Clarinet Coda

Remembering John Denman.

There's no shortage of good clarinetists in Tucson, but the local wind section lost much of its character last week with the death of John Denman.

It took esophageal cancer to fell Denman at age 68. Through his life he'd survived several skirmishes with conductors and the University of Arizona, but he never faltered as one of Tucson's most popular highbrow musicians, a clarinetist as comfortable with Brahms as with Benny Goodman.

Denman moved to Tucson in 1976 to take a UA professorship, leaving his native London, where he'd played principal positions with some of that city's leading orchestras. I've never confirmed this, but it could be Denman doing the big wedding-dance solo in the film version of Fiddler on the Roof. He was associated with the London Symphony Orchestra when it recorded that soundtrack, and the playing is just like his: sexy phrasing and a warm, juicy tone.

Denman was a product of a culture and generation not fully appreciated, nor tolerated, in contemporary America. He tooted politically incorrect wisecracks well before there was a label for such things. Early in his marriage to pianist Paula Fan, he sometimes referred to his wife as "my little Chink." This had no public repercussions (indeed, Denman and Fan would undertake very successful concert tours of China), but something later caused a couple of female UA students to accuse Denman of sexual impropriety, which led to his denial of tenure. Denman fought the UA in court and ultimately won a settlement, his reputation no worse for wear.

Denman rarely went out of his way to get into trouble, but trouble nipped at him like blue notes in a jazz tune. His fruity, almost lascivious clarinet tone derived from English traditions, but as principal clarinet of the Tucson Symphony he was often implored from the podium to make his sound more focused and brighter, more all-purpose American. This led to periods of tension with former TSO conductor Robert Bernhardt, but Denman and Bernhardt patched things up well enough to collaborate on fine recordings of concertos by Ludwig Spohr, a fairly obscure Romantic composer Denman championed. (Fan needled him by calling him the "Spohr bore.")

Things didn't go so well with the TSO's current music director, George Hanson. After one disagreement in rehearsal, Denman allegedly gave Hanson the Nazi salute. Suddenly Denman found himself reclassified from principal clarinet to "pops adviser."

It wasn't a bad position for him to end up in, though. Denman had a real flair for Dixieland, swing and ballads. He spent several years in the local group Jazzberry Jam, and recorded with jazz-clarinet master Buddy DeFranco. Denman also had a deep respect for Benny Goodman, the first (and almost only) fully competent jazz-classical crossover artist. But whereas Goodman could sound tense in the classics, Denman produced a relaxed, voluptuous sound no matter what he played.

He was a colorful musician and a colorful man, and Tucson culture is paler without him.

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