Buddy de Franco + Sonny Clark, PT 2


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By 1954, the clarinet was all but finished as a solo instrument. Benny Goodman was largely a nostalgia act. Artie Shaw was completing his final recordings with his Gramercy Five. And other leading jazz musicians who played the “stick" did so out of necessity for studio work or as a secondary instrument. One of the only full-time practitioners exploring new ground was Buddy De Franco. But Buddy was fully aware of the clarinet's image problem. Its happy, pleading sound was dated and too closely linked to pre-war jazz styles such as Dixieland, Chicago jazz and swing. So Buddy set out to reinvent the clarinet and its image by playing bebop. He was determined to find a way to make the clarinet relevant at a time when more hard-charging jazz styles were emerging and the trumpet was again becoming the dominant solo instrument of young jazz stars. [Photo of Buddy De Franco by Ray Avery/CTSImages.com]

In Part 2 of my interview with Buddy on his Sonny Clark recordings between 1954 and 1956, the legendary clarinetist talks about Clark's style, the group's breakup and the musician he and Clark worshiped most:

JazzWax: What was Clark like as a bandmember?
Buddy De Franco: Sonny was a great person. He not only was a great jazz player but he also was easy to work with. Some players you get in your group have an air of hostility or they present problems. Sonny was different. He was upbeat most of the time and had a great sense of humor.

JW: What made his playing style different?
BDF: He emulated Bud Powell and idolized Art Tatum. At the time, Sonny was listening to all the good players. He loved Oscar Peterson, for instance. But his idolization of Tatum was essential to who he was. Many people forget that Tatum was the first truly modern jazz player--on any instrument.

JW: Is the appeal of Clark's sound in his chord voicings?
BDF: It wasn't that the chords were different. It was how he employed them. It was the pulse and happy feeling he got on the keyboard. Some players I've had over time were excellent but had a more morose feeling to what they were doing. The bond between a soloist and pianist in a small group is strong. What one plays is often reflected in the other. That's what you hear on those recordings with Sonny.

Do you have a favorite quartet or quintet recording with Clark?
BDF: I don't listen to them that way. The problem is that after I record and the tape is in the can, it's very difficult for me to comfortably listen to the result. Even though there are plenty of good and exciting things on there, I'll hear a number of areas I wish I had done differently.

Why did the group break up?
BDF: In part because of the growing number of recordings that I was doing for [Verve producer] Norman Granz as the 12-inch LP era started in 1956. Remember, I was in Los Angeles during that period recording, which is where Norman was based, so the work picked up considerably. But mostly, there comes a time in any group's lifetime when you realize you did what you wanted to do and that's it.

JW: So there was no single turning point or event?
BDF: No, there was nothing specific. There just comes a time and place where you say, “Well, let's try something else." You realize that you've contributed what you wanted to. I kept in touch with Sonny after he moved to Europe, I saw him in Germany before he died.

JW: Were these your most cutting-edge recordings?
BF: [Laughs] No. That would probably have to go to the albums I made in the early 1960s with accordionist Tommy Gumina. We were dealing with polytonal expression. It was the most technically advanced group I had worked with. So advanced that we could empty a room in 10 minutes [laughs]. Toward the latter months of that group's existence, Tommy had to go to the bank just to make payroll. The group was a refreshing experience for me.

JW: Where do your recordings with Sonny Clark stand in your list of accomplishments?
BDF: Definitely high up the list. Along with my recordings with Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Terry Gibbs and Rob Pronk with the Metropole Orchestra in Holland.

JW: Just curious--what did you and Sonny talk about during your down time?
BDF: We spent a lot of time talking about music. We'd meet for breakfast and spend the day doing different things and talking about the group and our musical preferences. For us, Charlie Parker was always in the picture. He influenced all of us and taught everyone who listened carefully that phrasing and the intuitive feeling of jazz have to come from you. [Photo of Charlie Parker by Esther Bubley]

JW: So what are we hearing in Parker's playing that makes everyone stop and take notice?
BDF: You're hearing the depth of his soul and being.

JazzWax tracks: The Buddy De Franco quartet recordings for Verve with Art Blakey, Kenny Drew and Milt Hinton can be found on Mr. Clarinet here or The Complete Mr. Clarinet Session here, which includes two additional tracks. Unfortunately, the MGM sessions (from June and July 1952) are available only on a Japanese CD. The Metropole Orchestra album (1981), Nobody Else But Me, with arrangements by Rob Pronk, is available here.

JazzWax clip: Here's a fascinating clip from Mr. Clarinet in April 1953. It's swing meets bop meets hard bop all in one track. The song is But Not For Me. Buddy is on clarinet, Kenny Drew on piano, Milt Hinton on bass and Art Blakey on drums. Pay particular attention to Buddy and Blakey playing off each other and the percussive chords used by Drew...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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