Dirtiness has no description. It is a feeling. — music transcriber George Collier
You may be able to read music and play the clarinet, but it’s extremely unlikely you — or anyone — will be able to play along with Doreen Ketchens’ “dirty” solo on “The House of the Rising Sun,” above, despite an assist from Tom Pickles’ scrolling transcription.
Download the transcription for free and keep trying.
It’s what Ketchens, a world renowned clarinetist and music educator, who has played for four US presidents and busks regularly in the French Quarter, would advise.
“You have to practice and be ready to perform at the drop of a hat” she told The Clarinet’s Ben Redwine, when he asked if she had any advice for young musicians hoping to make it professionally.
She’s also a strong advocate of listening robustly, not throwing in the towel when someone else gets the job instead of you, and letting your personality come through in your playing:
You don’t want to sound like you’re playing an etude book. This is for all types of music – even classical. You want to move the audience, you want to touch them.
Trained as a classical clarinetist, Ketchens cozied up to jazz shortly after she cozied up to the tuba player who would become her husband. “All of the sudden, jazz wasn’t so bad,” she says:
I started to listen to jazz so I could learn the tunes and fit in with his band. I started listening to Louis Armstrong. He is my biggest influence. Some people call me Mrs. Satchmo, I guess because that concept is in my head. I’ll hear something he plays, which I’ve heard thousands of times, and I’ll think, “What? How did he do that?” Then, I listened to the clarinetists who played with him: Edmund Hall, Buster Bailey, Barney Bigard. Those cats were awesome too! Edmund Hall had this thing he could do, where it sounds like he was playing two tones at the same time. People today might hum while they play to achieve something similar, but I don’t think that was what he was doing. Buster Bailey had a similar background to me, starting out with classical music, then learning jazz. Early on, I emulated Jerry Fuller, clarinetist with the Dukes of Dixieland. I would steal so many of his solos just so I could keep up with my husband’s band. Eventually, I realized what he was doing, and it translated into me being able to improvise. I’d start out transcribing solos, then playing by ear, copying what those clarinetists were doing. I don’t remember those solos now, but I’m sure that I still play snippets of them that creep into my improvisations.
However she got there, she possesses a singular ability to make her instrument growl and her command of 32nd notes makes us feel a little lightheaded.
Clarinetists abound in New Orleans, and they probably all cover “The House of the Rising Sun,” but you’ll be hard pressed to find a more exciting rendition than Ketchens’ on the corner of St. Peter and Royal, with husband Lawrence on tuba and daughter Dorian on drums. Here’s the full versions, sans transcription.
You want an encore? Of course you do.
How about Ketchens’ magnificent solo on “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra?
His transcriptions, and those of collaborator Tom Pickles, are available for free download here, unless the artist sells their own transcription, in which case he encourages you to support the artist with your purchase.
If you’re a music nerd who would like to discuss transcriptions, give feedback on others’ attempts, and upload your own, join his community on Discord.
Ayun Halliday is an author, theatermaker, and the Chief Primaologist of the East Village Inky zine. Her latest book, Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto, will be published in early 2022. Follow her @AyunHalliday.