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Buddy De Franco (1923-2014)

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Buddy De Franco, a highly accomplished and exquisite jazz clarinetist who began his career in several leading swing bands of the 1940s before pivoting to bebop in the late 1940s and early '50s and teaming with leading jazz artists throughout the LP era, died on Dec. 24. He was 91.

Buddy's first recording in 1943 was as a member of the Gene Krupa Orchestra. He soon joined Charlie Barnet after Krupa's pot bust and then Tommy Dorsey in the mid-1940s, with his most famous solo of the era coming on Dorsey's 1944 recording of Sy Oliver's Opus No. 1. Despite the song becoming a hit, Buddy came to detest it after Dorsey insisted he repeat his recorded solo note for note each time the band played the song.

Departing Dorsey in late '47, Buddy began playing bebop—music he found more innovative and liberating as a soloist. In '48, he also played a little-known role in helping George Shearing shape a unison sound that Shearing would soon use to great effect in his quintet. Originally, the De Franco-Shearing group was supposed to consist of Shearing and Buddy backed by bass and drums. But when Buddy signed with Capitol in '49 and Shearing signed with MGM, Shearing needed vibes and guitar to replace Buddy's high, warm tone.

In 1950, Buddy recorded as the leader of a small group and a big band before joining a Count Basie octet date that was captured in a short film. In 1952, Buddy formed a bebop quartet with pianist Kenny Drew. When Drew left in '54, he was replaced by Sonny Clark, and the quartet would make several significant recordings. By then, Artie Shaw had retired, and with the LP era was in full swing, Buddy dominated on clarinet, recording frequently with pianist Oscar Peterson and other jazz stars for Norman Granz's Verve label.

Buddy's sound was warm and woody, and his bop often carried with it traces of swing. In 1956, he recorded a monumentally poetic album for Verve with Art Tatum, a session on which Buddy told me he was ill with a cold. By the late '50s, Buddy recorded a breezy, illustrative concept album called Cross Country Suite (Dot) that Riddle had composed and arranged.

Perhaps Buddy's most experimental works were the five albums he recorded with accordionist Tommy Gumina starting in 1960. As was often the case with Buddy, he tended to gravitate to consummate musicians who were comfortable with  experimentation. This was certainly true of Gumina, and their polytonal takes on standards featuring the clarinet's soulful voice and the accordion's broad, reedy personality was a brash experiment. Though not commercially successful, the pairing left behind sophisticated music in the pop realm.

As rock and soul dominated the '60s, Buddy recorded in big band revival settings and as the leader of small carefully chosen jazz groups. He also appeared on the Sharky's Machine film soundtrack. In the 1980s, Buddy began recording with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, a swinging collaboration that produced a series of tasteful albums, including Terry Gibbs and Buddy De Franco Play Steve Allen (Contemporary). Buddy's last known studio recording was Charlie Cat 2 in 2006 for the Arbors Jazz label.

On a personal note, Buddy was a great guy. He was always eager to chat by phone and shed light on the music he made and the events he witnessed. My heart goes out to Buddy's wife, Joyce, and the entire De Franco family. Buddy was a tremendously gifted artist and a generous soul who understood the value of preserving his music and memories for future generations.

JazzWax notes: Here are links to my interviews with Buddy over the years...
  • Buddy on drummer Gene Krupa's pot bust and pianist Dodo Marmarosa's beating in 1943 (go here).
  • Buddy on his clarinet solo on Tommy Dorsey's Opus No. 1 in 1944 (go here).
  • Buddy on the Metronome All-Stars of 1948-49 (go here).
  • Buddy on the George Shearing sound in the late 1940s (go here).
  • Buddy on his transition to bebop and bandleader, from 1949 to '52 (go here).
  • Buddy on Sonny Clark in 1954 (go here).
  • Buddy on the Art Tatum session of 1956 (go here).
  • Buddy on Nelson Riddle's Cross Country Suite in 1958 (go here).
  • Buddy on his recordings with accordionist Tommy Gumina in 1960 (go here).


JazzWax clips: Here's Sy Oliver's arrangement of his composition Opus No. 1 for Tommy Dorsey in 1944, with its machine gun opening. Buddy's clarinet solo instantly became iconic...



Here's Buddy with Sonny Clark playing What Can I Say Dear (After I Say I'm Sorry)...



Here's Buddy with Tommy Gumina playing Runaway...



And here's Buddy with Terry Gibbs in 1991 playing Memories of You...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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