Legends of the Clarinet: Buddy DeFranco & Tony Scott

AAJ Staff By

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Submitted on behalf of Russ Musto

When the JVC Jazz Festival presents Legends of the Clarinet at the Iridium from June 17th-22nd it will mark the return of the bebop era's two greatest innovators of that instrument, now largely neglected in jazz, to the place where they both began to develop as the most important new voices of the woodwind more than half a century ago. 52nd Street, just a short block up Broadway from the Iridium, was lined with jazz spots like the Downbeat, the Three Deuces, the Spotlite and the Onyx Club in the ‘40s, earning it the title “Swing Street”. Hundreds of musicians frequented the many rooms, jamming with each other, pushing the music from swing to bop.

Of those many musicians Tony Scott and Buddy DeFranco were practically the only two who were making the transition on the clarinet. They had much else in common. Both are Italian American (a minority group on the New York jazz scene). Both were born in New Jersey in ‘20s (Scott as Anthony Joseph Sciacca on June 17, 1921 in Morristown; Buddy as Boniface Ferdinand Leonardo DeFranco on February 17, 1923 in Camden). Both trained classically (Scott at Julliard in New York, DeFranco at Mastbaum in Philadelphia), before coming under the influence of Benny Goodman and switching to swing. And, perhaps most impor-tantly, both were eventually most powerfully affected by the music of Charlie Parker, learning to speak the language of Bird on the instrument that was king in swing but had virtually no prophets in bebop.

Scott has one of the most interesting curricula vitaes in the history of jazz. Following his graduation from Julliard he studied avant-garde and atonal music with Stephan Wolpe at the Contemporary School of Music. While in the army he performed on clarinet, piano, alto and tenor saxophone in various ensembles. He was a frequent player at Minton's where he shared the bandstand with Ben Webster (whom he calls his musical father), Charlie Christian, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. On 52nd Street he jammed with Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, Buck Clayton, Trummy Young, Fats Navarro, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, who became his mentor and close friend. He played in the big bands of Benny Carter, Tommy Dorsey, Lucky Millinder, Claude Thornhill and Duke Ellington. He worked with vocalists Harry Belafonte, Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan and developed a close musical and personal relationship with Billie Holiday, serving as pianist/arranger, clarinetist and musical director for her “Lady Sings The Blues” Carnegie Hall concert and recording.

Later, Scott performed and recorded frequently with his own orchestras and small groups, the latter featuring stellar rhythm sections that included at different times Wynton Kelly, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett, Jimmy Garrison, Percy Heath, Milt Hinton, Osie Johnson, Pete LaRoca, and Philly Joe Jones. His final recording of the ‘50s Sung Heroes, brought together the classic trio of Bill Evans, Scott Lafaro and Paul Motian for the first time. He concluded the decade embarking on a five year trek throughout Asia where he performed with a variety of musicians from myriad Middle and Far-Eastern countries and cultures. In 1964 he recorded Music For Zen Meditation in Japan, featuring his clarinet improvisations with koto and shakuhachi. The seminal recording is widely acknowledged as the first New Age/World Music album. Following his return to the states Scott recorded the equally impressive Music for Yoga Meditation and Other Joys and Homage to Lord Krishna with the similarly spirited percussionist/multi-instrumentalist Colin Walcott.

Scott, who had returned home in hope of renewing his own jazz spirit, was disappointed by the dissipated scene and soon began a new round of world travels, this time through Europe. Eventually he settled in Italy, where he has settled for the most part, performing with local and visiting musicians, traveling occasionally, painting and working on his autobiography Bird, Lady and Me.

DeFranco's resume, as detailed in his just published biography, A Life in the Golden Age of Jazz: A Biography of Buddy DeFranco by Fabrice Zammarchi & Sylvie Mas (Parkside Publications), although not as eclectic as Scott's, is no less impressive. A 20-time Downbeat poll winner, Buddy first gained national attention on the radio by winning the Tommy Dorsey Swing Contest at the age of 14. Throughout the ‘40s he was a featured soloist with several of the era's most popular big bands, including those of Gene Krupa, Charlie Barnet, Boyd Raeburn and Tommy Dorsey. When the popularity of dance orchestras declined he spent a year as a member of Count Basie's septet and octet and in 1954 he toured Europe with Billie Holiday. A frequent member of the Metronome All Stars and Jazz at the Philharmonic, DeFranco also performed and recorded with Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole, Oscar Peterson, Lennie Tristano, Louie Bellson and many others.

As a leader the clarinetist headed several important groups of his own. His early Capitol recording of George Russell's “Bird in Igor's Yard” (with altoist Lee Konitz) is often issued as part of the Birth of the Cool. The quartet he led with Art Blakey, Kenny Drew and Eugene Wright was widely hailed as the most hard-swinging clarinet group of its day and his ensemble with accordionist Tommy Gumina is considered one of the earliest examples of polytonal jazz. Following years of relative obscurity as a Hollywood studio player and nominal leader of the Glenn Miller "ghost band", he returned to the jazz scene (often performing with the late guitarist Tal Farlow or vibraphonist Terry Gibbs) and has remained active ever since. DeFranco is thrilled about the Iridium gig. "I think it's a great idea," he says from his summer home in Montana. "Of course Tony and I haven't worked together for centuries, but it's a good idea because it shines the spotlight on the idea of jazz clarinet." He confesses that he's not as familiar as he'd like to be with all of the guest clarinetists because he's been so busy. "A couple of them I really like," he notes. "Like Ronnie Odrich. I've known him for years. I taught him when he was young...we've played together many times. Kenny Davern I love. We just worked together a short while ago in Clearwater, Florida. He's one of my favorites."

The other three guest stars can be said to lean more towards the Scott side of the spectrum. Perry Robinson is also a "traveler" and shares his elder's mystical approach to music. Marty Erhlich, best known as an avant gardist, cites Eric Dolphy, John Carter and Anthony Braxton to be his main models on clarinet, but remembers being inspired by Music for Zen Meditation at a young age. Don Byron, arguably the most visible clarinetist on the jazz scene today, notes that Scott is "kind of the guy that I modeled certain things about my relationship to music after. He's done a lot of different things, which is part of why I know I can do a lot of different things on this instrument. People look at the range of records that I've made and say 'What the hell is that?' But, that's what he did."

Scott will be celebrating his 82nd birthday on opening night and it is likely to be an exhilarating event filled with accounts of his long career. DeFranco, who turned 80 in February, is sure to have his share of tales of his own. But the real story will be heard on the bandstand, where an exciting extension of the legend of the clarinet is guaranteed.


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