Few early jazz clarinetists have generated as much posthumous controversy among historians as Arnett Nelson, a quirky sessionman who enlivened many a recording date during the 1920s and '30s. Because of one latter-day enthusiast's willingness to recklessly "identify" Nelson as the clarinetist on an improbably large quantity and broad stylistic range of early jazz and blues records, every citation continues to be re-examined and reassessed. His verifiable work places Nelson in league with clarinetists Wilbur Sweatman, Volly DeFaut, Wilton Crawley, Johnny Dodds, Arville Harris, Jimmy O'Bryant, and Mezz Mezzrow. His legendary eccentricity is documented on "Chicago Rhythm," a record made in 1936 by the State Street Swingers (better known as the Harlem Hamfats), during which Leonard Scott is heard to say "what's that you're doing, Arnett? I never heard nobody do that before." Born in Ellisville, MS, about 140 miles northeast of New Orleans on March 3 1892, Nelson grew up in nearby Laurel, MS and was conscripted for service in the First World War in 1917. Nelson's first gigs were with a band led by the father of cornetist Lee Collins, who later described Nelson as "a great clarinet player" but also as a vaudevillian with "a weird style" who "liked to do tricks with his clarinet. He would take it all apart and play it." Nelson's earliest recordings were made in Chicago during December 1923 and February 1924 with cornetist Jimmy Wade's Moulin Rouge Orchestra, a punchy outfit that included violinist Eddie South and pianist Teddy Weatherford. While with Wade, Nelson composed "Buddy's Habit," a perky stomp with a title inspired by Wade's tuba player, Louis "Buddy" Gross, who apparently made frequent trips to the men's room in order to satisfy some unspecified need for self-medication. This song was immortalized when, in October 1923, King Oliver's Jazz Band made a record of it which is still prized for Louis Armstrong's solo on slide whistle. In 1926-1927, Nelson recorded with Wade in various groups accompanying composer and vocalist Perry Bradford and blues queen Victoria Spivey -- her backing ensemble was billed as Erby's Fidgety Five. Although Nelson's inclusion in a band billed as King Mutt & His Tennessee Thumpers is still open to conjecture, there's no mistaking his work with cornetist Punch Miller and pianist/arranger Alex Hill as members of Jimmy Wade's Dixielanders in October 1928. In February, 1929, he assisted pianist Jimmy Flowers, banjoist Ikey Robinson, and drummer Big Sid Catlett in providing accompaniment for comedian and female impersonator Frankie "Half Pint" Jaxon. The last lap of Nelson's recording career involved leading his own Hot Four which consisted of steel guitarist Casey Bill Weldon, guitarist Big Bill Broonzy, pianist Black Bob Hudson, and bassist Bill Settles in October of 1936, and numerous appearances as a Windy City sideman during the years 1935-1937 as he sat in with Victoria's sister Sweet Pease Spivey (as Hannah May & the State Street Four); Mary Mack & the State Street Swingers; Lil Johnson & Her Chicago Swingers, Leonard Scott & His Blue Boys; Ike Smith's Chicago Boys; Lorraine Walton; Tampa Red; Bumble Bee Slim; Washboard Sam, Red Nelson & His Washboard Band; the Washboard Rhythm Kings, the Chicago Rhythm Kings, and the Harlem Hamfats. After 1940, alcoholism undermined Nelson's health and curtailed his professional activities. He withdrew into anonymity and passed away in Chicago on March 14, 1959.
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