Clarinetist Buddy De Franco has had a series of astonishing careers. He has been a leading swing era musician, a big band leader, a bebop headliner, an early participant in merging small-group jazz with the American Songbook, a polytonal experimenter, and champion of all forms of the music. Buddy's first 10 years alone are remarkable. In 1943 he recorded with Gene Krupa, then joined Tommy Dorsey and Charlie Barnet's bands in the mid-1940s, played with George Shearing in the late 1940s, led his own orchestra from 1949-52, recorded in Count Basie's small group in 1950 and teamed up with Oscar Peterson starting in 1953. But in 1954, Buddy hired pianist Sonny Clark and for 2 1/2 years, the two musicians made a series of recordings that remain a gorgeous fusion of swing, bebop and hard bop.
In Part 1 of my two-part interview with Buddy, 86, the legendary clarinetist talks about forming a small bebop group and hiring pianist Sonny Clark:
JazzWax: Your bebop quartet actually started in 1952 and featured pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Curly Russell and drummer Art Blakey. Buddy De Franco: Yes. Milt Hinton replaced Curly. That was an exciting group. Then in early 1954, Art [pictured] wanted to form his own group, The Jazz Messengers. That group became so successful that people would come up to me in later years and say that they remembered when I was in Art's group [laughs].
JW: How did Sonny Clark replace Drew? BDF: In 1954, Kenny Drew [pictured] gave notice and told me he had his replacement lined up. He said once we got to San Francisco, he'd have the pianist sit in so I could hear him. When we arrived at the Blackhawk [in San Francisco], Kenny brought Sonny Clark in. I loved him right away. He was interesting and intelligent, and played with a happy, skippy feel. When I heard Sonny, I knew instantly we were musically compatible in terms of what we were trying to do with modern jazz. Drummer Bobby White and bassist Gene Wright joined around this time, too.
JW: What was special about Clark from a musician's perspective? BDF: It's the give and take. I might be improvising a line and Sonny [pictured] would come through with an idea. And in a split second he'd embellish it. Everything happened fast, but in harmony. It was so exciting.
JW: Who wrote the arrangements for the group? BDF: Everybody wrote. We'd start playing a song, and as we played, ideas would come and they'd become part of the song.
JW: Did your period with Clark change you as a musician? BDF: I wouldn't say the experience changed me. It's not a question of someone simply pointing you in another direction. Our playing went along with my constant development. As a musician, you have to progress. And as you progress, whoever is playing with you either will hinder or help you. Kenny Drew and Sonny Clark [pictured] both were supportive. They helped and fueled my idea of what I was playing and where I wanted to go.
JW: What direction were you heading in? BDF: I was aiming for a different harmonic approach, which finally became my signature sound on the clarinet. I had been listening a great deal to the classical composers--Ravel, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Stravinsky, of course. All those classical writers influenced jazz players. They influenced my harmonic concept.
JW: How so? BDF: I wanted to create a continuum, a free-thinking form. Even though the music in our quartet was structured, I played along those upper structured triads. Without getting too technical, they're the additional notes that belong to a basic, three-note chord.
JW: That's a lot to think about on the job. BDF: [Laughs] You have to think about it when you're practicing, not while you're playing. The idea is to play fluently among three separate upper structure triads. And create and invent ideas while doing so. Sonny was doing the same thing. He was feeding me the basic chord structures and alternates at the same time. He would know in a split second which alternates I was working on at the time. You don't do this stuff deliberately. It comes naturally. I used to practice six hours a day to ensure that it did.
JW: What was Clark's personality like? BDF: Sonny was a lot of fun. He was lighthearted and happy, which is why we connected. I remember we were in Hawaii on tour. We had a job for four weeks in some club near Waikiki Beach [pictured in the 1950s]. During the day, we'd all go swimming. Sonny had a lady friend with him so he liked to spend time lounging on the sand. Bobby White, my drummer, was teaching me to snorkel. One day I was in the water by myself snorkeling, as an amateur. Sonny was on the beach. All of a sudden I panicked and started flailing around like an idiot. In my panic I lost the snorkel and thought I was going to drown.
JW: What happened? BDF: In the middle of this turmoil, I remembered what Bobby had told me: If you get in trouble, cool your brain, lie on your back and get your wits." So I did that. I relaxed on my back and I came around. Reason returned, and I swam back to the beach.
JW: What did Clark say? BDF: When I came out of the water, Sonny said, What were you doing out there?" I said, Collecting my wits." Sonny said, It looked like you were collecting the blank out of your wits" [laughs]. That was Sonny. He always had that subtle little twist.
Tomorrow,Buddy talks about what made Clark special as a pianist, the musician who Clark and Buddy most admired, and why the group broke up.
JazzWax tracks: The Complete Verve Recordings of the Buddy De Franco Quartet/Quintet with Sonny Clark box set from Mosaic is out of print. But the Sonny Clark and Buddy De Franco Quartet Complete Sessions, a two-CD set (Definitive) is available here. And the quintet recordings (with guitarist Tal Farlow added) are on Cookin' the Blues and Sweet and Lovely (LoneHill) here. Buddy's playing on all of the Sonny Clark sessions swings with inspired determination. You can actually hear the musical conversation unfold. As for Clark, the pianist's melodic and harmonic ideas build and swell, making him a creative partner on these sessions rather than just a spirited sideman.
JazzWax note: For my complete series of interviews with Buddy De Franco, go to the right-hand column under JazzWax Interviews."
JaxWax clip: Here's a clip of Buddy with Kenny Drew, Milt Hinton and Art Blakey in 1953 from the Mr. Clarinet sessions for Verve. It was recorded a little less than a year before Sonny Clark, Bobby White and Gene Wright came aboard. Dig how slippery Buddy's clarinet is on this uptempo bop execution with early hard-bop sidemen...