Wilton Crawley

Biography by

Here is an early jazz artist who has largely been forgotten, yet if listeners had his clarinet blasting in their ears for a few days, that would hardly be the case. Perhaps not the most versatile musician…
Read Full Biography

Artist Biography by

Here is an early jazz artist who has largely been forgotten, yet if listeners had his clarinet blasting in their ears for a few days, that would hardly be the case. Perhaps not the most versatile musician on earth, Wilton Crawley still worked up a clarinet sound and style that utilized weird speech-like sound effects and extended use of slap tonguing, sometimes filling out whole lines of a solo with obnoxious little pops. The fact that one of his sidemen, pianist Jelly Roll Morton, went on to become an everlasting legend of early jazz has meant that many of the recordings originally done under Crowley's name have all been reissued in various Morton retrospectives. Crawley formed his first band with fellow reed-playing brother Jimmy Crawley after his family moved from Virginia to Philadelphia. During the '20s and '30s, the clarinetist began to have success with a variety act featuring his singing and playing. In the late part of the '20s, he made many of the aforementioned recordings, most of which include Morton. Some earlier sides from 1927 and 1928 also combine Crawley with fine early jazz guitarist Eddie Lang. Much of this music reveals Crawley attempting to recreate jazz sounds from other instruments, particularly typical muted trumpet effects that might have been done by an artist such as Bubber Miley. Other influences may be more easily traceable back to Virginia and its many farms and barnyards: Crawley cackles and clucks like a chicken, oinks like a pig, and neighs like a goat. While some of this sound effect activity may predict the later work of artists such as Anthony Braxton, Crawley actually seems to have more in common with the clarinetists who worked with Spike Jones or even later rock showmen such as Arthur Brown. Apparently, the finale of Crawley's vaudeville act consisted of him propelling himself across a stage with a lighted kerosene lamp on his head. He was also known as "the human worm," although what this has to do with a clarinet is best left to the imagination. Although some of the membership in ensembles such as Wilton Crawley & His Orchestra or the Washboard Rhythm Kings also remains unknown, the clarinetist did have many fine sidemen in his employ besides those already mentioned. Trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen, banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, and fine blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson all show up in his bands. Some critics see Crawley's clarinet style as part of the klezmer influence on jazz, although he was hardly brought up on matzoh balls. The most complete collection of his material is available on the Jazz Oracle collection entitled Showman, Composer and Clarinetist. In the early '30s, he toured the United Kingdom.