"Buddy De Franco, The Man And His Music"


"Buddy De Franco, Talking to Les Tomkins"

(An Interview By Les Tomkins In 1970, Copyright © 1970, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved)

Here Goes...

This is actually your first time in this country, isn’t it?

The first time playing, yes. We came through England back in ‘55, when I was touring Europe with my own group, but we weren’t permitted to play, due to the Union situation. So I’m looking forward to it.

How long have you been leading this Glenn Miller band?

I took the leadership of the band in January, ‘66; so its four years.

You’ve had big bands of your own in the past, of course.

The last time I had my own big band was in 1950. It lasted almost a year. It was very costly, and wasn’t successful at all. Trouble was, I got a band at a time when big bands were really fading almost completely passé. But it was a good band.

Yes, I have some of the sides you recorded; nice writing, I thought. How would you say this band compares with others you’ve been associated with?

Well, the Glenn Miller band is actually an American fixture; it’s a part of the culture. And even though the overwhelming rock craze in the United States would lead you to believe that there’s nothing else going on, we see marvelous crowds. People who are very, very loyal.

Is it a varied crowd, or are they all older people?

Most of them are older, but the past year has been amazing, because we’ve seen many, many more young people beginning to understand and like the idea of a big band. Particularly the Glenn Miller band. That’s encouraging.

Do you personally feel a certain affinity for this music?

I should. I started way back in 1939, playing with Johnny ‘Scat’ Davis, Gene Krupa, Charlie Barnet, Count Basie, Ted Fiorito, Boyd Raeburn and Tommy Dorsey. In the ‘forties, I was with Tommy for five years.

So this is really your era.

Oh yeah. I was on the stage when it was all going on. I’m very happy about that, too. I like to see the youngsters getting with this music again, because it’s well worth it. It’s something of value, I think. Some of the rock stuff is fine, but that shouldn’t be looked on as the whole musical picture. Their ears need to be opened wider.

You started playing clarinet when you were twelve, didn’t you?

I was nine when my father first got me a clarinet. I had decided I would like to play saxophone, but my teacher in Philadelphia said that I should play clarinet first; then the saxophone would be easier to play. If you play sax first, the clarinet’s more difficult. So I began playing clarinet immediately, and I liked it so much that it seemed to be almost natural to me. And I continued to specialize on it. Of course, I picked up alto sax and played it in the bands, because you had to double—in those days, anyway. Then, when I left Dorsey in ‘47? I sold the alto and decided I was going to make it as a clarinetist.

That period, of course, was the outset of what is called the bebop era. And you’ve been cited as the man who translated the medium to the clarinet. Do you agree?

Yes, I would say that’s accurate; I’d like to believe it is, anyway. Because that was a great era and still valid musically.

Did you set out to capture in clarinet form the things that Charlie Parker was doing?

Oh, we were all influenced by Charlie Parker. He’s probably the major influence of the past fifty years; he’s made his mark in every corner of the music world. Without a doubt, he was a genius. Every one of us followed in his footsteps; we applied what knowledge we might have had and our own little personalities on the horn, but also adapted much of his to our particular instrument.

Having been working with big bands for years, did you feel you needed to move into a small group context in order to express your jazz ideas?

Sure, there’s a little more freedom. But aside from that, economically it wasn’t feasible to walk around with a big band. Necessity was the mother of invention right there, and it seemed to work out pretty good. However, I’ve always believed that any musician should do everything. I don’t think he should paint himself into a corner musically. I like any kind of music, if it’s valid. Including rock, even though it’s turned into a plague. To me, it’s very narrow to say: “I am a big band enthusiast, and therefore anything else is trash”. Or to like, exclusively, classical or symphonic music. I just don’t believe in that.

But before you came on the scene, I think you’d agree that the clarinet had become very much identified with big band music, because of there being so many clarinet leaders. Your efforts tended to restore the instrument to jazz flavour, in that you broke away from the stereotyped conception of it.

Well, I think it was necessary to do that, and also for my development. Because I did admire Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, from time to time I would copy things that they played. But after a while I began to realize that you can’t possibly stay with that idiom; you have to move forward. Also to say something of your own. Naturally, every musician in the world that I’ve ever met borrows from somebody; but if you can apply that and then add to it, in terms of what you have in yourself, that’s a must.

How did you feel about the criticism made at the time that, although you had one over on Goodman as regards technique, there was a certain coldness in your music? Did that kind of statement disturb you?

No, you become amoured and also much more tolerant. The more you see of critics and people, the more you .realize that there’s absolutely no definitive taste, and no accounting for taste. I’ve known people extol Charlie Parker and then in the same breath praise somebody who’s an absolute musical moron. So you know that they did get some sort of a message from a great performer, but by some strange quirk they also got a message from a musically inferior source. And critics are not exempt from this. Especially because most critics haven’t played anything. Or, if they did, they were failures. But this  doesn’t mean that they’re wrong in their thinking or their feelings; they criticize what they feel they have heard. Also the general public may not understand musically what jazz artists are doing, because they don’t have time.

On the other hand, Norman Granz seemed to hear more in your playing than those critics, because he teamed you on record with people like Lionel Hampton.

He sure did. We played with Lionel Hampton two weeks ago; we alternated bands and then Lionel and I played together on one number. It was really like old times. Just great; a very happy meeting. That’s another way that music has changed. Music was happier from the ‘thirties to the ‘forties. It’s much more somber and grim now. Even the jazz—hate–jazz, we call it. Anger music. Partly because it reflects the times, I guess. But I do miss those happy sessions of the bebop, Dixieland and Swing eras. The ballads, naturally, were pretty emotional, but I think they were closer to the romantic love theme. You hear love expressed today in a very strange, tense manner—prolonged seizures of anxiety seem to be thrown in the music.

It can be said, I suppose, that the resurgence of the popularity of bands is a kind of a reaction against that.

Yes, that’s right. It really is.

In dealing with the Miller library, have you felt that you had to interpret all of it literally?

Oh, yes—it’s important to come just as close as we can. The newer things, naturally, have a newer feel rhythmically and so on, although they retain somewhat of a Miller flavour. But as far as the original Miller arrangements are concerned we don’t change them.

We give the soloists freedom on Miller music, because that’s exactly what Glenn gave Tex Beneke and Bobby Hackett. The only times there have been exceptions to that is when there was a very big hit record that was generated by a particular solo. For instance, “String Of Pearls” would require the Bobby Hackett cornet solo, because that was an integral part of it. So we keep that. In fact, what we did: we had one of our trumpet players, John La Barbera, who’s a fine arranger, transcribe that solo for four flugelhorns. It’s very effective.

Have you added to the book yourself since you’ve been with the band?

Sure. I’ve also found some marvelous old Bill Finegan arrangements that were in the library in New York. Not very familiar ones. We brought them out again, because I think they’re worth hearing. Many of the Glenn Miller ballads, especially, although they were not forgotten, were kind of put away for some years; we’re getting back to a lot of them. As many as we can, anyway.

In a sense, it’s ideal to have a clarinet player as the leader, since the clarinet lead idea is the Miller sound.

Yes, but I don’t play the lead clarinet. I have an excellent teenage fellow who plays most of the lead alto and all the lead clarinet; he’s about the closest to. the original I’ve ever heard. His name is Al Goodling. I play some of it, at times.

So what is your function, apart from directing the band? You come in with separate solos. do you?

Separate solos, yes—on the new things. The only solo I play in the old library is “Bugle Call Rag” because that’s a clarinet jazz solo. For the first hour I don’t play at all. I’ve tried my best to divide the show into two distinct segments, the first being all the old Glenn Miller favorites—as many as we can get in. The second half is a combination of some of the old things and predominantly new material that we think is very good. And we include a little portion of the jazz quartet, to change the pace, and so that I can stretch out  with my clarinet.

Oh, good—I’m glad that’s in there somewhere. I always enjoyed things like the quartet recordings you did for MGM. Great stuff.

Thank you. Yes, with Kenny Drew and Art Blakey; that was a good group.

How do you feel about the young musicians? Obviously, seeing the men come into the theatre tonight, there’s a lot of young faces.

Oh my gosh—they’re mostly in their twenties.

Yes—but they can identify with this music, can they?

Absolutely. There’s a tremendous big band programme—they’re called stage bands—in the high schools in the United States. There are over eight thousand. And, of course, each college has a dance band or stage band of its own. So—fortunately—we have many fine young players. We have some players in this band who came out of rock groups. They just got tired of the sameness. This is part of growing up, I think. They like it; they’re very dedicated. They have to be dedicated to put in the schedule we do. Because we operate fifty weeks a year—mostly one nighters. We only get about a month off: it’s very hard work. These young fellows are all very serious musicians.

And they feel that they’re getting enough scope here?

Oh sure. Actually, this show’s musical content is from the late ‘thirties to 1970; it runs the gamut. So they get a really broad scope here.

You’d say you’re initiating an audience, would you, by leading them from something familiar to them into other arenas?

What we’re doing, Les, is initiating two audiences. We also initiate the young people—backwards. And once they hear the idea of the band in the Glenn Miller music, they like the old stuff as well. I’m just hoping to get more young listeners. But I don’t believe in forcing them. As an educator or parent, I would never say: “Well. you have to listen.” If that were the case, then I would never have listened to the big bands. Because my parents and grandparents were unhappy about jazz and big bands and Swing. So without telling them they must, I do believe they should listen and give it a fair chance.

Initially, I suppose, they have it set up in their minds that this is dated and stale.

Yes, you know, many times youngsters come in and say: “By gosh, we thought we’d see nineteen old men!” They can’t get over it. They also can’t get over the fact that this band not only plays all the old Miller things, but also plays today’s music, that they can relate to. I think it’s important. I’m sure Glenn would do just that.

It’s good to hear you say that, because over the years there’ve been bands that have tended to recreate the sound, without deviating from it or trying to progress from it in any way. But obviously, had Glenn Miller lived, he wouldn’t have stood still with a set formula, would he?

No—he did not. In fact, his Air Force band was quite different from the original civilian band. It was more progressive, more developed, more in keeping with the mid–‘forties, you see.

So, you try to think in terms of what he would be doing now as well as what he did then?

Yes. And fortunately for me, the formula has worked; so I guess he was right. When you look into it, you can see his development.

You haven’t ever felt this feeling—you know, this kind of operation has been called a ‘ghost band’—of standing in somebody else’s shoes.

No, I think it’s a very healthy thing. It’s not really a ghost band as such. Because then you can say that General Motors or Ford or the telephone companies that continue to exist are ghost organisations. Or any art form—simply because you use old techniques that have proven themselves. If it stands the test of time—right—you use it. I’m like an executive for this music. Which is all right with me.

Yes, but you can appreciate that there are people who saw you originally as a sort of a trail–blazer for modern jazz and might not be able to reconcile that with your being identified now with something out of the past. There’s presumably no problem in your mind of relating the two.

No, not at all. Besides, I grew up with it; it’s a part of me. I was around when bands were very big. I can relate to that as well as to new jazz.

Can you see this as a possible stepping–stone to maybe eventually having your own band again—to do a library of its own?

No—if I left the Miller organisation and went into something else, it would be something else. Probably a small group again. I doubt very much if I would jump into the idea of a big band. Unless I had that secret formula—a new formula that might work; that’s fine—then you can take it from there. But to try and manufacture something—I would never do that.

You seemed to be trying, to some extent, with that MGM big band you had, to use the clarinet in a different way, as a voice in front of the band.

I did try—right. And the five clarinets together was unique. Of course, it didn’t work; I had to abandon it. I lost a lot of money. The problem is, nobody knows whether a thing will click or not.

Anyway, I hope this will be the forerunner of your making other visits—maybe to do more than just concerts. I suppose you play as many dances as concerts in the States.

We play more dances. Oh, we have an excellent dance band—probably the best in the country.


"Welcome The Return"

It was ten years ago that I came over here as the leader of the Glenn Miller band—but this is the first time that I’ve ever worked Ronnie Scott’s. And I don’t remember if we worked in England with Jazz At The Phil; but I think there were some Union problems at the time, and we couldn’t work it out. So actually this is my first jazz appearance here. It’s kind of overdue—when you think that this is my forty–first year in the business.

I started in ‘39; my first road band was Johnny “Scat” Davis. Others, like Krupa, Barnet, Dorsey followed. Even Ted Fio Rito—Ted decided he wanted to get a good jazz band, and he called most of the players from the Scat Davis and Krupa bands—for instance, Dodo Marmarosa, Jimmy Pupa. But it didn’t last, because Ted really didn’t know enough about Swing music, or jazz—although he gave it a good try. He was a commercial–type piano player himself, but he featured Dodo heavily; he gave him a big build–up, and a lot of latitude—let him play whatever he wanted to play. Then we went on to Barnet; when I say we, it was actually the three of us who went to these different bands together—mvself, Dodo Marmarosa and the trumpet player, Jimmy Pupa. Pete Candoli was another one who played on the same bands.

Barnet had Gil Evans writing at the time, as well as Johnny Mandel and Neal Hefti, who were also members of the band. For a time, they had two bass players—Oscar Pettiford and Chubby Jackson. Tommy Peterson was playing trombone. It was just an amazing group of players in that band; yes, it could definitely be termed a bebop band. Then Johnny Mandel stopped playing piano to concentrate on arranging, and Dodo came in as the pianist. And there again, Charlie Barnet featured both of us.

Charlie Shavers, in fact, was the guy who told me about Bird; I had known Charlie before we worked together on Dorsey’s band. Dodo Marmarosa had also heard about Bird; then we travelled up to Harlem, and we found out Bird was going to sit in that night. Of course, that changed my concept totally. And I think it was sensible of me, in changing to the modern bop concept, to stay with the clarinet. Because if I had stayed with the alto and done the same thing I would have been one of a long line of saxophone players all trying to play like Bird.

I must blow my own horn in some ways—because I remember some of those old acetate records; they wouldn’t last too long, but when I still listen to those that I made, I was gravitating harmonically to a more advanced kind of playing. And the reason for that was: I would listen deliberately to most piano players, especially those who were harmonically developing—like Tatum, Jimmy Jones and Dodo. I liked what I heard them do, and I was trying to translate that to the clarinet. I wasn’t there as far as the articulation was concerned, but then, when I discovered Charlie Parker, that seemed to spell itself out for me.

As for my time with the Miller band, which was eight years—that was a great experience; surprisingly enough, it was a positive musical experience. By working with that band, having the opportunity to rehearse it, and take it all around the world, I listened and became aware of the fact that that’s probably one of the most difficult books in the whole band business to perform—and it sounds easy. It gave me a deeper appreciation of the guys who played in the original Miller band. Number two: I had the chance to go into the files at the Miller office, in the room where they have all the orchestrations. I’d go and find some obscure Bill Finegan arrangements that were done way back—and, my gosh, it was like uncovering a great painting. So that was terrific. In other words, I put up with wading through “In The Mood” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in order to listen to a lot of good music, and to learn from that band.

I found there was a greater musical and technical depth than I’d thought —although I can remember my brother and I deliberately buying, and going absolutely crazy about the ballads that band played, the way the voicing was done—particularly the Finegan charts. Even in my teen years, I was never enthralled with “Little Brown Jug” or “Chattanooga Choo Choo”—that’s the commercial stuff—but I did take great delight listening to those ballads, such as “Indian Summer” and “Skylark”. They were really beautiful arrangements.

So, at the risk of putting the clarinet aside. I took the job for those eight years in the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies. But there was no place to play, anyway, as regards jazz. Only the most popular, top players were making a good living out of jazz —Miles, Dizzy, Stan Getz, Chick Corea, Wes Montgomery, Coltrane—but not too many others were really making a lot of money. Jazz clubs were all gone. I don’t have to tell you about the record business during that time.

But now—it’s tremendous. I just recently played in Los Angeles, in April and again in May—and April was the first time I’d played there in sixteen years. The business was great, and they liked what I was doing; in fact, I got a marvellous review in the Sunday paper in Los Angeles, by Leonard Feather. And I found out there are about fifteen jazz clubs in Los Angeles. It’s picking up pretty good; young people are becoming more and more aware of bop and modern jazz.

I really wanted a chance at a jazz career again. Certainly, the Miller period ws frustrating for me as a player; eight years—all those one–nighters, fifty weeks a year—that was plenty for me. Enough was enough, and I was simply determined to start playing the clarinet again. I sensed, too, that jazz might have a chance to come back. And I had some great support: one of the vice—presidents of ITT—his name is Keith Perkins—organised a little record company, Famous Solos, for kind of a hobby, and he really created work for me for about a year, while I was making the transition; so that helped immensely. Then I also decided to change my equipment—the clarinet and mouthpiece—and I found I felt better about playing after that.

As for my record output in recent years—yes, there was the “Borinquin” album in ‘75; that was done at the Statler Hilton in Buffalo with my group. Also, we have one that’s on Progressive Jazz, called “Like Someone In Love”, with George Duvivier, Ronnie Bedford, Ta1 Farlow and Derek Smith—that’s really a nice album. Recently I had a reunion, at Carmello’s night—club in Los Angeles, with a phenomenal accordion player, Tommy Gumina—we did four albums for Mercury around 1960—it was a real picnic to get back with him. I have an album, “Waterbed” on the Choice label with another fine accordionist, Gordie Fleming, that we made in Canada in ‘77.

Another recent album of mine is “Ten Jazz Etudes For Clarinet And Guitar”—just the two instruments. I wrote the etudes, and Jim Gillis is an excellent guitarist and jazz player, who writes some interesting material also. He accompanied me on guitar here; it’s kind of a Music Minus One type of album, but it’s released through Inner City. Jim uses a bass string on the bottom, instead of the E, and he works it out so it sounds like a bass playing; we’ve gotten a couple of letters asking why we didn’t list the bass player. Really interesting stuff.

Then we have one more album, that we’re trying to sell now, in fact; we have the master–tape. It’s with George Duvivier, Ronnie Bedford and Albert Dailey on piano. And Al Cohn’s son plays guitar—Joe Cohn is a terrific guitar player. As a matter of fact, I understand they’re coming to London in January—Al and his son. You’ll be surprised; his son is tremendous. So anyway, that’s one of my better albums, I think, and we’ll see what happens with it; we have about three labels that are going to consider if it’s worth–while to them.

Having worked with Terry Gibbs for the first time, at Ronnie’s, I would definitely love to record with him. I think it would be a very musical album, and exciting—maybe commercially, you know. And that’s hard to come by; it’s hard to play what you want to play and have it accepted by the public. I’m past the point specially at my age now—of worrying about making any kind of a compromise. Some years ago, I might have been tempted—when you think your life is that important, or your career. Now, I play what I want to play—when I get paid for doing it, that’s a plus, and I’m happy about it.

Many people don’t know that I did three years of studio work, some time ago—all the clarinet background on Route Sixty–Six, a lot of Donna Reed’s shows, a couple of movies, such as Ocean’s Eleven. It was valuable experience—and you accept that. I think it’s good experience for any musician to play everything during the course of his lifetime. It teaches you a great deal of self–discipline. I’m not unhappy about leading the Glenn Miller band, and I’m glad that I played barmitzvahs, Italian and Polish weddings, dances, circus acts, burlesque shows in my career. Every musician should do as much of other things as he can. I’ll quote the great philosopher Doris Day, who said: “It’s not the song you sing—it’s where you sing it.” It’s the only way you can say something musically—really. The bad times as well as the good are an essential part of your musical expression.

The same thing applies to large cities: I hate New York, I really do, and I’m not too fond of London, as a city—but I’m not too fond of cities. But where would we be without them—right? There would be no jazz without London, without New York. Experience it all, when you can.

Playing jazz full–time is a great feeling; I’m really very happy. It’s been a lot of fun at Ronnie’s club; I think business has been quite substantial—so may be I’ll have a chance to come back. I’m surprised that. as late as the place stays open, it still does so well. The reviews have been great, and Ronnie and Pete seem to approve of what we’ve been doing. Things look pretty good.

It’s true that the clarinet has become a neglected jazz instrument, but I’m certain there will be some further development on it. Somewhere, right now, there’s got to be that young fellow who’s woodshedding in his home. It’s definitely going to happen —I’m sure of it.


"The Teaming Of The Titans"

You two were teamed for an engagement at Ronnie’s a year ago. This was a very logical link–up. You have, in fact, kept it going?

Terry: Specially the last three–and–a–half months or so, we’ve been going pretty good.

Buddy: It was almost by accident that we got together, because when Richie Barz of Willard’s office actually booked us at Ronnie Scott’s, he said: “Well, you’ll play independently, and then maybe do a number or two at the end of the set.” But, as you know, it got to be more than just a number or two. After that, wherever we played it seemed to gain momentum—it’s been so successful.

Terry: It’s been positive. We’re playing jazz at places where they don’t have jazz. Like Las Vegas—we went from three weeks in a lounge into a show in the main room, and broke it up, doing what we do. That is, playing nothing but jazz.

So it’s a regular working group that you have now?

Terry: We’re really trying—yeah.

Buddy: Yeah, I think so. Terry’s still working with Steve Allen, I’m doing a lot of music clinics and some independent things, but we’re trying to do as much together as possible, because it’s fun.

Terry: You know, we’re both in the same position: we travel alone sometimes, and say you do well, and you really get a standing ovation, but you’re alone—you really have nobody to share that with. Now, they like what we’re doing, and we can share it with each other; we walk off the stage and we say: “Do you believe that? Wow, wasn’t that great?” Before that, we’d go to our separate rooms, and that was the end of it.

The format now is that you play all the tunes together?

Terry: We didn’t do it here, but at each show we usually try to do one tune as a solo.

Buddy: When we have time, we do our own independent features, yeah.

How do you feel about each other personally?

Buddy: What—him?

Terry: The lowest! I just do it for the money! No—our wives travel with us most of the time, and they get along well. Which is great.

Buddy: That’s also unusual.

Terry: It’s very important, believe it or not—our whole thing could be broken up if the two girls didn’t get along. We’ve been having a lot of fun. We spent a lot of time with the families in Las Vegas; Buddy’s son was there, and then my kids came up—it was great.

Buddy: I think Terry and I are compatible too because we both have stamina and energy left, at our advanced ages . . .well, I’m speaking for myself . . .

Terry: I wish you would!

Buddy: And the technique aspect—we both have substantial technique. We work off each other on a lot of the stuff—and it seems to work.

But it might have been thought that, with each of you being a virtuoso on his instrument, you could almost cancel one another out.

Terry: No, it works just the other way. In fact, we always root for each other, and when we play fours now, compared to when we started, we listen to each other more. If you transcribed it, it would sound like one instrument. We make up a lot of arrangements as we go along—because we have not had a chance yet to sit down and rehearse.

Buddy: And really work anything out—no. Our next step really is to record—that we must do. We have a lot of material and things now that we can use. It’s an old format, I know—clarinet and vibes was started by Benny and Lionel forty-five years ago. Yet last week a little girl said to us: “That’s really an unusual sound, clarinet and vibes.” Well, to young listeners it is.

Terry: That’s right. So it’s a new sound; we want those young listeners too. And to the older listeners—they don’t compare us to Benny and Lionel, because we don’t sound like them, to start with.

Buddy: No, they can’t compare us to Benny and Lionel at all—because Benny’s got thirty-two million dollars, and Lionel has . . . !

Terry: Seriously—we do have a lot of fun. And one thing you find when two people are on stage is: everybody wants to grab the mike. We have to shove it to each other half the time. All that’s very silly—if you let certain things interfere with the music, you’ll never have a good thing, ever. And we get along offstage, which is very good. Buddy and I just spent one week in Copenhagen, where we played a great club. We had a terrific rhythm section—Kenny Drew on piano, Ed Thigpen on drums, and Mads Vindig on bass. What a bass player he is! We looked forward to that job every one of the six days we were there. We should have recorded there, every night—that would have made a real good record date.

Buddy: Yeah, it should have been recorded. Have you heard Mads Vindig? Oh, gosh, he’s fantastic—he’s great. They’re turning out bass players in Copenhagen like mad, aren’t they?


"Clarinet Discussion"

As a clarinet devotee, I was pleased, Buddy, to hear that you and John were making another album together. How did this one work out?

Buddy De Franco: Fine. We always get along pretty well. We were both kind of tired at the time, but that was no problem. As far as playing, it doesn’t really matter if you’re tired you seem to get the energy from somewhere. I know that many times you go on the stage and you think you’ll never make it and it comes out. Sometimes better than when you’ve had plenty of sleep.

Yes, it arrives. Was this somewhat different from the one you did before more freewheeling, perhaps?

De Franco: No, it’s more of the same, I think. Well, we had a fair amount of success with that first one; so, whenever you’re fairly successful with one, you do one like it. The only thing is: the selections are a little different, and... maybe there’s a little more freedom on it. What do you think, John?

John Denman: There’s a little more Latin—type music in this one.

De Franco: More original stuff too; before, we did more songs that everyone is fairly familiar with.

Did you include anything of a classical nature?

De Franco: Well I’ve gotten away from classical music mainly because I can’t play it.

Denman: Don’t take any notice when he says he can’t play it! Actually, the fugue that I wrote after Bach the first time was very, very difficult for both the clarinets. Nobody builds the kind of technique Buddy has without playing straight first. This time we played the theme from the “Raymonde Overture”, which somebody stole and called “Hush—a—bye”, in a fugal treatment I thought it would be nice to have something of that nature in there.

It makes for variety, I’m sure. Who was on the session with you?

Denman: On piano we had Jeff Haskell, who is Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Arizona he flew over specially and we had Kenny Baldock on bass, Don Lawson on drums. So it’s fairly international, I suppose. I’m not sure where I am—I don’t belong anywhere any more! I speak either language.

You two have had a general playing and friendly relationship for some time, haven’t you?

De Franco: Oh, my gosh, yeah. The first time we were scheduled to meet, though, poor John wound up in the hospital. What year was that?

Denman: That was 1976. We were supposed to be meeting at the Clarinet Clinic in Denver, where Buddy was doing the jazz part of it, and I was, if you like, to have represented Great Britain as a legit clarinettist. I went to Tucson, Arizona principally to find somewhere to live, buy a car and that sort of thing, but I got ill and was put into hospital. Which was where I met my wife Paula, actually she was a volunteer nurse. I was so frustrated by the whole thing I played a concert in a wheelchair, with Paula playing electric piano.

De Franco: So you got her instead of me: a wise choice.

Presumably, you’d say your association has been of mutual benefit, musically?

De Franco: I like to think so I hope so. Well, I think we can play off one another, feed off one another, influence one another. John has a remarkable command of the clarinet. I’m one of those guys, as you know... if a jazz artist plays good jazz but has a limited technique, I appreciate what he plays but it’s only half the picture. I like to hear the instrument played to the full. Sometimes I’ve been criticised, and so have some of the best players that I’ve heard, for “too much technique”. That’s a mystery to me—that’s like saying someone’s too healthy! I don’t understand that.

Denman: You know, one of our concerns when we play is that we play too many notes. Buddy’s always saying to me: “Don’t use so many notes!” And it’s sometimes difficult to hold back if you get excited, because when you do, it hopefully goes straight to the fingers.

De Franco: Then people accuse you of “showing off’. What else is it? You certainly wouldn’t play in a room by yourself, without anybody saying: “Hey yeah!” Right? Part of any performance is to show off to show what you can do. If you’re not going to show what you can do, forget it.

Well, it’s like a conversation. When you’re having a conversation, you bring a lot of different things in, because it makes it interesting.

De Franco: That’s right. You’re not just going to lay back and sleep. You do what you do.

Denman: But since the days when I started copying him from those little yellow 78s, like “Buddy’s Blues”, I’ve heard Buddy change his harmonic approach.

I’d like to hear what Buddy says about this. Do you agree with what John says about your harmonic approach having changed? Has this been a conscious thing with you?

De Franco: How can I put this? It’s an unconscious/conscious thing there’s a double meaning behind it. In other words, it was kind of like when I wanted to play Bach on the clarinet right before I did, and right before I heard Charlie Parker, there was a big empty space there I wanted to fill. I knew it was there, and I knew somewhere along the way I was going to find it. When I heard Bird, I said: “Yeah that articulation’s what I want. That’s what I want to do.” Harmonically, it’s been that thing; I’ve always gravitated toward little different harmonic structures, and it just grows I find more to do. And the more I change, the more I find. Which makes it interesting it’s endless.

Denman: It does. I must say, until we started doing things together a few years ago, I’d been copying you. There were a number of licks that would come out like Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Buddy De France. But now that you’ve got me going with all these added notes, extensions, substitutions and things, my style’s changing in the same way, I think.

De Franco: It has to change.

Denman: Instead of going up and down all the time.

De Franco: Yeah, and that’s another important thing too. All clarinet players that I can think of have a tendency to spell out the chords when they play or rely on licks. We all do I’m not criticising anyone. The trick is to get away from that ostensible spelling–out. Okay the only way you can do that is by developing that harmonic knowledge to the point where the knowledge is unconscious, and it’s like the brake pedal and the gas pedal in an automobile it’s automatic; you can see the red light or the green light, you know what to do and it just happens.

Denman: That’ll be the day—I’ll be very happy when that happens to me.

De Franco: So that’s what we strive for that’s when you’re playing really spontaneous, unedited jazz. Unedited, but highly developed. We all try to do that; I’m not saying we do it all the time—I certainly don’t, but that’s what I try to go for. Even though you’re harmonically developed, and becoming more, say, sophisticated, you try not to make it an obvious process.

Denman: What you’re saying is in keeping with what I think about this art form which is peculiar to America it started there. With Americans you find that this spontaneity does exist. Now, you spend a lot of time in Japan, I know how do you get on when you go there? Japanese people are not given to doing things by instinct they’re very disciplined people.

De Franco: Well, in Japan I met three young clarinettists who have all of my albums and all of my solos transcribed. During a concert intermission they came to me and said: “This is your ‘Lady Be Good’ you played this in 1950; Sonny Clark was on the piano...” and they whipped out ten pages of manuscript.

One young fellow says: “Will you play this?” I looked at it, and I said: “I can’t play that!” And they couldn’t figure it out; “Now why can’t you play that? That’s yours. You played that, didn’t you?” I said: “But I can’t play it now I can’t read it.” As I explained to them, I don’t think there’s a jazz player that I know who can read their own solos on sight. You can’t.

It’s the same situation as having a successful solo on a recording: everybody remembers it and when you play live they expect you to reproduce it note for note but you don’t.

De Franco: You don’t—you really shouldn’t. It wouldn’t be really good jazz. That’s why I used to like Artie Shaw—he was one of the few fluent players. I mean, he had his licks; we know that I—used to copy them but he could play with such fluency. I just loved the way he played.

Denman: He played a lot of high notes too.

De Franco: Oh, yeah. Did you know this? Somebody just told me that he put a piece of a wood reed inside of his mouthpiece, right past the baffle but he used a plastic reed.

Denman: Did he? He got up there on a plastic reed? That’s unbelievable, because usually they don’t vibrate too well. Well, they did it with saxophones—with the Roc mouthpiece. You remember those, with the tone chambers inside at the top of the baffle? There are all kinds of saxophone tone chambers, but with the clarinet it’s always been the opposite way. With the saxophone you nick something out; with the clarinet you fill it in. Maybe that’s altered.

De Franco: Kenny Daverne insisted he did that because he got high notes better.

Denman: Sometimes it’s a job to get high notes in some places you play even some recording studios because of a dead atmosphere.

De Franco: Not only that, there’s the weather. If you have damp weather, the reed is going to get waterlogged immediately, and you’re not going to get anything above an A. As soon as that reed gets waterlogged, you’re finished.

Denman: Well, you can get it, but you wouldn’t want to keep trying, say, on a record.

De Franco: You hurt your lip too.

This surely is a hazard travelling as much as you do, in so many different climates.

De Franco: Especially with a clarinet because you never know what the clarinet will do. You simply never know. There’s a famous story about Johnny Mince, talking to his clarinet after a job. he said: “Okay after forty years, you win! You win okay.”

Incidentally, Buddy you did that album of your own etudes with just a guitar; have you done anything else like that?

De Franco: No, I haven’t. What I did more recently is two albums with Martin Taylor as part of the rhythm section. I think he’s one of the best I’ve ever heard any time. What I love about his playing: it’s very modern and very clean he’s a marvellous technician but he has a flair of Django, which he may have gotten through working a lot with Stephane. That funny little bit of Django he has in him is great and I think it will set him apart from most other guitar players.

Denman: He’s got the same sort of drive.

De Franco: He does it all. Working with him is not a matter of him being part of my group or me being part of his it’s a collaboration, like John and I, or Terry Gibbs and myself. It’s a mutual thing. Sometimes the billing puts my name first, but I don’t like that.

How about your reunion album with Oscar Peterson—that went very well, didn’t it?

De Franco: It was a very happy reunion. It was Joe Pass, Niels Pederson, Martin Drew, Oscar and myself. I’m really happy to have it out, because I hadn’t seen Oscar in so long, and the way our lives pass each other, I feel that may be the last chance for us to work together you never know. And very few pianists play behind a clarinet like Oscar he’s exceptional, besides being a great, great artist. He complained of having some problems with arthritis and you’d never know, listening to that album.

Denman: It’s so nice to have a rhythm section that you can just ride along with, and you don’t have to attend to the time as well as the changes of what you’re playing. I imagine that’s the thing about playing with Oscar his time is so great, apart from anything else.

De Franco: And there’s a certain amount of energy that emanates between Oscar and Niels you can feel that. And it seems like you’re playing to an audience of twenty thousand even though you’re alone in the studio. You know what I mean? Yes, there’s that same excitement.

As regards your work together have you encountered some surprise that a major jazz soloist and a major classical soloist could join forces so effectively?

Denman: Well, there was a review of the first album that suggested Buddy played most of the jazz, and that most of the music was written.

De Franco: Totally wrong—John played as much jazz as I did. Maybe more, because he’s bigger!

Denman: And it was just lead–sheets, as was the second one. But it’s a funny thing you get that label. If you’re a legit player, you can’t play jazz that’s it.

De Franco: I’ve got a label that’s lasted forty–seven years. That’s the description of my playing as being cold—frigid. I’ve read this many times. One particular writer started that off years ago, and it’s stuck. And even when I’m interviewed by some young guy or girl for radio or a paper, and they read up on me, the first thing they say is: “What do you think about this attitude to your playing being so cold?”

I think Lee Konitz has suffered the same way.

Denman: It’s possible to say that, from the way Konitz plays melodies, but the organisation of his music is certainly not cold. The way he plays is cool, rather than cold it’s a style. A lot of people play like that, but Buddy doesn’t. I don’t think his playing is cold at all.

De Franco: That just stayed with me, somehow. I’m past the point of worrying about it. At my age you don’t worry about too much, except staying alive!




Terry: We did a television show—the man said it was the best show he did. The whole tour’s been very successful for us; we’ve got standing ovations everywhere we played. Many people have said: “That should have happened thirty years ago.” But I suppose timing is what it’s all about—we got together at the right time in our lives.

It can be said that both of you play instruments that don’t blanket the jazz scene. Do you think that, with you out in the arena performing these days . . .

Buddy: Away from the Glenn Miller band? Yes, and the Steve Allen Show . . .and getting to the people, this is liable to inspire young musicians to take up these instruments?

Buddy: Oh, I’ve seen more clarinets, I know, in the past two years. Putte Wickman in Sweden has been popular for a long time, but he’s getting stronger as a clarinettist; Rolf Kuhn is playing and recording again. And we’ve got Ronnie Odrich; we’ve got Eddie Daniels in New York—he’s a marvellous player. So there are a lot of new clarinet players, and a lot of young people in schools now that are finally playing jazz on the clarinet. Including one young lady from one of the schools—I did a clinic, and she played pretty darn good jazz clarinet.

I’ve been pleased to see that two great alto players, Art Pepper and Phil Woods, have been using the clarinet lately.

Buddy: I knew about Art, but I didn’t know Phil was. Good for him—that’s great. If he starts playing it like he does the alto, I’ll break his fingers! I’m anxious to hear him, because he’s such a marvellous player. I’m sure anything Phil picks up he plays great; he’s one of the most prolific jazz players I can think of.

Terry: I don’t think he would attempt to play anything he couldn’t play well. I’ve always loved the clarinet. When you play with other clarinet players, most of them play like Benny Goodman; so, as a vibe player, you have to underplay the clarinet a lot. But I’ve never enjoyed playing with a clarinet as much as I do now.

Buddy: Well, it might get popular again. I hope so.

Terry: We’ll be ninety years old, and be on the road!

Buddy: I wouldn’t mind, as long as we’ve got the stamina.

What do you think about the state of the vibes today, Terry?

Terry: I like the state of California better! I’ll tell you what , . . there’s a lot of vibe players who play with four mallets. Now, I’m not referring to Gary Burton, because he is a genius. But with a lot of four–mallet players, it’s almost like they’re cheating, in a way—they can play a lot of different chords, and it can be wrong, but it can sound like passing tones. I’d like to take two of those mallets away from some of them, and ask them to play a line—and see if they can do it.

Buddy: It’s a lot like the piano players that don’t use the left hand too much.

Terry: That’s right. To me, jazz is instant composing—making up songs. Charlie Parker never played but one note at a time. When they use the four mallets, they get away with a lot sometimes. Not Gary, Mike Mainieri or Victor Feldman—they can do both, brilliantly. A lot of them, though, should learn how to play with two mallets also, besides the four mallets. Well, it used to be just the opposite—guys who played with two couldn’t play with four—couldn’t chord for you. Now it’s getting to be where they pick up four mallets, and seem to have a lot of things going on—but it can be all really nothing. They’ll play these passing tones till they hit one that sounds right—if they ever do. But there’s a lot of good vibe players around; a lot of young kids are playing the instrument well.





Copyright © 1970, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.