Remembering Buddy DeFranco

In 1999 Swing Fever met the wonderful clarinetist and warm gentleman Buddy DeFranco.
This is how it came about. Our band had a tour booked which included the fine ex-Basie trumpeter, Harry “Sweets” Edison. Harry had not been well, and a month before the tour he died. Since the tour had been focused on him, it was incumbent upon us to apprehend a noble equivalent. Buddy DeFranco’s name came up. No one in Swing Fever had ever played with Buddy, though his reputation and his music were well-known to us. We telephoned him – I can’t recall how we came to have his number – and within an hour he had signed on.
For many years Buddy had led his own groups where he was the featured soloist, but this was an instance where he was incorporated right into the band, playing clarinet parts – which we quickly had written for him – in the ensemble. Naturally we also gave him a lot of solo space.
All of a sudden there we were, Swing Fever and Buddy DeFranco concertizing all over California. And I was getting to know one of the most distinct and warm gentlemen in jazz, along with his wife Joyce, who was by his side and ours, throughout the tour. It began a friendship that has lasted, mostly by telephone, all the years since. In 2001 Swing Fever did another California tour with Buddy.
The first included Tony Johnson, drums; Ruth Davis, bass; Steve Campos, trumpet; Jim Putman, guitar; Buddy and Jackie Ryan and, what an honor, me. Jim Rothermel was the other reed, and it was a pleasure listening to Jim and Buddy trading 4s, 8s, 2s.
During our two tours we recorded some of the concerts. Just last year a CD/DVD package was released. Better late than never. These recordings also include Jackie, along with some of the other live dates we had done with Clark Terry and Terry Gibbs. It was produced by OpenArt Productions, and me.
Some of the memorable tour moments: At Villa Montalvo, in Saratoga, we had a chance to observe Buddy conducting a workshop with a college band, where he kept leaning on the woodwinds to play legato, to sustain all the way through their phrasing instead of biting the notes off. Not a bad bit of advice for us too, I remember thinking at the time.
Buddy was an inveterate rehearser, who practiced his clarinet nearly every day of his life, and had done so clear back in his early days with Tommy Dorsey and before. He did the same on our tour. It drew a complaint from one hotel guest in Saratoga. This ruffled Buddy’s feathers a bit. He said he hadn’t had a hotel complaint in 30 years.
He invented a “mute’ for the clarinet, which allowed him to practice at full volume almost noiselessly. It consisted of a long glove that covered the clarinet entirely with slits on both sides for your hands to enter. He said he had ideas about manufacturing it commercially; did that ever happen? He could have sold six of them just on his name alone (clarinets being so popular).
Buddy said that toward the end of Tommy Dorsey’s life they rekindled a friendship that earlier had some bumps in it. He also kept up a friendship with the late Artie Shaw.
“Here’s a little something to think about,” Buddy said to me one time, “contrary to what everyone thinks Charlie Parker did not play better when high on heroin. Often he played considerably worse.” Nonetheless it was Parker he said, who really opened his ears and sent him headlong into bebop.
He had a very low opinion of dope in general, and especially of the rockers who he felt led a lot of young people to abuse. He held the rockers of the ‘60s responsible for ruining a lot of lives.
For a jazz musician, Buddy was a very upright traditional sort of person. This made him a nice balance to the madcap Terry Gibbs. Terry jabbed him with wild spirit; Buddy brought Terry (according to Buddy) down to earth. (On our tour with Terry; I can personally say that I have never seen Terry Gibbs down to earth.) Their partnership was felicitous.
The Glenn Miller Orchestra traditionally gets the raspberry from jazz players, chiefly because it sidestepped jazz. Buddy led the Miller ghost band for eight years and enjoyed it, even though he said he rarely played clarinet in it. He told me it was the arrangements he loved, Bill Finnegan’s in particular.
I remember Buddy talking about playing in the super-avant garde Boyd Raeburn band. “Cleared the room in six minutes.”
Also the Buddy DeFranco Quartet had booked two weeks in an east coast club owned by a gloomy old mafioso type who glared at him through the whole first set. He confronted Buddy on the break: “So when does the singing start? “Singing,” Buddy replied? The guy thought he had booked Buddy Greco.

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