On Woody Allen the Clarinet Player
I am a fan of Woody Allen. And so for my birthday last October, my wonderful wife Mo got us reservations for dinner at the Carlyle Hotel in New York, which would be followed by a performance by Woody Allen and The Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band.
At 8:35, Woody Allen, the 76 year old man, slowly creeps through the crowd from the back of the room, carrying his clarinet case in one hand and his already assembled clarinet in the other, presumably so he wouldn’t have to shake the hands of the 100 or so people packed into the small room. He gives the slightest acknowledgment to his fans who applaud as he makes his way to his bandmates at the front of the room, but the audience isn’t really there; this is basically a jam session, and we’re all just lucky enough to get to sit in. He’s showing his age as moves, but then they start to play and suddenly he doesn’t seem so old anymore.
I was lucky to sit pretty close to the front of the room, and had a great view of Woody as he performed. While Woody was at one time a stand-up, his performance as a musician is very no-frills. He doesn’t speak with the audience; in fact he doesn’t speak much at all unless he’s whispering a song title to Eddy Davis the banjo player and bandleader. The exception to this came after the pianist Conal Fowkes played a particularly impressive solo: Woody leaned over to Eddy and whispered, “I could do that.” A quick joke between friends is the only comedy Woody is performing tonight.
The thing that struck me most about Woody performing was his focus. I would say that for 80% of his playing, his eyes were firmly shut, as you can see in my phone video above. It’s the same focus that I imagine one needs to have to produce a feature-length movie every year well in to your seventies. The same focus that has made him a comedic institution for the past 50-some years. The same focus you can hear on his old stand-up records on a track like “The Moose” where he tells a long story and just attacks the audience with punchline after punchline.
I found a quote from Woody about performing at the Carlyle:
It’s pure pleasure. It’s just pure pleasure for me. I go in and play and it’s great. It’s like getting paid to play baseball. It gives me a great feeling. It’s a wonderful, wonderful feeling. It’s not my profession. I don’t have anxiety about it. It’s transporting. Actually, I’m not good enough. The only reason I get a chance to play is because I succeed in another field. I’m not that great but I’m carried by the other guys.
It’s very clear that this serves as some kind of artistic release for Woody, which is surprising to me, since that profession he refers to is to make very personal art. Much has been written about the many intersections between the worlds of music and comedy that there’s really not much point in me analyzing that connection other than to say that Woody expertly straddles both. It’s such a cliché, but there’s a real musicality to Woody’s comedy, and think about how important music is to his films. Sure, basically every movie starts with some kind of music, but with his movies there’s a solid minute of white text on black at the start. The tone is set by whatever’s playing underneath, and that’s it. That’s your way into whatever world Allen is throwing you into next.
I’m no musician and I’m even less of a jazz expert, but when Woody says that he’d love to be a professional clarinet player but isn’t good enough, I tend to believe he’s just being modest. But what do I know. Would people pack into the hotel café to hear him play if he weren’t the guy who made Annie Hall? Beats me.
At the end of the evening, the band had been whittled down to just banjo, piano and clarinet, and for their final song, and unfortunately I don’t remember what it was at this point, Eddie and Conal play their instruments as Eddy sings along with Woody, the only time Woody does so that night. Once again, we see the man’s focus and precision because as he sings his swan song, he is expertly disassembling, cleaning, and packing up his clarinet into the case so that all is left is for him to walk off the stage and make his way to the car that is almost certainly waiting for him outside as Eddy tells the crowd goodnight and hawks his CD and DVD.
I feel silly saying this, but seeing the man perform made me feel like I understood him a little better, and that I could learn a lot from his music as a comedian. That’s especially strange to say when my two takeaways were about how he was focusing so much on the craft, rather than feeding off the audience that was there to see him. But maybe that’s because focus hasn’t always been my strong suit.