From "king" of the swing instruments, the clarinet was not well suited to bebop, due to its temperamental nature.
- NPR Obituary on Buddy DeFranco
As a fan of both periods or eras, I’ve always wondered why the clarinet, which was such a dominant instrument during the Swing Era - think Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Woody Herman - virtually vanished as a primary instrument during the Bebop period that followed.
Of course, the exception to this generalization was Buddy DeFranco who during his thankfully long career [1923-2014], focused on clarinet and played brilliant bebop-inflected solos on it that certainly rivaled those of the preferred saxophone, trumpet and trombone front line instruments used in Bop.
And it was while doing research for a forthcoming project on Italians in Jazz in A Life in the Golden Age of Jazz: A Biography of Buddy DeFranco by Fabrice Zammarachi and Sylvie Mas  that I came across some possible explanations for the relative disappearance of the clarinet in Bebop in “The Editor’s Foreword” by Malcolm S. Harris of Parkside Publications.
“In 1950, when I was just seven years old, my parents decided that I should follow in the footsteps of their favorite musician, Benny Goodman. An old tin clarinet was procured and lessons were begun. Although my teacher was strictly a classical musician, I continued listening to the Benny Goodman records which were always playing in our home. I can hum just about every bar of the King of Swing's famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert. One of the most vivid memories from my childhood is hustling through a crowd with my father after a BG concert at the Balboa Bowl in San Diego, so we could both get Benny's autograph. I still treasure it.
When I was about ten years old, I started to realize that the jazz coming from the records played on the old Magnavox in our living room was not exactly the "state of the art." I began hearing a different style of jazz on the radio and in the listening booth at the local record store where I loved to hang out after school. My tastes in music began to drift away from my parents' music to the jazz of my own generation. Jazz was obviously changing - the big bands had faded away and the Bebop combos reigned supreme. The music was more complex and more challenging for both the musician and the listener. I took pleasure in hearing something new every time I replayed a recording.
But I soon realized that most of the horn stars of this new music were trumpet and saxophone players. Starting in the late 1940's, the clarinet had begun to fade as a jazz instrument. I wondered why this was happening. Jazz critics and historians have advanced many different theories to explain the clarinet's fall from popularity as Bebop came along. Some suggested that the clarinet fell out of favor because it was so closely associated with the sounds of Swing and Dixieland that the new musicians "shunned" the clarinet as a means of distancing themselves from the older styles.
Many believed that it was due to the fact that the clarinet simply could not generate enough volume to compete with instruments made of brass.
Others correctly noted that the clarinet is so much more difficult to play than the saxophone that most clarinetists simply could not keep pace with the frenetic succession of notes which the bebop vocabulary demanded. As Woody Herman once noted, "It's as difficult as digging ditches!"
All of those theories are well-founded, but the theory I like the best is the one advanced by jazz commentator Brian Case in his liner notes to the 1964 DeFranco album Blues Bag: he opined that the main reason for the shortage of bebop clarinetists was that Buddy DeFranco was so damned good at it that he just scared everyone else away! Although his theory might have been advanced in jest, it may in fact be the best explanation for the scarcity of clarinetists in modern jazz. No clarinetist coming on the scene in the late 1940s could have been foolish enough to believe that he might ever challenge Buddy's dazzling command of the instrument. It must have been easier to just "sell out" and become another saxophone player!
It is certainly ironic that Buddy's unrivalled brilliance may have been the cause for the clarinet's demise in jazz. But this same phenomenon also explains why Buddy has always been held in such high esteem by all jazz musicians. They respect the fact that, despite the waning popularity of his instrument in jazz, Buddy remained consistently determined and loyal to his unforgiving mistress, resisting the temptation to go down the easier path of becoming just another saxophonist.
I discovered Buddy's music as a young teenager and he has been my favorite clarinetist ever since. Over the years I think I have bought just about every recording he made. The front and rear endpapers in this book show a chronological progression of most (but certainly not all) of his prolific recordings, from 1949 to the present.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s it seemed that Buddy had vanished from the face of the earth. In some respects, that was true! From 1966 to 1974, he was living on a band bus, directing the Glenn Miller Orchestra, shepherding the GMO through more than 2400 one-night stands (no kidding!), at the rate of six nights per week, 50 weeks per year! While this was probably not his preferred activity, it enabled him to make a good living and stay active in the music business during a moribund period in the history of jazz. Thankfully, as jazz underwent a renaissance in the late 1970's, Buddy's career as a straight-ahead bebop soloist blossomed anew, thus allowing a new generation to appreciate his artistry.
I finally had the opportunity to meet Buddy and hear him play in person at the 1988 meeting of the International Clarinet Society, held at the University of Washington in Seattle. The event was organized by another great jazz clarinetist, my good friend Bill Smith, who called me one evening to ask a favor: "Would you mind being Buddy DeFranco's host and chauffeur for the weekend?" Mind? Needless to say, I jumped at this chance to hang out with my boyhood idol and have had the pleasure of repeating that experience during Buddy's subsequent visits to Seattle and to Jazz Port Townsend, the best jazz festival on the West Coast! In the process, I have discovered that my clarinet hero is not only a remarkable musician but also a delightful gentleman and a walking encyclopedia of jazz history. You are about to discover why his life deserves such a comprehensive biography.
Here is a man who began making a living as a musician at age 12, helping his blind father support a poor family in South Philadelphia during the depths of the Depression; played for years on the road while still a teenager with the best big bands of the Swing Era; was one of the central figures in the beginnings of Bebop in New York during the 1940s; led his own big band in 1951-52 and later directed several others, including those of Glenn Miller, Woody Herman and Count Basie; consistently fought for racial integration in the jazz world; formed one of the most successful jazz quartets of the early 1950's with Kenny Drew, Eugene Wright and Art Blakey ("I was the only white guy in the Buddy DeFranco Quartet!"); traveled the world with the fabled Jazz at the Philharmonic tours organized by Norman Granz; spent several years during the doldrums of jazz working as one of Hollywood's best studio musicians; and, along the way, won every conceivable poll for decades as the best clarinetist in jazz! With the possible exception of Benny Carter, I cannot think of another man alive today who has witnessed more of the history of jazz than Buddy DeFranco.
Moreover, lean think of no jazz musician, past or present, who has continued to play his music so well for such a long period of time. Although Buddy will mark his 80th birthday in 2003, his playing still displays all of the same characteristics that made him great 60 years ago: his rhythm, pitch and harmony are still "right in the pocket"; his knowledge of the jazz repertoire is universal; his virtuosic command of his unforgiving instrument remains the envy of every jazz and classical clarinetist; never content to rest on his laurels, he continues to play with new partners, search for new challenges and play new material; and he still travels all over the world to give concerts and educational workshops. As I write these notes he is - at age 78 - on a two week tour, playing in California, Minnesota and Brazil!
This book is the result of a happy coincidence. One night I was cruising the internet and made one of my periodic checks of Buddy's website (check it out!). I saw a notice that a French clarinetist named Fabrice Zammarchi and his wife Sylvie Mas had written a biography of Buddy, but could not find a publisher. I was skeptical about the whole idea, finding it hard to believe that someone would be able to gather all the details of Buddy's story from so far away. But I sent Fabrice and Sylvie an e-mail telling them I might be interested. Imagine my surprise when i received a huge manuscript in the mail, complete with about 300 photographs which had been meticulously gathered from all over the world. Although I could barely wade through the French manuscript, I immediately recognized that this was a book that had to be published. I was also pleased to see that the project obviously had Buddy's blessing, since it was based on extensive interviews granted by him over a period of many years.
As the manuscript was being translated, I had a wonderful time rounding up many additional photos from that special cadre of photographers who make "jazz photography" their specialty. I also want to thank Buddy's wife, Joyce DeFranco, a delightful and remarkable lady who has played such an important role in Buddy's recent career, for giving many hours of her time to help make this book accurate and complete.
This project has been a labor of love by a trio of Buddy's most ardent fans. We hope the final product is worthy of the great artist whose story it tells. Buddy, this book is dedicated to you and your lifetime of service to jazz. We hope that legacy continues to grow for many more years. Keep Swinging!”
Malcolm S. Harris
Seattle, December, 2001
Order information about Buddy’s bio can be located here.
© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.