Buddy DeFranco: The Stick Around Kid

Andrew Velez By

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Virtually singlehandedly [DeFranco] has kept the clarinet alive as a jazz instrument since it fell out of fashion with the demise of the Swing Era over 50 years ago.
At 83, he continues to practice on the clarinet every day so as to not "lose that edge." The countless artists whom he has played and recorded with include Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Art Blakey, Roy Eldridge, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Tal Farlow, Billie Holiday, Charlie Barnet, Count Basie, Stan Getz, Lennie Tristano, Herb Ellis, Nat "King" Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. In 2002, a lavishly illustrated and comprehensive biography titled A Life in the Golden Age of Jazz (Parkside Publications) was released and early this year he was honored as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.

His career as a working musician, now in its eighth decade, spans most of the history of jazz and just may be the longest of any major living artist, with the possible exception of Hank Jones. With over 150 recordings to his credit, he will be going back into the studio this month for yet another session.

Virtually singlehandedly he has kept the clarinet alive as a jazz instrument since it fell out of fashion with the demise of the Swing Era over 50 years ago. Possessed of a beaming smile for miles and still handsome, this is Boniface Ferdinand Leonardo De Franco, known to the world simply as Buddy DeFranco.

Born in Camden, New Jersey in 1923 and raised in South Philadelphia, DeFranco began playing the clarinet professionally at local block parties at a mere 12, helping his blind father to support a poor family. Always upbeat, one would never know from him that those years were anything less than ideal. Asked about his introduction to jazz, DeFranco replies, "I must have been about ten years old I guess. My brother and I would go and watch all the big bands at the Earle Theater. We'd stay all day and watch five shows. I was particularly struck by Johnny Mince, who played clarinet with Tommy Dorsey. In fact, at the time I was studying what in the old days we used to call 'serious music' or classical music. I was weaned on classical music. Probably my favorite composer is Prokofiev. I just liked the way Johnny played. He kind of made the decision for me to be a jazz player. Very shortly after that I heard Benny Goodman and that was IT!"

In 1937, at 14, he won a radio national Tommy Dorsey Swing Contest and appeared on the "Saturday Night Swing Club", after which Dorsey remarked to him, "Stick around kid. You're going to play in my band someday." Soon tapped to tour with Johnny "Scat" Davis' big band in 1939, DeFranco subsequently played in the bands of Gene Krupa (1941) and Charlie Barnet (1942-43) and in 1944, became a featured soloist with Tommy Dorsey.

Recalling his years with Gene Krupa, DeFranco says, "...He was a marvelous guy. He was a great, great drummer with a musical ear. I picked up a lot of stuff from him in terms of showmanship and musicality. He was a master."

Memories of those big band times seem to come flooding in and DeFranco remembers, "Tommy Dorsey was different. He was very stormy, frightening at times. In fact his idea of settling an argument was OUTSIDE. Having said that, he was also a very generous and caring person. He paid the highest salaries in the business," and further he remembers admiringly that when no one would hire Krupa after he'd been jailed for a pot bust, Dorsey signed him on at a then astounding $1,500 a week.

His playing with Dorsey at the end of World War II, near the end of the Big Band Era, was a pivotal time in jazz history. While DeFranco and his buddy, pianist Dodo Marmarosa, were playing together for Charlie Barnet, they ran into Charlie Shavers who told them, "There's a guy playing uptown, playing alto. He's playing crazy music. I don't know what it is, but it's fantastic. You gotta hear him."

They did indeed go up to Harlem and tracked Charlie Parker down. DeFranco raves, "Sure enough, he was just UNBELIEVABLE. When I left there my head was spinning and I couldn't sleep for two nights. I was trying to figure out in my mind what in the world this guy was doing. And of course, a couple of seconds later Dizzy met Bird and they did great things together. Shortly after that Dodo said to me, 'Why don't you try to play the clarinet like Charlie Parker?' I told him, I'm way ahead of you. That's what I want to do. So I started to study Charlie Parker and then I finally got to play with him a lot. He was marvelous. He was like a teacher."

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."

Selected Discography

Dave McKenna/Buddy DeFranco, You Must Believe in Spring (Concord, 1996)
Buddy DeFranco/Terry Gibbs/Herb Ellis, Kings of Swing/Memories of You (Contemporary-OJC, 1991)
Buddy DeFranco/Oscar Peterson, Hark (Pablo-OJC, 1985)
Art Tatum/Buddy DeFranco, Quartet: Group Masterpieces Vol. 7 (Clef/Verve-Pablo, 1956)
Buddy DeFranco, Mr. Clarinet (Norgran-Verve, 1953) Buddy DeFranco, 1949-52 Studio Performances (Hep, 1949-52)

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