Claude Luter

Lord of the Paris jazz clubs
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Claude Luter, clarinettist and bandleader: born Paris 23 July 1923; married (one son, one daughter); died Poissy, France 6 October 2006.

Jazz has had several golden ages, but few were more romantic than the one that was set in the caves of St Germain des Prés in the years after the Second World War. Although, like the rest of the French traditional jazz musicians, his playing was assured rather than accomplished, the clarinettist Claude Luter was lord of the innumerable jazz clubs that sprang up in those Paris cellars. His career and his name were made when the New Orleans musician Sidney Bechet came to Paris and became king - with Luter at his side.

Like the other bands, Luter's was an earthy variant of the style of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band of the Twenties, and, although it was as basic as the British traditional jazz of the time, the French variety had the advantage of its exotic setting. It was like comparing Gauloise to Woodbines.

The French took to jazz with great exuberance and it was, as nowhere else in the world, easily accepted throughout whole families. The students in Paris particularly loved the music and regular visitors to the cellars included Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and many of the artists of the day.

Coming from a musical family, Luter had studied piano from 1929 to 1936 before switching to the clarinet and, occasionally, the cornet. He came to jazz in 1938 influenced by the clarinettists Johnny Dodds, the Martiniquean Alexandre Stellio and, significantly, Sidney Bechet. Luter played and recorded with various bands during the later years of the occupation and from 1946 to 1948 had a residency with a trio at the Lorientais. The trio soon expanded into a New Orleans-style band, which made its first recordings in 1946 and appeared at the first Nice jazz festival in 1948.

Boris Vian, a sometime trumpeter with Luter's band who made his name later as a singer, summed up the clarinettist's nature as early as 1948, describing him as "sincere, most understanding, most hard-working and the least pretentious of musicians", qualities found by Humphrey Lyttelton, Louis Armstrong and the many international musicians with whom Luter later worked.

In 1949 Luter recorded with the visiting American musicians Rex Stewart, Buck Clayton and Willie "The Lion" Smith amongst others. And that year Sidney Bechet returned to Paris for the first time in 20 years. Apart from Louis Armstrong, Bechet was the only remaining prime mover in classic jazz, and, when he settled there, he was lionised across France.

Luter was 26 when Bechet arrived in Paris. He was one of several clarinettist-bandleaders who worked with the American giant, but Bechet quickly settled on Luter as his favourite and worked with him most often. Well aware of the musical gifts he could give to the musicians as a teacher and to his public in general, Bechet was autocratic and demanded his pound of flesh. Luter told the writer John Chilton of a season that he spent with Bechet at Juan-les-Pins:

Sidney loved to find the girls, but, if anyone in the band found a girl that Sidney liked the look of, he would show his displeasure by cutting out all of that musician's solos, often for nights on end, sometimes for a whole week. The band were young and carefree about girls, but for Sidney it was a very serious business. He did this to me - stopped my solos - but I made it clear to him that I wasn't going to have that sort of interference in my private life. I would take all the musical advice and instruction that he cared to give, but I would not stand for him arranging my life.

Bechet and Luter made a multitude of recordings, even now worth listening to, and toured North Africa in 1951. They stayed together and remained friends up until Bechet's death in 1959.

In 1960 Luter was partnered in a two-clarinet recording session with another of the world's finest players, the less prickly Barney Bigard. Luter also made a splendid recording of some of Bechet's ballet music, "La Colline du Delta", in 1964. In 1970 Luter travelled to Los Angeles to play with Louis Armstrong during the trumpeter's 70th-birthday celebrations and he returned to the United States to New Orleans in 1997 to play at a "Homage to Sidney Bechet" event.

The Luter band, now including his son, Eric, on trumpet, reassembled for one of its last concerts in Paris's Latin quarter in September 2005. Claude Luter's final public appearance was on 21 September this year with the French Minister for Culture when they accepted a model of the city of New Orleans on behalf of the French state.

Steve Voce

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