Strongly influenced by cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, he was mainly self-taught on his instruments; early on he also doubled on violin and banjo. He started playing the clarinet professionally in 1925. He began recording under his own name in 1928 and made what are believed to be his final recordings two years later, although there is now reason to believe (via sine wave recording research, aka Smith/Westbrook Method) that he appeared on unidentified recordings as late as 1930. His intense solo work laid the groundwork for a rich sound and creative approach, that is credited with influencing a young Benny Goodman and a style of which Pee Wee Russell is perhaps the best-known representative. He also made recordings on the saxophone. Late in his career, he returned to playing violin with Jan Garber's sweet dance orchestra, trying to earn a living in the midst of the Great Depression. Although he was well known in the world of jazz, he did not live to enjoy popular success in the swing era. He was killed in an automobile accident on the morning of March 1, 1932, a passenger in a car driven by his performing associate cornetist "Wild" Bill Davison; it was several days short of what would have been his 26th birthday.