Portrait Of Buddy De Franco, New York, N.y., Ca. Sept. 1947

Mr Clarinet Phenomenon-Buddy DeFranco

by John Cipolla

Boniface Ferdinand Leonard “Buddy” DeFranco (1923 – 2014) was a phenomenon in the world of jazz. An artist who not only lived through the golden age of BeBop but embraced it heart and soul and spread it’s message for over 60 years. Buddy DeFranco played with more fire at 74 than he did at 30 and with even more rhythmic daring and harmonic prowess, if that can be imagined.

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I was fortunate enough to catch up with him at the 22nd Annual University of Oklahoma Clarinet Symposium. David Etheridge, the Symposium founder and coordinator, put together quite an eclectic array of top flight artists, teachers and clinicians from all over the world. It was an intensive three days of round the clock concerts, classes and clinics.

Buddy played a concert on Saturday night, and the next day he informally chatted with about a dozen of us. He talked about his life as a musician, the people he’s worked with and about that golden era of music in the 1940’s and 1950’s when the “modern” music, called BeBop, was born and developed. Here are some of his experiences he shared and advice he offered for todayıs young musicians.

The Early Years

Buddy began his clarinet studies at the age of eight. He studied “legitimate” (as opposed to jazz) clarinet in Philadelphia. His father, a blind piano tuner, bought Buddy his first clarinet for $25. At the time, this was an entire month’s rent for the DeFranco family. Buddyıs uncle was angry at his father for an entire year because he spent so much money on such a thing as a clarinet.

The Earl Theater was near Buddy’s home in Philadelphia, so in their spare time he and his friends would sit in the back of the theater and listen to the big bands that played there. Players like Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster were commonly on the bill there plus musicians from the swing bands would gather at either Billy Kretchmar’s Jam Session club or Nat Siegels-Down Beat club.

Buddy became a member of the Junior Symphony in Philadelphia and played much of the symphonic repertoire with this group. When he got older he began attending a vocational school of which the music department was headed by Meyer Levine. He traveled two hours each way to attend the school because it was on the other side of town. During these three years his intensive studies included harmony, counterpoint, theory and ear training.

Buddy’s first idol on the clarinet was Johnny Mintz, the jazz clarinetist with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. He heard him at the Earl Theater as well. While in vocational school, Buddy bought an alto saxophone and began playing jobs around Philadelphia. He played for weddings and parties. He worked with the young players in his area, people like Bill Harris, Charlie Ventura, Charlie Emery, Elliot Lawrence, Joe Wilder, Lou Stien and Al Alberts.

Tribute to Artie Shaw: The King of the Clarinet

Tribute to Artie Shaw: The King of the Clarinet

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Benny Goodman, The King Of Swing

One of the most important clarinetists and bandleaders of jazz and swing music

Benny Goodman, The King Of Swing

One of the most important clarinetists and bandleaders of jazz and swing music
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Buddy DeFranko's Big Band Swing

The swing band that Buddy and his brother Leonar had finally got a gig at the Barclay Dance Hall. They used to pack the hall with people every Sunday night. Buddy recalled the band being quite good. In fact, it was so good that years later when Buddy was passing through Philadelphia as leader of the Glenn Miller Band, he and the band heard a great tape of the old group from his teenage years, and the players in the Miller Band were very upset because Buddy’s teenage band sounded better than their band.

When he was 15, Buddy went on the road with Johnny “Scat” Davis. From that time on he worked professionally with many groups. In his late twenties Buddy was invited to audition for Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra. Though the audition was tough he made it into the band. He recalled how the players–though they hated Tommy Dorsey because he was such a tough leader–used to clap for him after he played. This was because he played so beautifully. He recalled Dorsey’s beautiful tone and amazing breath control.

He said that when Tommy Dorsey played two notes you knew it was him. The same was true for Charlie Parker and Art Tatum. He stressed that younger players should learn and assimilate things from great players but also to try to be individuals. “Don’t be a clone,” he said. “Try to develop your own sound.”

Buddy remembered Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman as the two greats of the clarinet. He said that without Benny Goodman there would be no jazz clarinet. He truly was the king. But he also said that Benny was not very personable. He described him as “not of this world.” All Benny thought about was the clarinet. He was often not very kind in dealing with his band members or with people in general. Once, after hiring a young saxophonist, he heard the young man play a few notes while warming up. He went over to the player and said “I’m sorry but I just donıt think this is going to work out.” So he paid the man and fired him on the spot before he even played one job.

Buddy said he tended to favor Artie Shaw’s way of playing. He liked the way Artie approached the clarinet like a saxophone. He held it straight out, blew hard and just played it more like a saxophone. Though Buddy still held the clarinet closer to his body because of his formal training, he tended to develop Artie’s “saxophone” approach to playing the clarinet by playing the clarinet physically with just “enough flexibility” while “thinking” saxophone.

Big Band And Swing Music Era

Big Band And Swing Music Era

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Top 15 Famous Jazz Clarinet Players

Top 15 Famous Jazz Clarinet Players

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Charlie Parker and Buddy DeFranco

Buddy then began talking about Charlie Parker. Buddy was friendly with one of the best pianists in the country at the time. His name was Dodo Marmarosa. They had heard about a great alto saxophonist and wanted to go hear him play. This player, Charlie Parker or “Bird” for short, was getting a reputation for doing new and innovative things with chords and rhythms. They wanted to hear it for themselves. So Buddy met Dodo and their friend Charlie Shavers on a corner on Broadway in New York and headed up to Harlem to find him. They eventually found him and intended to stay for only one set of music. They stayed the entire night. Buddy said that when he left that night he felt that this was the jazz of the future and was how he wanted to play. He and his friends were so excited by this new music that they tried to hear Bird wherever he played. Buddy now had a direction, focus and driving ambition to develop this new style in his own playing.

Buddy recalled how Bird listened to everything. He had an amazing musical memory and mind, just as Stan Getz did, he said. Buddy recalled a trip back from Providence, Rhode Island with Bird. They had visited a friend after an engagement and were on their way back to New York City on a 10 AM train. When they got off the train they had to walk across town to Bird’s car. On the way they passed a terrible sounding Salvation Army Band. As Buddy put it, “nothing sounds worse than this after being up all night.” All Buddy wanted to do was go to sleep. Bird stopped to listen to the group. Buddy couldn’t tell if Bird was fooling around with him because he was so intent on listening to them. He was bobbing his head and smiling. He really seemed to enjoy it. 

Buddy forgot about the incident eventually. About a year later Buddy was playing in a club across from Bird on 52nd Street in New York. Buddy went to see Bird on his break. Bird turned to him and said, “Remember this?” And he played the tune that the Salvation Army Band played on the street that cold winter morning a year ago. Buddy said he couldn’t believe it. Bird did this because he was being his humorous self but to Buddy this demonstrated Birdıs incredible musical ear and recall. Birdıs musical abilities were truly beyond belief. Buddy said, “You can hear Bird’s ‘quoting’ throughout all his solos even including some Chopin. I believe Art Tatum started this ‘quote’ trend in Jazz.” Buddy said that Charlie Parker and Art Tatum were his two main influences as a musician. He said they were the most complete musicians he’d ever met.

Buddy’s Advice to Young Clarinetist

When asked if younger players today should transcribe solos from the recordings and study them, he had an interesting answer. He said, “Writing things down makes you concentrate more on reading the notes on the page and not on using your ears.” He offered some advice to players. “Sit in a room by yourself and do nothing but listen very closely to the recording.” He said to listen with critical ears. Buddy said unfortunately he finds that many players don’t use their ears when they play. They learn someone else’s solos and regurgitate them back out through their horns. Doing this, they miss the point of playing the music: to use your ears and play what you “hear.” Again he alluded back to his early intensive training at the vocational school where he studied harmony, rhythms and ear training. He said, “Young players today should spend time studying these areas very thoroughly like we did when we were young.”

Buddy’s extremely thorough training and background in all the rudiments of music left an extremely strong impression on me. Here seated only a couple of feet from us was a man who at age 74 had not only complete technical command of his instrument but was a consummate musician. He worked and played on par with some of the greatest musicians ever to live. He had a full and deep theoretical and practical working knowledge of harmony, rhythm and all aspects of music. 

An example of his virtuosity is when he played the tune Speak Low. The tune was played at an extremely fast tempo. After the melody and improvised solos were played, the entire band dropped out, and Buddy proceeded to play an entire chorus by himself. Not only did he keep perfect time with his flowing and rhythmically punctuated eighth-note lines, but you could hear every single chord change that he played. This was without the help of the piano, bass, and drums.

Another example of his artistry is the alterations of chords that Buddy applied to standard tunes. Buddy, just as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie did, altered the chords to standard tunes by adding substitute chords and by raising or lowering the extensions of the chords such as the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth. Benny Goodman would turn in his grave if he had heard Buddy’s version of Poor Butterfly and I Thought About You. Buddy’s masterful negotiation of these difficult chord changes in his improvised lines made the listener think that the chords were very simple.

We are living in an age today when many of our clarinetists have unbelievable technical command of their instruments. But unfortunately what so many players lack is complete overall musical training. Buddy is in a class by himself. He is one of the few musicians who, through disciplined study and practice, achieved a rare level of true artistry.

Buddy’s message to young clarinetists and musicians was simple and clear. Be disciplined and thorough about your musical studies. Learn about all aspects and styles of music. Learn music not only in an academic and theoretical way but also in a practical way. Apply this knowledge to the music you play. And most of all, train your ears. Musicians create music for people to listen to. We create sounds. How can we be complete musicians without a finely tuned sense of hearing?

His message may sound strong and extreme but remember the musical standards he has achieved. Buddy holds only the highest standards for himself and expects younger players to do nothing less than that for themselves. Let the example set by the great artists like Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, and Buddy DeFranco be the ideal to strive for. Though this road towards artistry is longer and harder, its musical rewards are far greater, deeper and richer for both the player and audience.

Buddy’s Late Releases

Two of Buddy’s newer CD’s were on display at the Symposium. You Must Believe in Swing, a duo recording with the Tatumesque piano virtuoso Dave McKenna is on the Concord label. It is a superior display of true music-making. The openness of a duo setting enables the listener to concentrate on both of these artists’ skills and finesse. This album is a lesson in swing. The other, called Nobody Else But Me is his pride and joy. It is a collaboration with the 52 piece Metropole Orchestra of Holland. Buddy plays beautifully with this first-rate orchestra.

Buddy also published a book. Hand in Hand with Hanon is a milestone in woodwind study books. The first part of the book contains excerpts from his previous book On Jazz Improvisation. This section gives a rare glimpse into Buddyıs disciplined approach to music. He cultivated this discipline for 60 years of his professional life. The next part of the book is a section where Buddy transcribes and transposes the Hanon piano exercises into all twelve keys, making full use of the altisimo range of the clarinet. In his words, “There are no hard or easy keys, just familiar ones and unfamiliar ones.” As Eddie Daniels says, “My idol, Buddy DeFranco, who has helped me turn the corner, has come up with one of the best exercise studies for the clarinet. If you play all of these exercises first, slowly and then up to tempo, you will be prepared for anything.”

In the final section, he includes some of his original tunes with individual clarinet, piano, and bass parts. Don’t pass up this book. It is a rare glimpse into the thoughts, concepts, and disciplines of one of the greatest musicians of our time. Buddy died in Panama City, Florida at the age of 91.

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