGill, whom he considers some of his greatest musical influences. He attended Whitney M. Young Magnet High School and took clarinet lessons at Chicago’s Merit School of Music. He also attended the Interlochen Arts Camp and was a member of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. After high school, he went on to earn his Bachelor’s of Music degree in Clarinet Performance from the Curtis Institute of Music in 2000. Before graduating the Curtis Institute of Music, he was appointed the associate principal clarinetist of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and was the recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant. He spent four years with the Cincinnati Symphony and was then appointed principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. From here, he went on to play alongside other huge names such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, and pianist Gabriela Montera at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. In 2010, he released his first album Anthony McGillI and in 2011 he joined the faculty at The Julliard School in New York City. In 2014, he recorded is first commercially released album as a soloist entitled Mozart & Brahms: Clarinet Quintets, accompanied by The Pacifica Quartet. He also made history in 2014 by becoming the first African American to be appointed to a principal position with the New York Philharmonic, when he was appointed to their principal clarinetist position. He has appeared as a soloist with numerous quartets and orchestras, including the Baltimore Symphony, the New Jersey Symphony, the Curtis Orchestra, the Chicago Sinfonietta, and has participated in numerous classical and chamber music festivals. Recently, Anthony McGill has become an amplified voice in the protests against police violence in the US with his release of a solo performance of “America the Beautiful”. His rendition takes the familiar melody and paints it into an achingly beautiful and sorrowful minor key, ending the video on two knees with his clarinet behind his back. In his accompanying statement, he pushes fellow musicians and Americans to bring light to the racism we see in our daily lives because even the smallest gestures of protest can have a real effect. Below you’ll find a performance of Claude Debussy’s Premiere Rhapsodie and here is a link his performance of “America the Beautiful”.

Bio courtesy of The History Makers and photo courtesy of Facebook

Afendi Yusuf was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and was appointed the principal clarinet of The Cleveland Orchestra at the start of the 2017/18 season. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario and an Artist Diploma from The Glenn Gould School in Toronto, Ontario. He also holds a Master of Music degree and Professional Studies Certificate from the Colburn School’s Conservatory of Music in Los Angeles, California, as a student of Yehuda Gilad. He has appeared as a guest principal with several orchestras including the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Canadian Opera Company, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He has collaborated with the likes of Charles Neidich, Ronald Leonard, Martin Beaver, and composers such as George Friedrich Haas, John Adams, and Anders Hillborg. He is also a grant recipient from the Canada Council for the Arts and received the Vincent Wilkinson Foundation Fellowship from the Aspen Music Festival and School. Let’s listen in to his performance of Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio, mvt. 1, at The Colburn School in Los Angeles.

Bio and photo courtesy of Buffet Crampon

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