Friday night at the Kennedy Center, classical clarinetist Richard Stoltzman will perform with Woody Herman's Thundering Herd, thus continuing a relationship that began four years ago when Herman auditioned an unsuspecting Stoltzman at a New York jazz club.

"Frankly, I was quite nervous playing in a little jazz club," says Stoltzman, a 45-year-old Grammy Award winner who's more accustomed to playing something by Brahms or Mozart before thousands of people in a concert hall.

The atmosphere in the club was decidedly different, he recalls. It was as if he were "stepping on hallowed ground," what with pictures of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and other jazz greats adorning the walls. Unaware that Herman was seated nearby, Stoltzman sat in with a band at the invitation of jazz historian George Simon, played a few tunes -- none of them, to his thinking, especially well -- and stepped offstage.

Simon greeted him with a terse, "Well, that's it," a comment that left Stoltzman thinking, "So much for my rapid ascent and decline in the world of jazz." But then Simon pointed to a gentleman at a table who wanted to speak to Stoltzman. So off he went to meet "this well-dressed, elegant, older man who shook my hand and said, 'Hi. I'm Woody Herman. You can sit down here because I think you're okay' ... That's when he began to tell me about his dream."

The dream centered on "Ebony Concerto," which Igor Stravinsky wrote for Herman's band in 1945. With the 50th anniversary of being on the road with his Herd approaching, Herman wanted to include "Ebony" in the tour repertoire. He always considered the piece an extremely important (and difficult) part of the band's legacy, and he wanted the right clarinetist to perform it. Stoltzman was flattered, of course, and quickly accepted the assignment.

"It was unbelievable," Stoltzman says now of the meeting and of the father-son relationship that soon developed between them -- a relationship that lasted right up until Herman's death last year.

"Unfortunately, my dad was dead by the time I met Woody," Stoltzman muses. "But I can't imagine what his reaction would have been if I called him up and said, 'Guess what, Dad, I'm going on the road with Woody Herman.' "

It was his father, after all, who introduced Stoltzman to music -- specifically, big band jazz. "I guess I had a relationship with Woody even back then, before I knew it," he says. "My dad was playing big band records all the time. That was his classical music when I was growing up in San Francisco. I probably heard Woody's band playing 'Apple Honey' back then on a 78 and didn't even know it. {Dad} was a big fan of the tenor sax -- musicians like Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins ... he played the tenor and he'd get out a record and try to imitate Lester Young. In fact, my dad's name was Leslie, and when people called him Lester, he was thrilled."

But jazz was Stoltzman's father's world, really, not his own. By college, he was drawn to classical music, and 10 summers spent at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont only reinforced his love for the idiom. Watching great artists like Mieczyslaw Horszowski, Rudolf Serkin and Pablo Casals at Marlboro, Stoltzman discovered "that I could dedicate my life to music, not in a sort of soloist sense, but by working with other musicians, poring over scores and trying to get to the depth of the music."

However, despite encouragement from Casals and others, Stoltzman always regarded himself as an unlikely candidate for success. Rejections early on by the Juilliard and Eastman schools of music no doubt influenced his thinking, as did his later failure to obtain a position with several symphony orchestras.

"I could never have dreamt of it working out this way," he says now, reflecting on how his interest in chamber music ultimately led to creative, critical and commercial success.

"The first time I ever heard the Brahms Clarinet Quintet was in graduate school -- if you can imagine going that long without hearing such a great piece for the clarinet. And at that time I thought, maybe if I could just learn to play this piece, then I would have achieved something. That's where I was in my early twenties. Now, of course, I've recorded it several times and have probably played it hundreds of times. Sometimes I have to pinch myself and think how good this music and audiences have been to me."

Whether he was working with Herman's band or previously with Benny Goodman, Chick Corea and Eddie Gomez, jazz has always allowed Stoltzman the chance to both expand his repertoire and tap his musical roots. And there's something more, he says. There's an "aliveness" to jazz, a certain quality he cherishes. "It's something that I try to bring to classical music as well."