Don Suhor played clarinet and alto sax in a stunning variety of jazz contexts for 55 years in New Orleans. Virtually unknown outside of the city, he was universally admired by local musicians as a gifted improvisor. On clarinet he applied prodigious technique and knowledge of chords to develop a unique “Dixiebop” style. Trumpeter Wendell Brunious said, “I admired the way he could go from style to style seamlessly and flawlessly.” On alto sax he was a fluent and inventive bopper, influenced by a cadre of post-WWII modernists who jammed after hours at strip clubs in the French Quarter.
On both instruments Suhor frequently incorporated notes above the normal range of the horn into his solos—in Dan Morgenstern’s words,“not a technical stunt, but an extension of his voice that feels natural, not contrived.” James Markway, bassist and head of the Tulane Jazz Studies Program said that “Don absorbed Parker, Goodman, Shaw, and many others—then went beyond. His pursuit was developing musical mastery, independent of public acclaim.”
Suhor’s integration of jazz styles was unlikely, but he came about it honestly. Born in New Orleans on August 30, 1932, he was the third in a family of five children in the upper Ninth Ward. He took up clarinet around 1944 when his mother, a first generation American who played piano at elementary school functions, insisted that young Don “get some sort of musical education.” He chose clarinet because he had heard Artie Shaw on the swing era records his older siblings, Mary Lou and Ben, had bought—and he thought Shaw looked handsome playing the instrument. Shaw, local great Irving Fazola, and Benny Goodman were his earliest influences, though his record collection came to include Jimmy Noone, Peanuts Hucko, Barney Bigard, Edmond Hall, Hank D’Amico, Jimmy Hamilton, Buddy DeFranco, and others. His brother Charles, three years his junior, had a growing collection of records that included exemplary clarinet ensemble work by George Lewis, Edmond Hall, Matty Mattlock, and others.