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Artist Profiles

Buddy DeFranco: The Stick Around Kid

By Published: December 28, 2006

Thus DeFranco became the first clarinetist to "accomplish the bebop thing" and to articulate it. Paradoxically, he'd only recently joined Dorsey at the time and yet he was gravitating increasingly towards bebop. Of the new music Dorsey was unequivocal in his opinion: "It stinks." Incredulous when told that his clarinet star was playing this "horrible" music, Dorsey peeked into a private rehearsal his sax players and DeFranco were holding in the basement of the Capitol Theater, where they were then appearing. Dorsey stuck his head in the door, listened and commented, "That's fantastic!" When told what he was hearing were transcriptions of Charlie Parker solos he just slammed the door, stormed out and never made another comment about it. Recalling the occasion evokes hearty laughter from DeFranco.

With the demise of the Big Band Era, the '50s and '60s found DeFranco, among other things, doing a stint with the famous Count Basie Septet, touring with Billie Holiday in Europe and for three years playing with his own group, which included Art Blakey, Kenny Drew and Eugene Wright. After that he joined with Tommy Gumina in a quartet which explored polytonal music, further solidifying his reputation as a 'musician's musician'.

Among many memorable recording dates was one in 1954 with Art Tatum, which to this day DeFranco recalls as "awesome... He was so far ahead of his time—the chord progressions he used, the lines, the technique, that was ahead, way, way ahead." Somewhat intimidated by Tatum's "overwhelming talent", DeFranco says playing with him sometimes was "like chasing a train and never catching it. But all in all it was a great experience."

Discouraged by a diminished interest in jazz by the public with the advent of rock 'n roll, during those years DeFranco admits to "bemoaning my fate". He began thinking "jazz is finished", but bandleader Stan Kenton encouraged him otherwise. "You have to go into the schools and we're starting to do clinics and teach the kids modern jazz." Realizing that jazz as he had known it in a commercial sense was over, DeFranco credits the band directors in high schools and colleges with "keeping jazz alive all those years when you didn't hear much about it. They created a new market for jazz. It's not commercial like rock and rap, but it is a healthy market." Since the mid '70s he has combined a busy teaching career with extensive touring and recording.

In the '80s, an enduring musical partnership developed when DeFranco and vibes virtuoso Terry Gibbs, who'd known each other for years, played together impromptu at Ronnie Scott's Club in London. Gibbs, who describes he and DeFranco as being like brothers, remarks, "Buddy and I have this magic thing going. In over 20 years as co-leaders we've never had one argument. We have never tried what they call 'cut each other'. We're both bebop freaks. We both have the same way of articulating the music. When Buddy came in playing from Charlie Parker's school, he scared everybody, because nobody could play the clarinet that way." Gibbs adds admiringly, "He's also the most honest musician. Even when we're working every day, he'll practice two hours a day. The thing is, when you play with somebody that good, it makes YOU better."

Fellow clarinetist Eddie Daniels observes, "Every time I call him and I say, 'Buddy, how ya feeling?, he says, I feel pretty good for a guy who feels pretty bad.' That kinda sums up the kind of mentality this guy has. He crossed the line from swing to a more linear approach to the clarinet that nobody else was doing. And not too many since, aside from myself and a handful of other people. He showed it could be done." Asked about a favorite DeFranco album, he mentions Mr. Clarinet (Verve). "That was the record, when I was 13, I started listening to it and being inspired. I love Buddy. He's been one of my staunchest supporters. He's a loving, generous, sweet man."

Asked about his favorite singer, DeFranco unhesitatingly says, "Ella Fitzgerald. She had so many things that set her apart. You understood everything she sang and she sang to YOU. Ella and a lot of the top people sing TO the person. To the audience. And her technique was flawless."

Told that same vibrant immediacy characterizes his playing, DeFranco smiles, says "thanks" and adds, "That goes back to my early training. Not only my first teacher at the very beginning. But guys like Tommy Dorsey and Charlie Barnet and Charlie Parker. They instilled that kind of feeling. They always performed in an outgoing fashion so they COMMUNICATED with the listener."

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