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BUDDY DeFRANCO : MAJOR CLARINET VOICE STILLED

Every major stop on the jazz trail had its instrument.  New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong and his cornet and trumpet.  Chicago, Bud Freeman and the tenor sax;  Kansas City, Jo Jones and the hi hat and brushes.  Then came the Swing Era.  The voice was Benny Goodman’s clarinet.  Soon every bandleader played one or featured sidemen who did.  Woody Herman had successful hits as he mastered the alto sax but switched to the clarinet.  Ditto Jimmy Dorsey.  Too simplistic?  Perhaps, but you get my point.

What to do about bebop?  All those notes, amid killer tempi.  J.J. Johnson got around on the cumbersome, for bop, slide trombone and created new licks and harmonies.  It was up to BUDDY DeFRANCO to get the fingering down and around a difficult instrument.

Buddy DeFranco passed late in December 2014 at 91 leaving a legacy on the clarinet that will never be equaled.  Listen up all you wannabees.

In an interview for my column on the now in-hiatus www.jazz.com “The OctoJAZZarians” he could never understand why they give young reed players the clarinet on which to break-in their chops.  But there it was.

DeFranco’s comments were salient.  Please access them.

Here was a gentle thoughtful man with lotsa miles on his licorice.  In a three stars concert for Goodman at Jazz At Lincoln Center –the other two were Bob Wilbur and Ken Peplowski– DeFranco opened his dressing room door and answered all questions to all comers, older, like me, or youngsters starting out on the instrument, which is now back in vogue after a long absence from the spotlight.  (See the mag polls for names.)

In the end it was his voice on clarinet, and perhaps Tony Scott’s, that got the instrument played alongside Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and headed those polls.  DeFranco was a feature on Norman Granz’s labels such as Norgran, Clef and Verve playing with everyone on every conceivable instrument from every era.  He did a string of recordings with Lionel Hampton and later with Terry Gibbs.  Kindred spirits he called them.  “We thought [and swung] alike,” he said.  “Norman liked the sound we got.  And that we could do one-takes.”

DeFranco also integrated a Count Basie small group during an important period in Basie’s life.  It was during big-band-hard-times  in the early ’50s.  The Basie band had broken up with no indication that they would  get together again, ever.  Basie via John Hammond put together an octet with the likes of Clark Terry, Wardell Gray, and Buddy DeFranco.  There are videos available on You Tube.  Alas, it was too early for such a step.  Bookings pressure caused DeFranco to leave the group.

Alongside David Stone Martin’s cover artwork some of those Clefs and Verves were among the first lp’s I bought and they remain in my collection.  His attack was unique and personal.  You knew it was Buddy DeFranco after just one note.  Classy and classic.

 


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