Clarinetist Anat Cohen kicks off a week in Michigan

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News
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Anat Cohen knows that her instrument, the clarinet, doesn’t always get the respect it deserves.

Earlier generations of musicians picked up the clarinet because they loved the sly, swinging way Benny Goodman played it, or because of the syncopated New Orleans style of players such as Pete Fountain.

But maybe it was too many squeaking clarinets in too many middle school bands that helped push it out of favor.

“Luckily the word ‘squeak’ is not in the vocabulary anymore, so the clarinet is not a terrifying thing,” said Cohen, 37, with a laugh.

The Israeli-born musician comes to Detroit’s Carr Center on Saturday for a concert kicking off a week of activities as Michigan State University’s Jazz Artist-in-Residence.

Make no mistake, she is fond of Benny Goodman, as well as Artie Shaw and other swing luminaries.

Last summer at the Detroit Jazz Festival, Cohen played in a special Goodman tribute, “Benny’s Threads,” along with three other world-class clarinetists. While she can play in a “hot,” swing jazz way, that’s just one facet of her style.

The native of Tel Aviv, who has topped the Downbeat magazine readers and critics’ polls as “Best Clarinetist” for years, Cohen is known as a player with diverse cultural influences, including Brazilian choro music, Argentine tango and various Afro-Cuban styles.

The beauty of her sound, whether she’s playing Django Rheinhardt’s “Nuages,” or her own “Ima,” (“Mother”), comes from her very emotional style and sheer musicality.

Cohen started out playing the clarinet as a student in Israel, but she switched to tenor saxophone later, at Boston’s Berklee School of Music, believing it to be more appropriate for jazz. Fortunately she was encouraged back to the clarinet, because her instructors heard something unique in her clarinet playing.

The MSU program brings her to the East Lansing campus and takes her to high schools around southeast Michigan to play along with student musicians as she instructs and mentors them.

“I’m still trying to decide the repertoire,” Cohen said. “It’s not just my repertoire, because it’s not my band and it’s not about me.”

She will perform some numbers from her 2015 album “Luminosa” with the students.

Mentoring the student musicians, some of whom will be MSU music majors, and some still in high school, is something Cohen feels strongly about.

“When I was in high school, (musicians) came to visit, but they would have two hours for all the students,” Cohen said. “That’s nice, but I think working and being able to play with the person and see how they behave in real time and their sensitivity to other musicians — you can’t do that in two hours, hearing someone talking. So I think it’s important and great that the university can bring people in to spend time with musicians and play, to be on the field and see how things are in real time.”

MSU’s College of Music brings in three to four jazz musicians to be “artist-in-residence” during the school year to mentor and play with students. In the last three years, the 15-year-old program has benefited from a million-dollar grant from the MSU Federal Credit Union.

Mentors such as Cohen work with MSU’s jazz ensembles, said Rodney Whitaker, the Detroit bass player who heads up the jazz studies program at the university’s College of Music.

“But we also take the program to places that may need help in building their programs. So when we do the concerts, the proceeds go to help the venue or the educational institution that we’re bringing the artist to.

“Often the students are from a rural community and haven’t had a chance to go to a city like Detroit and hear live jazz. So the idea is we expose them to world-class artists,” Whitaker said.

Cohen said she believes music is important for a well-rounded education for all, not just those planning to be professionals.

“You bond with people with whom you otherwise wouldn’t bond. You get to see their humor, the way they interact. You become a team and you play together, you communicate things that are beyond words.”

Susan Whitall is an author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News. Contact her at

Where to see Anat Cohen


7:30 p.m. Saturday: MSU Octets featuring Anat Cohen. Directed by Rodney Whitaker.

The Carr Center, 311 E. Grand River, Detroit.

Tickets: $27 adults, $15 students

Mentoring schedule

Monday: MSU Press Day and Workshop, East Lansing.

Tuesday: Rehearsals and MSBOA District 8 Jazz Festival, Mason High School, Mason.

Wednesday: Northview High School, Grand Rapids, and Rockford High School, Rockford.

Feb. 9: East Lansing High School, East Lansing, and Fowlerville High School, Fowlerville.

Feb. 10: Williamston Middle School, Williamston.

Feb. 10: MSU College of Music, Cook Recital Hall, East Lansing.

Feb. 11: Oxford High School, Oxford.

For information, visit

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