Tag Archives: Buddy DeFranco

On Buddy DeFranco’s 89th Birthday, a 1999 Downbeat article, plus Interview

Clarinet maestro Buddy DeFranco turns 89 today. I had the honor of writing about him during the latter ’90s, once for a publicity bio for a Concord date with pianist Dave McKenna and guitarist Joe Cohn, and subsequently for a DownBeat Profile. I’m appending below the final draft of the article and the interview that I conducted  for it. Unfortunately, I don’t have a digital copy of our interview for the publicity bio.

Buddy DeFranco:

Named for a pope, a king and the supreme artist-scientist of the Renaissance, the clarinetist Boniface Ferdinand Leonardo “Buddy” DeFranco came to maturity during the golden age of jazz.  Now 76, he’s the supreme jazz virtuoso of his instrument, an innovator who defies category — and time.

“I had about six careers during the last 60 years,” the 20-time Downbeat Poll winner reflects.  “Periodically I’ll envelop a new concept on the clarinet, stay with that for a while, almost discarding what I was doing before, though not quite.  I gradually wound up with a sensible mixture combining whatever new thing I was doing with my earlier way of playing; that is, the idea of swing and a fundamental approach, especially in stating a melody.”  Nurtured on the driving arpeggiations of Benny Goodman and the sophisticated line of Artie Shaw, DeFranco viewed them through a lens cut and polished by Charlie Parker’s liquid phrasing and harmonic extensions, forging a unique sound and approach.  Known as the first bebop clarinet player, he’s no ideologue about vocabulary.  “I had a wide range of experience in all facets of music,” DeFranco remarks, “and my playing reflects the gamut.  We brain-pick as many people as we can, and make our own voice from what we’ve heard and studied.”

DeFranco draws on resources garnered through six decades on the road in inspired dialogue with piano wizard Dave McKenna and guitarist Joe Cohn on “Do Nothing Til You Hear From Us” (Concord), a follow-up to the Grammy-nominated 1997 DeFranco-McKenna duo “You Must Believe in Swing.”  On both recordings he takes chances, playing crisply executed lines with impeccable intonation, unfettered imagination and a fiery edge, never losing the arc of conversation.  In short, he conjures the kind of “unedited” improvisations that have been his goal from the very beginning.

Raised in south Philadelphia, DeFranco began playing clarinet at 8, after several years of ear instruction on mandolin from his father, a blind man who played guitar and earned his living as a piano tuner.  “Then I wanted to play saxophone,” he continues.  “My Dad knew many good musicians, who suggested I start clarinet first, and he took the advice and bought me one for $25, which was a lot of money — our family was very poor.  I attended Mastbaum School of Music, a vocational school with a great music course, where I got my basic training and developed my clarinet skills.  I once heard Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti play at a music store in my neighborhood, and I was overwhelmed by records like Django Reinhardt’s ‘Nuages’ and Art Tatum’s ‘Elegie’ and ‘Yesterdays.’  My Dad and uncle loved the big bands, and they bought every record they could by Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Chick Webb, and took us to hear them.  That’s how I started getting interested in the idea of jazz.

“I decided to play jazz clarinet after listening to Johnny Mince with Tommy Dorsey.  My brother, Leonard, had a good ear, and he and a friend took big band arrangements from the records, like Tommy Dorsey’s ‘Marie’ and ‘Don’t Be That Way,’ and Artie Shaw’s ‘Begin the Beguine.’  When I was 13 we organized a big swing band, which played in a South Philadelphia ballroom every Sunday night.  We also had a kiddie band on a Sunday morning children’s hour.  South Philadelphia had an Italian section, a Jewish section and a Black section — we were all friends.  It was very common for kids of all the races to go to somebody’s basement and jam.  There were two jam clubs, one owned by Billy Kretchmer, a terrific jazz clarinet player, and the Downbeat, owned by Nat Segal.  As teenagers, we’d sneak into either club and hear Charlie Christian and Art Tatum and Coleman Hawkins, or guys from Benny Goodman’s band coming from the Earle Theater to sit in.  Once in a while on slow nights Billy Kretchmer allowed us to play with the rhythm section he had there.

“Hearing Benny Goodman capped the whole idea of jazz playing — the feeling, the swing idea on clarinet, plus his great technique.  Then I heard Artie Shaw, who was way ahead of his time harmonically, and had the technique and ability to express what he wanted without editing, which is what I expect from someone who handles the clarinet.  His fluency was like a fine violinist; he could navigate all the chord progressions and make them flow.  I liked Buster Bailey, who could have been a great symphony clarinetist, except that he was black, so he couldn’t get a break.  I listened to him because of the purity of his tone and his execution, whereas many other noted clarinetists then were slightly too primitive in their approach to suit me.  I had the so-called “legitimate” background, which is the only way you can play the clarinet correctly.  There’s still a prevalent notion that the player who is too proficient doesn’t play good jazz.  I disagree with that.”

After graduating from Mastbaum in 1939, DeFranco embarked on a field work apprenticeship in elite dance bands, playing challenging music day-in and day-out for a decade.  While touring with Charlie Barnet’s crackerjack unit around 1943, he heard Charlie Parker’s seminal recordings with Jay McShann.  Only 20 years old, he’d already spent four years with trumpeter Johnny “Scat” Davis (“Hooray For Hollywood”) and Gene Krupa.  With Krupa he met Roy Eldridge, then Krupa’s featured soloist, who DeFranco regards as “at the time probably head and shoulders over any other trumpet player.  He was a musician’s musician, a creative player with feeling and emotion.  He was a good influence, and I gleaned a lot from him.

“I have enough ego to consider that I was gravitating harmonically towards a different way of playing at the same time Dizzy Gillespie was.  I was led by Artie Shaw, while Dizzy was moving to a more modern approach — it wasn’t bebop — out of the Roy Eldridge style, as you can tell from his records then.  It wasn’t until Bird came along that both Dizzy and I said, ‘He wrote the new study book; this is it.’  No horn player at that time used as many alternate chords or that kind of articulation.  I decided to play the clarinet like Bird articulated on the sax.  It wasn’t so easy to imitate Artie Shaw, and even more difficult to copy Bird, because the clarinet is such a hard instrument to play.  Bird was the first almost completely unedited modern jazz player; he had a great embrochure and perfect fingers.  I align Art Tatum with Bird in that regard.  People used to think that he was contrived, but he wasn’t.  If you hear all his different versions of the same song, you realize that Art Tatum had the most flexibility and was more unedited than anyone of his time.  He and Charlie Parker were the best, on a genius level.  From that point on, we talk about all the other guys who are really good.”

DeFranco’s solo on “Opus One” during the first of three tumultuous stints with Tommy Dorsey led to a Downbeat award in 1945.  “Dorsey was a strict disciplinarian, but one of the greatest musicians ever, possibly the best trombonist I’ve heard,” DeFranco says.  “He was unequaled at playing even a simple melody and making it meaningful, which almost every musician will tell you is the most difficult thing to do.  Technique is something else.  Practice enough and you’ll get a technique.  I learned the feeling of playing a melody and playing long phrases from Tommy Dorsey.”

In 1947 he played with Boyd Raeburn’s adventurous orchestra.  “It was one of the first outside bands I ever heard,” DeFranco recalls.  “It was intellectually unbelievable, like going to a conservatory.  You could play exactly the way you wanted and the writers could write any way they wanted.  We played off-the-wall, space charts by George Handy and Johnny Richards, and a couple by Bob Graettinger; a very difficult, technically challenging library which took great skill to play.  We could empty a room in two minutes.  Announcers used to say, ‘From the Planet Mars, here’s Boyd Raeburn.’”

DeFranco settled in New York in 1948, and joined the 52nd Street mix.  “I played in sessions at the Royal Roost and the Clique Club before it was Birdland.  Once I worked at the Clique with the George Shearing Trio, where Sarah Vaughan was the headliner, opposite the Oscar Pettiford All-Stars, which included Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Kai Winding, J.J. Johnson, Dexter Gordon, Lucky Thompson, Max Roach and Bud Powell.  George Shearing got me a New York union card and a police card, which you needed in those days.  So I got a chance to hear and work with these guys in the very beginning.  In fact, I had Bud Powell and Max Roach in my group for a while.  When Bud was straight and really playing well, nobody could touch him.  It was dazzling.  But when he was strung out or something, he’d get evil.  You’d suffer for a whole set.  Sometimes he’d play the bridge twice so he could throw you off.  You’d shift with Bud’s emotions.

“By then I was fairly well-known.  I’d started winning polls, and was picked to do Metronome All-Star dates, which is when I really got to know Bird, and we became friends.  We hung out together quite a bit.  He was very gregarious and always gracious; he’d talk about philosophies and attitudes toward life.  He seemed to read people quite well, and he was knowledgeable about a lot of different things.  I remember once he told me how many muscles in your face it takes to smile, how many it takes to frown — things out of the blue.  Charlie Parker invented the modern concept of playing; I was there when it happened.  There’s something of his influence in all jazz music today, which cannot be said of any other jazz player.  All the guys that got well-known afterward branched off from Bird, but we all live in Bird’s shadow.”

DeFranco’s career was taking off.  After several modernist sides with big band and sextet for Capitol in 1949, he joined the Count Basie Octet in 1950-51.  “Working with them was an education in the idea of swing,” DeFranco emphasizes.  “I’d never realized how much Bill Basie influenced the sound of the band from the piano.  I became more relaxed, more cognizant of a time feeling.”  DeFranco had met Norman Granz by this time, and went out periodically on Jazz at the Philharmonic.  In 1951, a nadir for big bands, he formed his own, following the path of idols Goodman and Shaw — it dissolved in under a year.  During the rest of the ’50s he recorded prolifically for Granz, including numerous dates with Oscar Peterson and documents of a touring quartet between 1952 and 1955 comprising pianists Kenny Drew and Sonny Clark, bassists Gene Wright, and drummers Art Blakey and Bobby White.

“I learned more about the idea of rhythm and swing with Art Blakey than any other drummer in my career,” DeFranco states.  “Sometimes when I was really tired and whipped (we were on the road a lot; the band was pretty hot at that time), I’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t think I can play tonight.’  And Art would say, ‘I’ll make you play.’  He meant that.  He had so much energy and steam and feeling, that we would burn, as the saying goes.  Sometimes we’d get static from the ‘civilians’ about having a mixed group; I was the only white guy with three black guys.  Other than that, we had a great time together; we had a terrific relationship.

“The only thing I can say about Black and White is that during those days the black bands had a swing feeling that gripped you, you felt it in your hips, in the depth of your emotions.  The white bands were maybe a little more polished; they’d try to simulate that swing, but never really got it.  Not to belittle the white bands; it’s a simple fact of life.  Tommy Dorsey was aware of that, and once in a while he’d say, ‘We don’t have a swing band; if you want one, go listen to Count Basie and absorb what he does — that’s a swing band.’  I had an affinity with the black bands, because within the depth of my organism, I knew that was the beat.  That’s the feeling I liked, and that’s the feeling I’ve always tried to impart when I play.”

DeFranco’s interaction with Parker, Basie and Blakey helped him come into his mature sound, a process enhanced by rigorous self-examination.  “I’m from humble circumstances,” DeFranco says, “I was riddled with insecurities; my only security was my playing.  When that was satisfactory, I felt more secure.  When it came time for me to get on stage and perform and emcee on the microphone, it was painful.  I learned of Dr. Wilhelm Reich through Jack Eagle, a trumpet player, and decided that when I was in New York City for any length of time, I would look up a Reichian therapist, which I did.  Frankly, both therapies — Reich and Blakey — brought out in me something that was lacking in my playing and demeanor.”

As DeFranco blossomed, the bebop business withered, and he moved to California in search of work.  He led a succession of cream-of-the-crop combos and worked in studio orchestras led by Nelson Riddle.  In 1956, Norman Granz offered DeFranco the ultimate improvitorial challenge, pairing him with Art Tatum for a recording.  “Tatum made me feel at ease, even though it was very difficult to work with him because he had a chord progression every two beats,” DeFranco laughs.  “Keys didn’t matter to him.  He played through everything; even when you soloed, you accompanied Art Tatum.  It was my task to try to keep up with him, and occasionally, when I did, I was gratified.  It was fun to him.  Even the highly technical things were kind of a game, and he’d show off.  Now, showing off is part of playing jazz.  If you play all the jazz in the world in your room and nobody hears it, what does it mean?  On the stage you show what you can do.  A lot of people scoff at that.  They said, ‘Well, Art Tatum is just trying to show everybody his technique.’  Well, of course he was!  It was his inner voice.”

Accessing his own inner voice is the quest that’s sustained DeFranco through good times and bad.  A quixotic project with Polytones, a quartet with accordionist Tommy Gumina that “focused on polychordal music which we learned from the old masters — Prokofiev, Shostakovich and the movie writers, like David Raksin,” was a creative peak and a financial disaster.  DeFranco led the Glenn Miller Orchestra from 1966 to 1974, and even stopped playing by around 1970.  He resumed his jazz career in 1975, and he’s maintained a dual track of working steadily with small units and presenting numerous clinics, many in conjunction with Yamaha, his clarinet-maker.  He recently published “Hand In Hand With Hanon,” an acclaimed study book for woodwind players.

Our third conversation finds DeFranco off the road from a 10-day Swedish tour with clarinetist Putte Wickman, followed by four days at Hilton Head, S.C. with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, a frequent partner of the last two decades.  “Over the years people have accused me (and it’s true) that I take my music — or myself — too seriously,” DeFranco confesses.  “With your own group, there’s a certain tension because everyone has a critical eye on what you’re doing.  Terry is funny and clever, and the attitude — not the music — is lighter.  The sound alone brings up the Benny Goodman-Lionel Hampton connotation, and we manage to play pretty much what we want when we solo.

“All the players who contributed to the idea of jazz are analogous to the artists of the past few centuries.  The same kind of passion for what they were doing, the same desire to do something different, however minimal, so that you become an original, so that people will say, when they hear your record, ‘That’s who it is.’  That’s Bird.  That’s Art Tatum.  That’s Oscar Peterson.  That’s Buddy.”

[-30-]

* * * *

DEFRANCO:  Then the thing is this.  I’ll just briefly tell you that my recent history in the past couple of years has been one of the most interesting of my careers…

TP:    you said you had about six of them.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  I’m starting another one.

TP:    You’ll have to tell me exactly which six they are.

DEFRANCO:  Oh, I can’t really tell.  They go up and down.  I guess that’s nothing unusual with people in the music business.  Phil Woods gets discovered every three years.

TP:    Oh, when you say you’ve had six careers, you mean you keep getting rediscovered.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah, rediscovered.  Fall down and go broke, and sometimes…and then back again.  That’s happened quite a bit.

[PAUSE]

DEFRANCO:  I’ve done a lot of music festivals and also music clinics, mostly for Yamaha.  They make a great clarinet.  I’ve played it for about 25 years. What I find appealing about the Yamaha is it suits my needs almost to a T, as they say.  It’s a very classical instrument.  It has a nice tone quality… Of course you have to produce that.  But built in is a good tone quality, and a very exact scale, even scale.  It also affords a flexibility that I need to play jazz.

TP:    What are the dynamics of the instrument that do this?  You went into some description of this in our interview.

DEFRANCO:  I did.  Yes, not too many clarinets are flexible enough to where you could play as close to what they used to call “legitimate”…I hate to use the term, but “legitimate,” symphonic music.  Then you use the same instrument to feel the freedom of playing jazz, the flexibility.  Yamaha does that for me.

Also, toward the mid-’50s, when Rock-and-Roll got very big and jazz was really pushed out of the picture, almost totally… The only guys who were really popular were Miles Davis, the top guys, Stan Getz… They were still making money and doing very well.  They were really the stars of the jazz world.  Everybody else kind of fell apart.  And I was bemoaning my fate to Stan Kenton one time, and Stan Kenton said, “Instead of crying, let’s get together.  I’ve started a program with Dr. Gene Hall of North Texas State Teachers College in Denton, Texas.”  He said, “Gene Hall is the first guy to let the students obtain credits for jazz in a college or university.  He said, “We’re doing clinics, and we’re doing them all over the country; in fact, all over the world.  We get the young people.”  He said that the tie-in was the band directors who remember the big bands and jazz, who have a stage band (so-called; it’s really a swing band).  He said that we go in and we impart as much knowledge as we can, and keep the idea of swing bands and jazz alive, and the band directors respond to this because they remember when.  He said, “That way we get to the youngsters, because we cannot get to the youngsters through television or radio now” [at that time he was speaking] or recording.”  So there were very few jazz recordings being made.

So he said, “Try that,” and I did.  It was the best advice I think I’d had in many years, because I found out that the youngsters in the bands respond to what you’re doing, but the band directors are the ones who kept jazz alive, underground, all these years.  Not too many people acknowledge that fact.  It’s guys like Gene Hall and Matt Benton and Stan Kenton, the band directors through all the high schools and universities and colleges who have kept jazz going, even though in the public eye it was finished.  So that’s a very important thing, and I am still doing those clinics.

TP:    This was still in the ’50s, when you started?

DEFRANCO:  Around ’54, somewhere…

TP:    So this dovetails with when you moved to California.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  I actually moved to California because I thought maybe with some friends I could get some work there.  Which I did.  I got the studio work from Nelson Riddle.

TP:    Oh, just playing in the section.

DEFRANCO:  Just clarinet, but playing behind, you know, TV shows.  I did all the segments of “Route 66″ and I did “Profiles In Courage” and all those things where Nelson Riddle wrote the scores…

TP:    Oh, were on the Sinatra sessions.

DEFRANCO:  “Oceans 11.”  And I was on two Sinatra sessions.

TP:    Do you remember which ones?

DEFRANCO:  I don’t remember. [LAUGHS] Also, last September Yamaha and I got together, and we did the first Buddy De Franco-Yamaha Jazz Festival in Panama City, Florida.

TP:    Is that on your web-site?

DEFRANCO:  I think so.

TP:    Did you have any input into the specifics of making this clarinet?

DEFRANCO:  No.  None whatever.

TP:    Do a lot of other jazz clarinetists use it?

DEFRANCO:  They have.  I don’t know if they still do.  I know Eddie Daniels used it for a time, but he’s now using another clarinet that he says functions the same way — Blanc(?), I believe.  But a lot of professional clarinet players have used it.

TP:    Do you keep up with the current state of the clarinet?

DEFRANCO:  I have to.  I listen to them all.

TP:    Who are some of the people you like these days?

DEFRANCO:  I like Eddie Daniels.  I like Ronnie Eldridge.  He’s a periodontist, and a fine clarinet player.  I like Putte Wickman.  I’ll be playing with Putte in Sweden.  We leave tomorrow.  We’ll do 11 concerts and a CD in Sweden.  Putte Wickman is one of the best.

TP:    Ken Peplowski?

DEFRANCO:  He’s a good player.

TP:    Alvin Batiste?

DEFRANCO:  Well… I’ll pass.

TP:    I was just wondering about your current taste.

DEFRANCO:  When I talk about clarinet players, I must include the fact that they are more than just competent players, because if you go along with the competent players, you’ve got a big list.

TP:    Did you like John Carter, by the way?

DEFRANCO:  No, I did not.  See, as a clarinetist, I’m pretty critical.  There are two aspects of playing the clarinet, as in all jazz; two diametrically opposed fields and schools of thought in jazz.  On the one hand, people say, “Don’t study too much because it will ruin your jazz playing.”  In fact, years ago it was an old story.  The band director said, “Can you read music?” and he said, “not enough to hurt my playing.”

TP:    Most of the great players I’ve talked to wouldn’t think that was much of a notion, I think.

DEFRANCO:  Well, that’s still prevalent in jazz where the player who is too proficient doesn’t play good jazz.  And I disagree with that.  I’ll give you a good example in the piano world.  One of my favorites of all time, of course, has been Oscar Peterson, mainly because of what he plays and how he plays it, the dexterity he has.  He has such a great technique.  So I’ve kind of aligned myself with him because I had a technique.  I love his playing, as opposed to, say, Thelonious Monk, who had no technique… I’ll quote Oscar Levant.  “He played piano with arthritic abandon.”  That’s not to say that he doesn’t play jazz.  He was a force in jazz.

TP:    Did you like Monk?

DEFRANCO:  I liked what he was getting at and I liked his songs.  I couldn’t play with him and I did not like his playing, because it lacked the proficiency that I am used to hearing.  Then there’s for instance the later Miles Davis as opposed to Freddie Hubbard.  My bet would go with Freddie Hubbard, see.  Because he’s a trumpet player and a jazz player and a more than competent execution in his playing.

But there are two schools.  Years ago in clarinet, everybody said Benny Goodman was the greatest, Artie Shaw was the greatest; and the other school of thought, like in the Thelonious Monk camp, would be Pee Wee Russell.  There are people who swear by him.  They think he’s the greatest clarinet player who ever lived.  And I pass on that.

TP:    Well, you made the comment in our interview that you liked… I asked you if you’d listened to Jimmie Noone and Johnny Dodds and those guys, and you said no, because of your technique, but you loved Buster Bailey.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah, he had an excellent technique.  He was a fine clarinetist.

TP:    I’d like you to talk more about Charlie Parker.  We can relate this to the technique question.  You said that he was the first unedited player, that his technique enabled him to be an unedited player.

DEFRANCO:  I’ll qualify that.  Modern jazz player.  Because Art Tatum was that.  People used to think that he was contrived, but he wasn’t.  If you hear all his recordings and you hear different versions of the same song, you realize that Art Tatum had the most flexibility and was more unedited than anyone of his time.  So I align he with Bird.

TP:    Tell me what you remember about the session you did with Art Tatum.  I know you said you were sick and that you weren’t at your best.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  Norman Granz wanted to know if I wanted to cancel, and I did not cancel because I knew that would be the only time I would ever get to play with Art Tatum.  I just had to do it.  I’m not sorry I did, because a lot of it came out good.  But if I were feeling better and if it were later in my career I could have played substantially better.

TP:    You’d feel more equipped to have played with Tatum, say, 20 years later just because of general knowledge and…

DEFRANCO:  Right.  I’ll give you a good example of my thinking.  Somebody said to me, “Who’s the best?”  Well, that’s silly because, in a way… I’ll quote Eddie Daniels.  If you go into an art gallery and you see Van Gogh, and then you stop and you see Gauguin, and then you’ll see Da Vinci, who is going to say who is the best?  It depends on what you derive from that particular thing.  They’re all good.  They’re all genius.  So if somebody said to me, “Who is the best?” it’s hard to say.

However, when you talk about what I consider the best, on a genius level, I’d have to say Art Tatum and Charlie Parker.  Immediately.  That’s it.  From that point on, then we talk about all the other guys who are really good.

TP:    Do you remember anything about Tatum’s demeanor during that session or the process of putting it together?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  He made me feel at ease, even though it was very difficult to work with him because he had a chord progression every two beats.  It was very difficult, very hard.  He sometimes would suggest a strange key to play the tune in.  Keys didn’t matter to him.  He played through everything, so that when you played with Art Tatum it was his ballgame.  You were there almost accompanying him, even when you were playing your solos.  But I expected that, and I didn’t care because I just admired him so much.  It was my task to try to keep up with him, and occasionally, when I did, I was very gratified with that.

He was terrific.  It was fun to him.  His attitude was great.  Even on the highly technical things, it was kind of a game to him, and he’d show off.  But there again, that’s part of playing jazz — showing off.  If you play all the jazz in the world in your room and nobody hears it, what does it mean?  What you do on a stage is show off.  You show what you can do.  That’s part of playing jazz.  And a lot of people scoff at it.  They say, “Oh, well, Art Tatum is just trying to show everybody his technique.”  Well, of course he is!  Just like Oscar Peterson.

TP:    Well, I guess he just internalized it.  He didn’t get all that technique separate from his inner voice.  That was his inner voice.

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  It was his inner voice, that’s for sure.

TP:    You said that you first heard “Hootie Blues.”  Can you put a date on it?  You said 1941, so you must have been with Johnny “Scat” Davis?

DEFRANCO:  Or Charlie Barnet’s band.

TP:    The encyclopedias say that you joined Charlie Barnet in ’43.

DEFRANCO:  That can’t be.

TP:    That’s not true?

DEFRANCO:  I don’t think so.  They might be right because my recall isn’t… But in ’43, it seems to me, I was in Tommy Dorsey’s band.

TP:    I’ll read you what the 1960 Encyclopedia of Jazz says.  “Scat Davis in late ’39.  Gene Krupa ’41-’42.  Ted Fiorito, who is a new one on me, in ’42.  Charlie Barnet ’43 and ’44.  Tommy Dorsey ’44 and ’46.  You settled in California.  Boyd Raeburn.  Return to Dorsey ’47-’48.  Then you go to New York, small combos in New York and Chicago and I guess traveling.  Count Basie Septet in ’50.  Big band in ’51. Then you start with the quartet from ’52 to ’55 or so.

DEFRANCO:  That’s pretty close to it, except that in the early years… I have a feeling that in the latter part of ’41 and part of ’42 I was with Barnet, and then in ’43 I was with Tommy Dorsey.  It seems to me that I was with Tommy Dorsey from ’43 to ’48 three times.

TP:    Three times in that period.  I’m not interested in splitting all the hairs.  But in terms of the Charlie Parker thing, when you say you heard Charlie Parker’s “Hootie Blues” when you were with Charlie Barnet, what impact did that make on you?  Did it sound like anything you had heard before?

DEFRANCO:  No.

TP:    Why?

DEFRANCO:  Well, by virtue of the fact that the articulation of what he was doing was completely different, and the chord progressions that he used, even at the very beginning…the substitute chords were different than most people were using, with the exception of Art Tatum.  But no horn player used at that time as many alternate chords, and no horn player used that kind of articulation.  It had never been done before.  So in my humble opinion, Bird wrote the book.

TP:    So you were well-schooled enough to hear what Charlie Parker was doing because of the high quality of education you’d had at Mastbaum.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, I would say that.  Not only that, I was playing… I have enough ego to consider that I was gravitating towards more modern playing while I was with Charlie Barnet at the same time that Dizzy was.  Dizzy grew out of the Roy Eldridge style.  But when you listen to some of his stuff during that time, he was gravitating toward a more modern approach to playing.  It was not Bebop.  And my case was the same way.  Harmonically I was gravitating towards something else, in a way.  But it wasn’t until Bird came along that both of us said, “He wrote the book; this is it; this is the new study book.”

TP:    I guess Dizzy got that close-up proximity to Charlie Parker with Earl Hines…

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  He got hold of Bird, listened to that, and it was immediate.

TP:    Dizzy had some other qualities, particularly his assimilation of rhythm and being able to codify Latin rhythms into…

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  He was the first I can remember playing modern jazz like that…

TP:    But if Dizzy came out of Roy Eldridge doing that, was your assimilation of Benny Goodman leading you in that direction?

DEFRANCO:  It was Artie Shaw leading me.

TP:    Talk more about Artie Shaw, who obviously had a profound influence on you.

DEFRANCO:  Well, I would say the way he executed the clarinet, and harmonically he was way ahead of his time.  His approach to playing, the fluency that he had was like a fine violinist.  That impressed me.  If you listen to his early records with his bands, when he played, he played more modern than the whole band, than anyone in the band.  Also, when he started playing, he changed the color of the band just by playing, so that the concept was much more advanced.  Then when he stopped playing, the band would seem to go back to its old symmetrical and angular way of playing.  So I always admired Artie, the way he made all those chord progressions that he did and made it flow.

TP:    Then I guess you could also say that Coleman Hawkins was implying the modern style as well.

DEFRANCO:  yes, absolutely.  No question about that.

TP:    Were you influenced by saxophonists as well as clarinets?  You did say that your concept of clarinet was playing the clarinet but thinking saxophone.

DEFRANCO:  Thinking saxophone.  But no, my major influences were more than likely piano players.

TP:    Primarily Tatum or other piano players?

DEFRANCO:  All of them.  Teddy Wilson and Dodo Marmarosa.

TP:    We didn’t discuss Dodo Marmarosa in the previous interview, and I know you were very close to him.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, We lived together in California for about a year, and we played in about five different bands together.  He was a great influence in my playing.

TP:    You played together with Dorsey.

DEFRANCO:  Well, we played in Johnny Scat Davis’ band together, Gene Krupa’s band, Charlie Barnet’s band, Ted Fiorito’s band, and then Tommy Dorsey.

TP:    So you really hung together.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  He was also in the same kind of state of flux that I was, playing.  We wanted a more modern approach to playing, and he played his piano in a more advanced modern way, but did not play bebop at that time.  We both heard Bird together, and we both decided this is the way it’s going to be.

TP:    So when you heard “Hootie Blues” you were with Dodo Marmarosa.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  Well, more than “Hootie Blues,” but all the stuff that he played.

TP:    If it was in 1941, then “Hootie Blues,” “Sepian Blues,” “Swingmatism,” the only records he was featured on.  But when did you first meet Charlie Parker?

DEFRANCO:  ’42.  End of ’42, beginning of ’43, somewhere in there.

TP:    Was he with Earl Hines?

DEFRANCO:  No, he had left Earl Hines.

TP:    Did you hear the Earl Hines band with Bird and Diz?

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah.  I thought it was the forerunner, or one of the forerunners of the big swing band idea.  They were ahead of their time — at the time.  Very few bands were playing with anything that resembled the modern concept.  Earl Hines did.  Jay McShann.

TP:    Did you hear McShann live?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.

TP:    With the White big bands, would your paths intersect with the Black big bands?

DEFRANCO:  Well, you see, the White… I hate to talk about Black and White because they’ve been intermingled for so long that you can’t say this… But the only thing I can say about Black and White is during those days the Black bands had a feeling, a swing feeling that would…I don’t know, that would grip you.  You could feel it in your hips, the depth of your emotions — the swing.  The Black bands had the swing, and the White bands had maybe a little more polish, but they tried to simulate that swing, but never got it.  They never really got it.  And Tommy Dorsey was one who was aware of that, and he used to say once in a while, “We don’t have a swing band; if you want to have a swing band go and listen to Count Basie and absorb what he does, because that’s a swing band.”  Glenn Miller had the same thing.  He said, “I have a commercial band; I don’t have a swing band.  Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie are the swing bands.”

TP:    Jimmy Crawford and Jo Jones.

DEFRANCO:  Oh, boy.  Jimmy Crawford was marvelous.

TP:    So you really loved the big bands.

DEFRANCO:  Oh, of course.  Well, mainly because my Dad, who was blind, he and his brother, my uncle, loved the big bands.  When they caught on, they bought every record that they could.  They especially liked Jimmy Lunceford and Count Basie and Chick Webb — those bands.  Well, there again, they had the feeling.  This is not to belittle the White bands.  It’s a simple fact of life.  Black bands had the feeling there.

TP:    Of a lot of the prominent White improvisers who came up when you came up, I can’t think of another one who worked as seamlessly with Black musicians as you did.  People have told me that Art Blakey would speak glowingly about you.  Now, he didn’t do that about everybody!

DEFRANCO:  No.

TP:    So it seems as though you were very much truly accepted by the black musicians, who didn’t necessarily open their arms to everyone who was coming along.

DEFRANCO:  That’s true.  I simply had an affinity with those swing bands.  Because within the depth of my organism, I knew that was the beat.  They were swinging.  That’s the feeling that I liked, and that’s the feeling I’ve always tried to impart when I played.  And playing with different people through the years, like Jimmy Jones and Sid Catlett on drums, or John Simmons, these kind of players years ago, playing with them when I was a kid…

TP:    When did you play with Sid Catlett?

DEFRANCO:  Oh, I sat in with him many times.  There’s a good example of a feeling, a rhythmic feeling and concept opening the door for you.  When I played with Sid Catlett and a few other drummers during my career, and of course Art Blakey… I can quote Art Blakey.  Sometimes when I was really tired and beat (we were on the road a lot, the band was pretty hot at that time — a lot of recording), I’d say, “Oh, I don’t think I can play tonight.”  And Art would say, “I’ll make you play.”  He meant that.  He did.  He had so much energy and steam and feeling, that we would burn as they said.

TP:    Let’s get back to Charlie Parker.  Talk about the relationship you had with him.

DEFRANCO:  Well, when I first met him, Dodo and I were just overwhelmed at what he did.  It was a very brief meeting.  But then later on, he got very popular, then I got fairly well known as a jazz clarinetist and started winning polls, and so we were both picked to do the Metronome All-Star dates (I think we did two together), and that’s the point in time when I really got to know Bird.  From that point on we were friends, and every chance I got, I went to hear him.  Sometimes if I would play somewhere and he would be in the same town at another club or even in a nearby city, I would go to hear him.  And we got friendly.  So we spent some time together.  We hung out together quite a bit.  He was like Art Tatum.  He was very gregarious.  Knowledgeable about a lot of different things.  And was always-always-always gracious.

TP:    It sounds like he showed different sides of his personality to different people.  I mean, there were certain people he would not be around when he was strung out, and there were people he did that with.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, that’s true.  Also, he was well aware of being victimized by that drug.

TP:    He talked about it?

DEFRANCO:  He talked about it, and he told young people to stay away from it.  “Don’t even start.”  I can remember that distinctly when Bird… He’d almost get hostile.  “Don’t even start.  Don’t think about starting it.”

TP:    And a number of the younger musicians who did get strung out said he would treat them with no mercy once that happened to them.

DEFRANCO:  Well, they got started because they thought he’s the guy who…

TP:    Well, we don’t have to talk about that aspect of Bird.  But apparently he had many interests and much knowledge of matters outside of jazz as well.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.

TP:    Do you remember what sort of things he’d talk about?

DEFRANCO:  Well, he’d talk about certain philosophies of life and attitudes of life.  He had a good perception of people.  He could seem to read people quite well.  I remember him telling me one time… I don’t know what the circumstances were.  He told me how many muscles in your face it takes to smile, how many it takes to frown.  Things just out of the blue.  I guess I told the story about “Skinning Rabbits.”  Those were the type of thing…

And another time, coming home from some town outside of New York on a train with Bird.  It was a Sunday morning.  We had played and then hung out all night or something.  Sunday morning we got a train back to New York.  It was a time when you could move the seat back and forth and face the other way.  We had a Sunday paper, and he read through the whole paper.  Then a guy came in, and I don’t know if he was a workman or a farmer or something, kind of a little cardboard suitcase, what we would call in those days a real square…

TP:    A hayseed.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah, a hayseed.  But Bird said hello to him, and started talking with him, and “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?”  Then finally Bird said, “Come on, sit with us,” and he got up and moved his seat, the other seat, so that we faced each other.  He began telling this guy about the record date that he’s planning with strings.  He was telling me as well, because I didn’t know that he was going to do a date with strings.  He told me that Mitch Miller was going to be the A&R guy.  The funny thing is that he said several times to me, “And Buddy Rich is on drums.”  I said, “yeah.”  And he repeated it like I didn’t hear him.  “Buddy Rich is on the drums, and I’m going to do it with strings.”  And he started talking about how eager he was to work with strings.  He liked the idea.

That was a strange session because it wasn’t the greatest string section, and not the greatest rhythm section really.  But Bird was like a shining star.  He just made the whole thing come together with his playing.

TP:    Did you play on the same bill with him on 52nd Street?

DEFRANCO:  No.  I had my group and he had his group.  Sometimes, even in the summertime…two times I remember that Bird liked my rhythm section a little better than he had.  Who knows why?  And he’d come down with his horn and sit in with me.

TP:    Well, that’s because you had Bud Powell, Max Roach… This was after Max Roach left him, right?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  I had Max Roach and Bud Powell; I had a lot of guys.

TP:    So you had Bud Powell, Curley Russell and Max Roach as your rhythm section.  What was that like for you?  You were talking about the technical difficulties of the clarinet.  Was there a volume problem?

DEFRANCO:  No.  I could project.  I needed a microphone because these were heavy players.  But I could project most of the time.  And also, Bud Powell was interesting, because when he was feeling okay and when he was straight and really playing well, nobody could touch him.  He was just fantastic.  There was no question about it.  It was just dazzling.  Smashing, as they say.  As opposed to when he was strung out or something, and he’d be getting nasty.  Then it was hopeless.  You really suffered for a whole set.  Because he’d get evil.  Sometimes he’d play the bridge twice so he could get you off.

TP:    He’s try to mess with you.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah.  It wasn’t only me.  It was anybody.  He tried it once with Bird, and Bird almost hit him with the horn.

TP:    Tell me about your time with Count Basie.

DEFRANCO:  There again, working with Basie and that group was really an education and a lesson — a lesson in the idea of swing.  I didn’t realize before that how much feeling comes from Bill Basie at the piano.  Not only Freddie Green, but Bill Basie at the piano, the way he played — for the group, for the soloists — was just superb.  And the feeling… There again I got… It was an eye-opener.  Another door opener.

TP:    So you were playing with some of the greatest, Max Roach, who was young…

DEFRANCO:  Oh, the list of guys I played with.  I had a group in California with Victor Feldman on vibes, Carl Perkins on piano, Billy Higgins (he must have been 11 years old), and Leroy Vinnegar, and Howard Roberts I believe on guitar.  We played East Los Angeles.  Never recorded.  What a great group.

[END OF SIDE A]

TP:    Talk about what you learned about what playing with Max Roach, Art Blakey, or Basie did for your rhythmic concept.

DEFRANCO:  That’s hard to put into words.  I always hesitate to describe at a clinic rhythm.  I don’t do it in my clinics, in fact.  When it comes to rhythm, I tell the students, “Find the most swinging or find the best player that you can in your area, play with them, and it will either come to you or it won’t.”  There’s no way you describe technically what happens.  Harmony you can, in terms of execution on your instrument you can.  But when it comes to swing feeling, two cliches: Don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got it; and if you don’t know what it is, forget it.  Because if you can’t feel it, it’s not going to happen.

TP:    I’d like to see if you can pinpoint a couple of things for me from way back.  You said you got your clarinet when you were about 8, and you joined the Sympathy Youth Club, and your Dad bought records of Django Reinhardt and Art Tatum and you were overwhelmed by them, and you were about 10 years old, so it’s got to be about ’33.  Do you remember which records those were?

DEFRANCO:  Well, the things Django did were “Nuages” and those things, and Art Tatum’s “Elegie” and “Yesterdays.”

TP:    Also, you said that your brother would take big-band arrangements off of records, and you had a swing band.  Do you remember which records those were?

DEFRANCO:  Mostly the clarinet.  We took a couple of Tommy Dorsey arrangements, like “Marie” and “Don’t Be That Way”, and Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine.”

TP:    On your website you said you had won a contest that was a jumping off point for you or an incentive to play when you were a teenager.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, that was in Philadelphia, in 1939 I believe.

TP:    You said you were wearing short pants.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  At the Earle Theater in Philadelphia there was a Tommy Dorsey swing contest, a weekly contest out of various cities every week in a theater, and it was broadcast nationally.  There were four contestants.  I was fortunate enough to win that.  I think I won $75, and a little plaque of some kind.

TP:    Good money in 1939.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah, it was great.  And I was a hero in my neighborhood the next day.  But it didn’t make the papers.  I did have a youth group at the same time that played different jobs, and every Sunday night a ballroom in South Philadelphia with a big band.  We also played the Horn & Hardhardt’s children’s hour, of which Stan Lee Broza was the emcee, and his son was Elliott Lawrence.  He played tenor sax in those days with the band.  We had what was called the Band Busters. That was broadcast every Sunday morning.

Anyway, there were four contestants in this contest, and I managed to win almost by default, because I didn’t play that great.  Even for a youngster, I wasn’t that good — at that time anyway.  But I was a young kid, and my teacher advised me to wear short pants.  He said, “The audience will love it.”  He showed me how to play one note on the clarinet with one hand, and he said, “This is what you’ll do at the end of your solo.”  And it worked.  I mean, those other guys didn’t have a chance.

TP:    Showmanship.

DEFRANCO:  Yeah, showmanship plus the fact that I was a little kid.

TP:    So there’s Johnny Scat Davis, you go on the road with him, and then you join Krupa for a while.  Do you have any memories of Krupa?

DEFRANCO:  All fond memories.  Because Gene Krupa was one of the nicest persons I ever worked for.  A delightful guy.  And he gave us every opportunity to play.  All the soloists.  Charlie Ventura, Roy Eldridge… He featured everyone who could play.

TP:    Oh, you were in the band that Roy Eldridge was in, so you got to know him a little.

DEFRANCO:  Oh my gosh, yes.  He was at the time probably head and shoulders over any other trumpet player.

TP:    Even Pops.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah, I’m afraid so.  Pops had done great and he was a great influence, but he concentrated I guess more on his commercial playing and singing, and Roy was a musician’s musician at that time in terms of jazz.  A real creative player.  Feeling, emotion.  He was tough.  He was number one at that time.  And the whole band used to love to hear him play a solo.

TP:    Did he influence your improvising approach?

DEFRANCO:  Yes, quite a bit.  Roy was a good influence.  I gleaned a lot of things from Roy.

TP:    So it sounds like you really developed your technique and conception in the big bands, polishing off the technical foundation you got at Mastbaum.  It was your laboratory.

DEFRANCO:  Right.

TP:    here’s what I want to ask you about when you get back.  A little more detail on Charlie Barnet, a little more on Dorsey, Boyd Raeburn, and the big bands you were with and the personalities…

We should discuss what you think are the salient points, and come up with a happy medium.

TP:    May I ask you a little more about your father, and the way your aesthetic developed?  Was he born here or in Italy?

DEFRANCO:  He was born here.  His parents came from Italy, from an area called Foggia, which is central Italy not far from the Adriatic Sea.

TP:    I read Whitney Balliett’s article on you.  Before he was blind he was a musician?

DEFRANCO:  He was a guitarist.  But he was an amateur guitar player.

TP:    But did he come from a family that had an artistic bent, or was there sort of an artistic craft tradition in his family?

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  Both sides had musicians.  I don’t know exactly what they played, but I know that both my parents had musicians in the background in Italy, and it’s almost an axiom that they loved the opera.  They were very musical.  That augured well for me, because they could tell whether I was playing well or out of tune or missed the beat or did something.  Unfortunately, too many youngsters who are playing today, their parents really don’t know.  So that was kind of a good thing.

My Dad had a terrible, terrible life.  It’s a long story; I don’t think I can go into it.  But it would make a book.  You just wouldn’t believe the tragic things that occurred in his life, and how he rose above most of it.  He was just incredible.  He was always in good humor and good wit, and kept us interested in music.  Never failed to play for us or have us play with him in the little band that he had which I told you about.  Once in a while, when we first started, he’d let us sit in with his group.  That’s where it started.  It was a whole musical background, experience… Everything was music in our family.

TP:    So basically there was never anything for you other than… Did you ever consider that you were going to do something else?

DEFRANCO:  No, I never did.  Mainly because that seemed to be all I was interested in.  Though I did later, on my own, read extensively, and I got interested in psychology, and read Adler, Freud and Jung, and I became a Wilhelm Reich disciple for a while, and I went into therapy for three years in New York.  Every time I came to New York I went to therapy with Dr. Pelletier, who was a Reichian therapist.  Looking back, it was the best thing I could have done.

TP:    Why was that?  How did that affect you musically, would you say?

DEFRANCO:  Being from somewhat humble circumstances, I was somewhat insecure in life.  The only security I had was my playing.  When that was good (when it was satisfactory, I can’t say good), I felt more secure.  When it came time for me to get on stage and be somewhat of an actor on the stage and speak in a microphone and emcee, since I was beginning to have my own groups, it was painful.  It was painful for me to even say anything on a microphone.  I was riddled with insecurities.  So I learned of Dr. Wilhelm Reich through Jack Eagle, who was originally a trumpet player who played in my big band and played on a lot of my recordings, and he played with a lot of different bands — Jerry Jerome and Georgie Auld and Boyd Raeburn.  He was interested in a lot of different things, like religion and philosophy and psychology.  We spent a lot of time together, and he introduced me to Reich.  I bought some books and I began avidly reading those books.  I decided when I got back to New York City for any length of time, I would look up a Reichian therapist, which I did.

TP:    Was this around the time you started the quartet that toured?

DEFRANCO:  No, it was actually before that.  It was when I had my big band.

TP:    Which was the year before.

DEFRANCO:  Right.  But I really got into going for therapy when I had a small group.  It was easier, and I worked in New York quite a bit, so I could go for my therapy sessions.

TP:    So you were getting one type of therapy from Art Blakey and another type of therapy from the Reichians!

DEFRANCO:  That’s the idea.  And frankly, both therapies brought out in me something that I was kind of lacking in my playing and my demeanor.

TP:    Am I correct in emphasizing the impact of being with Art Blakey for a couple of years?  Because the other articles I’ve read haven’t gone into that so much, and I was concerned I was doing too much amateur psychologizing.

DEFRANCO:  The effect that Blakey had on me was obvious musically.  I think it goes hand in hand with the effect that Tommy Dorsey had, that Art Tatum had, that Bird had, and that Count Basie had.  Count Basie had a tremendous effect on me.

TP:    You went into that a little bit.  Would you say a bit more about Basie’s impact?

DEFRANCO:  Well, let me see.  It’s tantamount to the Blakey experience.  First of all, I never realized how dynamic Count Basie was at the keyboard, playing.  I never realized how much influence he had from the keyboard to manipulate the sound of the band, and it was his personality and his playing, that he could get any 15 musicians who were capable, and within a couple of hours they would sound like Basie’s band, partly because they wanted to and mostly because of Bill, because of the way he accompanied people and the little nuances in the way he played.  A dynamic force.  He and Freddie Green were just unbelievable, the feeling they could get.  And Gus Johnson had the same kind of feeling when he played.  So the rhythm section for Basie always sounded pretty much the same.  Even though there were different types of personalities and different types of players playing from time to time in Basie’s rhythm section, generally they sounded the same because of Bill Basie, his dynamic way of playing.

TP:    What did it do for your playing?  Did it make it more relaxed?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  Absolutely.  No question about it.  More relaxed and more cognizant of a time feeling.

TP:    Would you talk a little more about Dorsey for me?  He seems to have been immensely important to you, and it seems to have been a very complex relationship.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  First off, he was important to everyone who worked for him.  He influenced everyone who worked for him.  Everyone who worked for him would say the same thing.  It was incredible, the influence he had.  We were all somewhat seasoned players (we weren’t brand-new into the business) and somewhat sophisticated.  Yet, Tommy Dorsey could play just a simple melody and the band would applaud.  You could hate him at the same time, but what came out of the trombone was great — unequalled, I think.  So everybody got a feeling of playing and breathing technique from Tommy Dorsey.

TP:    Did he ever give you any hands-on instruction about the breathing technique, or was it just something you’d watch and pick up?

DEFRANCO:  Mostly something we watched.  Though from time to time he would give us some tips.  Most people thought that he employed that circular breathing, but that was not true.  He had a way of taking in air in the corner of his mouth, and not having his mouth or embrochure leave the mouthpiece, as opposed to circular breathing.  Circular breathing means that you take the air through your nose while you’re blowing at the same time.  Tommy didn’t do that.  He got a tremendous amount of air through the corner of his mouth, never taking the mouthpiece away from it, but also, filling up the abdomen, filling up his lungs.  He knew how to spin a note.  He used to call it “spin a note.”  He knew how to play very soft on the instrument, but you could hear it in the room.  You could hear it in the far corners of the room.  It’s a combination of physical and mental mechanism, so that you could play, or he would… He was a master at it.  He could play very soft, and everyone could hear what he was playing.  And he could play as loud as the whole band.  It was incredible.

TP:    Did you feel restrained in these big bands of the ’40s?  Were you sort of chomping at the bit to play what you really wanted, or was it a satisfactory musical experience?

DEFRANCO:  No, all the soloists felt restrained, because the big bands were dance bands.  They were not ostensibly the show bands and a showcase for soloists.  So the only chance we got to show off was in the theater.  But we were playing the one-nighters in ballrooms.  I mean, you played maybe 16 bars of a solo, then maybe you wouldn’t play a solo for two sets or a set.  Nothing extended.

TP:    So it wasn’t like the Ellington band playing a ballroom where the solo function would be integrated into the dance experience, as it were.

DEFRANCO:  Yes.  This was strictly a big band… Even Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw played for dancing.  That was one of the gripes Artie had about the whole idea.  He wanted himself and his band to be more concertizing.  In fact, if he were operating now with his big band, it would be a perfect setting for him, because he could do all these concerts, he could do festivals, and play exactly the way he wanted to play, and not conform to the dance.  You’re too young to remember this, but Artie Shaw one time walked off the stage in the face of, I don’t know, a million dollars of contracts that he had.  He walked off the stage and announced that all the jitterbugs were idiots — which made the front lines of the papers.  But he also doubled his attendance.  He called them idiots and he said, “We love you.”

TP:    Prefiguring Miles Davis.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, Miles Davis, exactly.

TP:    When you left Dorsey in ’48 and came right to New York, had you been knowing all of your contemporaries who were involved in Bebop?  Is that one reason why you fit in so comfortably with them?

DEFRANCO:  Oh, yes.  Absolutely.  We knew that New York was the hub at that time.  At the same time, there was the beginning of the Cool School, although ironically enough, most of the cool guys, Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper…all those guys were from New York.  That was ironic.  But they lived in California.  They kind of generated this Cool School of playing.  But the kind of playing that I was engaged in was, as Lennie Tristano would say, “obvious swing,” which he detested. [LAUGHS] Oh, we used to argue for hours.  Lennie Tristano I think approached genius.  He was incredible.  His technique, his musical prowess and his ability to do some things that were at that time phenomenal on the piano and with his group.  He didn’t like the idea of the swing feeling projected into music.  He liked the idea of rhythm, of course.  But he used to say to me that he couldn’t understand why I played with the obvious swing.  It was ridiculous, you know.

TP:    Why did he think it was ridiculous?

DEFRANCO:  Well, he just didn’t feel that was necessary, and he didn’t feel that creative jazz needed that.  Well, I did.  I go back to the school of Basie or Blakey where if it’s not swinging, it doesn’t mean too much — or that’s only half the picture.

TP:    So no matter how intellectually challenging the thing may be, Ellington’s dictum is still the operative principle.

DEFRANCO:  Swing’s the thing.

TP:    Can you tell me a little bit about playing with Boyd Raeburn’s band.  It sounds as though that was the place where you could really expand your horizons intellectually in terms of music.

DEFRANCO:  You could.  You could play exactly the way you wanted to play, which was why he hired me and the other guys in the band.  And the writers could write any way they wanted to write.  So consequently, we got some pretty spacy music.  But it was intellectually unbelievable and very difficult.  It took great skill to play that library.  Probably one of the most difficult, technically challenging libraries in the business.  The guys were George Handy and Bob Graettinger and Johnny Richards.  Johnny Richards was a phenomenal writer, although I thought he was ponderous in many ways and overwritten — but still a great writer.

TP:    Was your own big band a cross between the Artie Shaw concept and the Raeburn concept?

DEFRANCO:  Maybe.  I didn’t try to get that outside with it.  But the concept was the big Benny Goodman-Artie Shaw… You can lump them all together and that’s what I had.  I wound up with zero.

TP:    It wasn’t entirely your fault.  I mean, it was not a great time to be starting a big band.

DEFRANCO:  No, it was the wrong time.  But I could sense when we played… I thought I mapped out everything, so to speak, so that we could play our music in a dance tempo and still make it a jazz-worthy project.  But I realized that that didn’t work.  That did work with what I had in the audience.  So you give it up and go on to other things.  Then I got the small group, and that did work.  That was hot for about a year-and-a-half or two years.

TP:    Then you had to move out to California.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  Well, the jazz (?) died completely.

TP:    By the way, when did you leave Philadelphia for good?

DEFRANCO:  1939.

TP:    were you coming back to Philly after that?

DEFRANCO:  Oh, sure.  I’d come back to see my family and friends.  Once in a while I’d play in Philadelphia.

TP:    But you were basically a citizen of the road.

DEFRANCO:  That’s it.

TP:    And you’d come home and touch base with your family.

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  For a while I established a home in New York, got an apartment and played out of New York, then gave that up and got a place in California.  But the same kind of thing.  I’ve been actually ostensibly on the road for sixty years.  These past few years have been more of a home base operation.  I’ve spent more time here in Florida and more time in Whitefish, Montana, than I have out playing.

TP:    I think you’re entitled.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yeah!  I really feel entitled.

TP:    Can you tell me about your relationship with Terry Gibbs.  That seems to be your longest standing association of this particular period anyway.

DEFRANCO:  We’ve been working together several times a year.  We link up and work with a local rhythm section or a rhythm section in Europe, or we get a rhythm section from New York or California.  We work together well and it’s a lot of fun.  I take those jobs because Terry and I enjoy each other’s playing, and it’s fun.  There’s not the kind of tension you would imagine when you go out, for instance, with your own group.  There’s a certain amount of tension where you’re being tested; your group is being tested, you are being tested, and everyone has a critical eye on what you’re doing.  This is kind of a different aspect of playing what we want.  Terry, first of all, is great to work with because he’s funny and very clever, and the attitude is lighter.  Not the music, but the attitude is lighter.

TP:    So he lets you lighten up a little bit.

DEFRANCO:  I think so.  I would tend to get pretty grim in my music.  Sometimes people have accused me (and it’s true) that I take my music too seriously, or myself too seriously.  And through the years that has been true.  It took the Reichian therapy for me to realize that my music was not the center of the universe.

TP:    Even of your universe.

DEFRANCO:  Even my universe, yes.

TP:    Even with Terry Gibbs, it lets you operate in a specific instrumental tradition.  Because having the clarinet and the vibes together is going to bring up associations for people.

DEFRANCO:  That’s right.  And the sound alone brings up the Benny Goodman-Lionel Hampton thing, because they started that particular sound.  Which is great for us, because in a way, we manage to play pretty much what we want to do when we play solos.  People hear that sound, and they identify with Benny Goodman and Lionel, so they like it.

TP:    Could I ask you a couple of specific things about your bands from the ’50s until the Glenn Miller thing?  I think I have conflicting information.  I think Balliett had some inaccuracies because he conflicts with Gitler’s note on the Mosaic box.  Was the group with Tommy Gumina only a quartet?

DEFRANCO:  Yes.

TP:    And that came after you played with Victor Feldman and Carl Perkins and Billy Higgins.

DEFRANCO:  Oh yes.  That was another interesting experience for me working with Tommy.  He was a magnificent musician.  We did five albums together, which people don’t realize — one for Decca and four for Mercury.

I had Scott LaFaro and Victor Feldman in New York.

TP:    Let me ask you something philosophically about the craft and the art of making music, coming back to the question of whether art was the family craft, as it were.  Do you see yourself as analogous to artists in other traditions and other media?

DEFRANCO:  All of the jazz players who amounted to something, who contributed to the idea of jazz, I think are all analogous to the artists of the past few centuries.  The same kind of passion for what they were doing, the same desire to do something…however minimal, something different, so that you become an original, so that people will say, when they hear your record, “That’s who it is.”  That’s Bird.  That’s Art.  That’s Oscar.  That’s Buddy.  That’s what I wanted.  You can copy.  For some period of time, I copied Benny Goodman.  Now, of course, it’s too hard to copy Benny Goodman, because you can refer to your basic studies.  The Klosee method or the Behrman method, basic studies of arpeggiated forms, Benny used in his jazz.  That was the focal point of his jazz clarinet playing.  So it was kind of easy to do that, as opposed to, say, not so easy to imitate Artie Shaw who at the same time was involved in linear playing, making lines, or, even more difficult, Bird.  So it was tough enough to play sort of in the Bird tradition on any instrument, but doubly difficult on the clarinet because clarinet is such a hard instrument to play.

TP:    But you don’t seem to be a vocabulary quoter.  I don’t pretend to have heard every one of your records.  But even when you’re playing bebop things, I don’t hear you quoting Bird.  It’s very much your personal vocabulary.

DEFRANCO:  Yes, there are a few quotes I maintain.  But most of the quotes in my playing are my own quotes.  Sometimes when I’ve been criticized for being repetitive, my answer to that is, “I’m allowed to be, since it’s my stuff.”  I mixed that with some quotes from the Bebop era, but not… Also, I tried not to directly quote.  Just like there are some things I’ve gotten from, oh, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Nelson Riddle, Bill Finnegan, David Raksin, where I used it in my jazz playing.  But I didn’t quote them exactly.  It’s just an inference of what they did.

TP:    Let me take you back again for a second.  In the ’30s when you were a kid, you talked about jamming at these clubs.  There were two different clubs, right?

DEFRANCO:  Two different clubs.  Billy Kretchmer is still alive.  He lives in Margate, New Jersey, and up until just a couple of years ago he was still playing.  At that time, in the ’30s, he was neck and neck with Benny and Artie.  He was quite a jazz player.  He just played in his own group in his club, and he played in the pit theater at the Earle, next to my teacher, Willy Di Simone.

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Interview with Dave McKenna (May 30, 1930-October 18, 2008)

Via Larry Appelbaum’s  birthday notifications on Facebook comes word that today is the mutual birthday of Benny Goodman and the singular pianist Dave McKenna. One of the great originals, McKenna, a basically self-taught pianist out of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, went on the road at 17 and never looked back…

In 1999, I had an opportunity to interview McKenna for the publicity bio for a trio recording on Concord with clarinet legend Buddy DeFranco and guitarist Joe Cohn called Do Nothing Til You Hear From Us, following a duo from three years before entitled It Might As Well Be Swing. Throughout both dates, the masters played with unfettered effervescence, impeccable craft and a fiery edge that would be the envy of musicians young enough to be their grandchildren.

Their felicitous chemistry wouldn’t make sense if you looked at their careers superficially.  DeFranco is supposed to be a cold, cerebral player locked into the tropes of jazz modernism, while McKenna was the contemporary embodiment of old-style, two-handed pianism — the ultimate “saloon piano player.”  But they shared a profound common denominator.  Both came up in the top-shelf dance bands that incubated so many personal improvisers during the decade spanning World War Two and the Korean War when bebop entered common jazz parlance.

McKenna emerged from a strong regional New England jazz culture that produced such generational contemporaries as—among others—Phil Woods, Sal Salvador, and Joe Morello, Horace Silver, Gigi Gryce and Paul Motian. As he stated below, Nat Cole was his pianistic model, and he developed a rollicking-yet-subtle orchestral approach that he applied to every tune. The distinguished piano critic Robert Doerschuk described his unique style as follows in the liner notes to another of McKenna’s numerous Concord recitals, entitled Easy Street. “The best I can describe it, Dave McKenna plays like he has three hands.  Where most pianists tend to devote their left hand entirely to chords or bass lines, using the right exclusively for melodies, McKenna seems to split each hand in half.  The bottom two fingers of his left hand dance through bass lines Ray Brown would be happy to conceive, the top two fingers on the right hand explore variations on the theme of the tune, both thumbs and second fingers play chords in between, and the middle fingers jump in wherever they’re most needed.”

McKenna was tremendously consistent; almost any of his more than three dozen recordings are worth looking for.

Dave McKenna (Ted Panken) – (1-27-99):

TP:    It said in the 1960 Encyclopedia of Jazz that both your parents were musicians.  Is that right?

McKENNA:  Yes.  Well, my father was just a part-time musician.  He played the snare drum in military type concert bands, like small towns used to have.  He played very well, and he was a good snare drummer.  He played a little dance music.  That’s where he met my mother.  And my mother was a good classical violinist and a good piano player.

TP:    Did she give you your first musical education?

McKENNA:  No, she didn’t.  She didn’t think she was a good enough teacher.  But I used to hear her play.  She played classical; she didn’t play jazz on the violin.  But at home I heard her  play the standards of the late 1930s and 1940s, like “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “Stormy Weather,” and she played them very good, all the nice changes, nothing elaborate.  Plus I heard radio jingles, the early jingles, and I went to the piano and picked out tunes.  My mother sent me to the nuns at parochial school.  They were nice old ladies, but I hated the study of music.  I really did.

TP:    You liked playing and not studying.

McKENNA:  Yeah, right.  Later I took a few lessons from a guy in Boston, Sandy Sandiford.  But he more or less left me alone.  He gave me a few assignments that I played, to work out some variations on this or that.  He wanted me to play scales, too, but I didn’t.  He saw that right away and he laughed, and he said, “Well, you’re not going to do it,” which was obvious.  But he said, “You’re playing very nicely and continue to do what you do.”  The lessons were kind of casual.  I’d stop them if I felt bad or I had a cold or something.  But I’d go up there, take a train to Boston.

TP:    Did your technique and piano conception develop organically?

McKENNA:  Yeah, I think so.  Just playing at home.  My early gigs were three-piece bands, piano, saxophone and drums.  I think I did my first one at 12 or 13.   It’s a French-Canadian town, and there were a lot of wedding jobs.  The first few were non-union.  They even had bands for pre-wedding showers.  French-Canadians were very big for that.

So I worked that way, and then I joined the union.  When I joined the union I had to play with a band that played Polish polkas half the night.  I didn’t stay very long with it.  So I worked around home, and then Boots Mussulli came back from Stan Kenton’s band around 1947.

TP:    I assume you were listening to jazz pianists and digging them.

McKENNA:  No, not so much.  First of all, I liked songs, and I think I had a very brief time with liking the cowboy singers, Gene Autry and people like that.  Then I heard a Bing Crosby record.  I liked him okay, but he did a couple of things with a Dixieland band, either Bob Crosby or John Scott Trotter, and I liked that. Around that time, I got interested in Harry James’ band, and then Benny Goodman’s band — and I was hooked from then on.  I used to try to play like Benny rather than Teddy, although I had the utmost respect for Teddy.  (Nat Cole has been my favorite piano player for years; I loved his trio when I heard it. ) But most of that time I listened more to horn players.  Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw.  Also  Count Basie’s band, but I didn’t even know who those guys were at first, like Lester and Count himself. I love Basie.  Duke Ellington was an early favorite, too.  And later on, Bobby Hackett was one of my favorites.  By that time I was listening to Bird and Diz, too.  So I always listened to horn players more than piano players.

TP:    You mentioned in another one of these liner notes that you were inspired by trumpet players, like Dizzy Gillespie  — that you played a little trumpet as well.

McKENNA:  Yeah, although not particularly with Diz.  Some of the swing trumpet players.  I loved Cootie and Rex Stewart, I loved Billy Butterfield and I loved Bobby Hackett.  Buck Clayton, oh, he knocked me out.  And then Dizzy, too.  Dizzy and Bird and Miles, early Miles — I liked all that.  But even when I was listening to Bird, I loved Johnny Hodges; he was one of my favorites.  I loved Duke’s band.  I loved even Duke’s piano playing.

TP:    Why do you say “even Duke’s piano playing”?

McKENNA:  Because most people give him short shrift on that.  They  don’t pay enough attention to him.  I love Count Basie’s piano playing, too.  But as far as all the other piano players, I respect them very much and I like them a lot, but they weren’t the ones that inspired me the most.  It was horn players most of the time.

TP:    It sounds like  in developing your style, you just were playing music by your mind’s ear.

McKENNA:   Right, absolutely.

TP:    Were you very involved in bebop?

McKENNA:  When I was 19 or so, I went with Charlie Ventura.  I loved those guys.  I loved Bird and I loved Diz, but  I also loved the players who were on that band. Boots was a fine player, to — he went back on the road with Charlie and played baritone, whereas he was an alto player with Stan Kenton.  But Conte Candoli was on the band; I loved his playing.  Bennie Green, the trombone player.  He was wonderful.

TP:    You recorded one of his pieces on an Epic date, called “Expense Account.”

McKENNA:  Yeah, that was Bennie’s tune.

TP:    Let’s  get  back to your chronology, though.

McKENNA:  I worked with Boots, and he went back and got me with Charlie Ventura.  That was the small band.  It was the one originally that Roy Kral and Jackie Cain were with.  Boots asked me if I wanted to come on that, but maybe I was too scared or something — I was  18 or 19.  So another piano player went out for a while, then I went out. I named those guys already.  Charlie was the leader, Conte Candoli, Bennie Green, Boots Mussulli. Betty Bennett was the singer.  She later married Andre Previn.  Fine singer.  But no guy singer.  Red Mitchell was the bass player, and Ed Shaughnessy played drums.  Red left, Kenny O’Brien came back on.  Red left to join Woody.  Woody broke up that Second Herd and took a small band to Cuba with Milt Jackson, Bill Harris and Red Mitchell.

Then Charlie broke up that band.  I went home for a couple of months.  Then Red Mitchell called me.  He said, “Woody’s reorganizing a big band.  You want to come on?”  So I did.  Then I stayed in Woody’s band until I was drafted in the Korean War.  I spent almost two years as a cook mostly in the Army, and never got in a band.  I got out in something like September, and Boots was back home.  I worked a little with Boots Mussulli again around Worcester and Milford, where he was from. Then Charlie called again, and I went back to that quartet with Charlie, with Sonny Igoe and Bob Carter on bass and me on piano, then later we added Mary Ann McCall.  Then we did a few interesting gigs.  We were on a Stan Kenton Festival of Jazz which predated all those Newport jazz things.  It was in 1955 or so, and it had Stan’s band and the Shorty Rogers-Shelly Manne All Stars with Jimmy Giuffre and Pete Jolly and Curtis Counce, the Art Tatum was on it.  We rode the buses.  And Johnny Smith, who had a big hit, “Moonlight In Vermont,” on all the jazz stations…

TP:    So you got to meet Tatum.

McKENNA:  Oh yeah.  I rode the bus with him. He was a beautiful guy.

TP:    Say a few words about him.

McKENNA:  Well, he was just astounding. But his orientation, it was like hearing Franz Liszt or Rachmaninoff play.   I mean, he could swing like a son of a gun.  If you hear about eight bars of that “Elegy,” he played stride better than Fats maybe.  But he got impatient with that, and he was back to those tremendous classical runs and arpeggios.  It was beautiful.  But he made you sweat when you listened to him.  And he had a nice trio, although he was probably fettered by a trio.  He had Slam Stewart, a marvelous bass player, and Everett Barksdale on guitar.  So I think I only heard him play one solo.

TP:    You’ve said that you also feel fettered by a trio.

McKENNA:  Yeah, but not because I have any technique.  I like to play rubato, change tempos, change keys, and I’d have to rehearse with a bass and drums to get that going.  So I don’t like the piano format, no.  But I love working with a band, a little band either four pieces, or five.  I love a full rhythm section, too.  I love a guitar.  Then I can just plink-plank-pluck, you know.

TP:    Would you say your style was pretty fully formed by the time you went in the Army?

McKENNA:  Well, yeah, but I got more pianistic later.  When I played alone then, I played just a single line in the right hand and a single line in the left, and a few chords here and there.  Not when I played a ballad, but…

TP:    You play like an orchestra now.

McKENNA:  I didn’t consciously become a solo piano player using a bass line.  I just used it to fill up what I heard on records.  That’s the way I played at home.

TP:    Well, you were very distinctive among pianists who came up when you did because of the way you used the left hand.

McKENNA:  I don’t know about that.  And I’m sick of doing that, to tell you the truth — I mean, the bass line.  I’m very sloppy with stride; I came to it later in life. My favorite way to play solo is sort of rolling the chords, like four to the beat, sort of strumming them like a guitar.  Can’t do it too fast, though.  So I much prefer that to the single-note line.  You have to use a little more exertion for that.

TP:    So you were influenced by rhythm guitar players also?

McKENNA:  Yeah.  I think I was.  I loved Count Basie and Freddie Green’s rhythm.  Then later on,  I got to do a couple of record dates in New York with Barry Galbraith, who was the number-one studio rhythm guitar player.  He was in that famous Claude Thornhill rhythm section which they called “the sophisticated Count Basie.”  They swung in a gentler manner, but they swung, though.  It was Billy Exiner on drums, Claude, Joe Shulman on bass and Barry on guitar.  Those guys are all long gone now, of course.

After Korea, Charlie called again with that quartet.  I was with Charlie about three or four different times.  After that, Gene Krupa called, and I worked with his quartet for a while, and I went back with Gene at different times.  I had a short time with Stan Getz, very enjoyable.  But I got a little sick, had to go home for a while, and then I worked with  Zoot Sims and Al Cohn.  Then Gene Krupa again and Charlie again.

But in 1958 I joined Bobby Hackett, and I had a long association with Bobby.   I would leave and go back.  It was on and off until Bobby died around 1978 or ’77, whatever.  Then I worked in Eddie Condon’s in New York City for a while.

TP:    You lived in New York for a while.

McKENNA:  Yes, I did, from 1960 to about ’66, something like that.  I worked at Eddie Condon’s first with Peanuts Hucko’s band, then it was Yank Lawson’s band.  The first band didn’t have a bass.  It was Peanuts, Cutty Cutshall, and Buck Clayton.  Oh, I loved Buck!  Then Buck left, and Nick Travis came on for a bit, and then Yank Lawson came on.  When Peanuts left, Yank became the leader.  Cutty was there all the time.  I worked with different drummers, but we had a bass player.  It was a tough job, but those guys were good players.  And I started to retrogress.  I started to get more interested in the older traditional jazz.  I still played basically the way I did, but I changed my outlook.  Even with Hackett, I started to play… I started using the minor 7th in front all the time.  I started to become a little more old-fashioned, and I think a little too much so that way. [LAUGHS] I’m sort of a mainstream player.  A guy like Bill Evans, who I admire tremendously, was my age, but he went on to pioneer a new piano style.  Maybe in the very early ’50s we played more or less alike… Maybe.  I’m not sure of that.  Maybe I was always a little bit more old-fashioned.

TP:    At least from that trio record, it sounds like your time is more in the older piano players, and Bill Evans has more of a Bud Powell type of left hand.

McKENNA:  I suppose so.

TP:    There’s a quote I read where he said he didn’t get records by piano players except the records he collected of you.

McKENNA:  I think I did see that.  There’s a another quote a long time ago in DownBeat that I’m kind of proud of.  It was a thing about Andre Previn, and toward the end of the interview he said, “What young piano players do you like?”  He said, “Well, I’m not certain how young they are, but I love Bill Evans and Dave McKenna,” something like that.

Then of course, in those days, with Zoot and Al… I had to take a gig with Gene Krupa, went back with Gene for a couple of weeks because it paid more money.  DownBeat  had a “Caught In The Act” which said it was Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, with maybe Knobby Totah on bass, Ray Mosca on drums, “and Bill Evans, subbing for Dave McKenna.” [LAUGHS] I said, “Whoa, man, I wish I could clip that out.”  Bill Evans subbing for Dave McKenna.

TP:    You must know 10,000 tunes.

McKENNA:  Oh, no, man!  Nobody does. In fact, there are guys that know more.  Hank Jones, Jimmy Rowles when he was living, Tommy Flanagan, they know many more tunes than I do.  They know the Bebop tunes, too, and I stopped learning them.  The Bebop tunes I knew go back to “Scrapple From the Apple” and “Yardbird Suite” and “Groovin’ High,” Dizzy’s early things, “Dizzy Atmosphere,” and then maybe up to “The Preacher,” Horace Silver and all that — then I stopped listening to it.  I didn’t stop liking it.  I just got into tunes and all that shit.

TP:    Are you a vocals man?  Do you know the lyrics to all the tunes?

McKENNA:  No.  I mean, I know a few verses and I like them, but Jimmy Rowles had me beat a mile. Well, there are piano players around, more like cocktail piano players; they know more tunes and more verses than I do.  I play them if I know them.

TP:    And when you’re improvising on them, are you thinking about lyrics?

McKENNA:  I never used to.  And you know, for a long while I didn’t even know who wrote what tune.  I mean, I knew the obvious, like Hoagy Carmichael wrote “Stardust” and I knew Cole Porter wrote “Night and Day,” and I knew George Gershwin wrote “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You.”  But later on a friend of mine who was a brilliant musician, an arranger who gave it up for… He said, “Do you realize how many tunes Harry Warren wrote?” and he told me what he wrote — and he got to be my favorite songwriter for a while.  He’s in that class of Rodgers & Hart and Gershwin and Porter, great Pop tunes.  He wrote some rinky-tinky tunes; I even like them.  But “The More I See You,” “I Wish I Knew”…

TP:    Talk about playing a duo and playing a trio and playing a solo, and the different ways you approach them.

McKENNA:  I have no analytical approach.  I just go in and do the best I can.  But  it’s tough  playing solo, and  even tougher playing with a duo.  You’re playing every minute.  At least the horn player gets to rest while you play a solo.

TP:    Duos and trios have been part of your working life for 40-50 years?

McKENNA:  Well, no, not the duos and things.  I did a couple of trio records with Scott Hamilton and Jake Hanna, and I did a few duo records with my old pal Dick Johnson, including one for Concord…

TP:    Well, when did you start being primarily a solo or duo pianist?

McKENNA:  I made my first solo album in 1955, when I was 25, but I didn’t do much solo work in New York at all. I took solo gigs on the Cape during the summers in the early ’60s, and then when I moved back to the Cape after Condon’s I started playing solo extensively. I had done solo gigs and  solo records, but that’s when I started to make a living at it more or less.  I got into it in the ’70s, and it became most of my living — and still is, I guess.  But I’d like to change that. I’m having a little trouble with my hands now and I’d like to play in a little band, but can I make a living?  But I don’t think I’ll be able to make much of a living playing solo either, because my technique isn’t that good, and I’m slowing up and having trouble.  But my hands are feeling a little better in the last couple of weeks, so we’ll see.  I’m starting to play a little more at home on the piano and stuff.

TP:    One aspect of your technique, from what I read in one of these liner notes, the writer said you break up your hands into two parts, like you use the outer two fingers…

McKENNA:  That’s all technical.  I don’t even know what I’m doing.

TP:    So it’s all intuitive for you.  It’s the way you learned.

McKENNA:  Yes.  I am a by-ear piano player — no question.  I had a little classical training. As I said, I had one other teacher, Sandy Sandiford, who was a black guy in Boston who was  a very nice jazz piano player, but he also wrote for singers up there.  I heard about him through another lady piano player in Woonsocket and I went there.  He said, “listen to this and listen that.”  He tried to make me play scales, but I wouldn’t do it.  Then I had a classical teacher very briefly in Woonsocket, a guy who just died lately, who was a classical piano player who got into church music or something.  He tried to give me Chopin.  But he said, “Dave, what’s the use?  You don’t practice.”  I said, “Yeah, you’re right.”  He said, “Just continue what you’re doing.”

I read music to a certain extent, but not well.  So when I was in New York I couldn’t have made a good living as a studio piano player, because I wasn’t a good reader.  So that answers that question.

In the ’80s I was almost exclusively a solo piano player.  I had one long gig during that time at the Copley Plaza in Boston, for most of the decade; I worked there about nine months of the year.

TP:    Did you spend a lot of time in Boston when you were a kid?

McKENNA:  No.  That’s the funny part of it.  My mother is from Boston, and I grew up less than 40 miles away.  But when it came time to leave, I spend much more time in New York.  It wasn’t until later years I got to Boston.

TP:    So talking to you about the Boston scene in the ’40s and ’50s is kind of pointless.

McKENNA:  Yes, it is.  I was aware of it.  I used to go when I was between gigs.  When I’d leave Charlie or Gene, I’d go up and hear the guys.  They had that Jazz Workshop at the Stables and all; I’d go up and I met Herb Pomeroy, Charlie Mariano, and all the guys. But in those days I spent much more time on the road and in New York City.

TP:    But it seems you always knew you were going to be a musician.

McKENNA:  Well, the thing is, I drifted.  I thought maybe I’d go to college.  But there was no money to send me, and my marks weren’t that good in high school.  So rather than a job in a factory in Woonsocket, which was a mill town, and right after World War Two most of them went south… What else was there for me?  I should have gone into the Post Office like my father; I would have had a pension now.  I’m not kidding either.  But I just drifted into it.  That’s the way it was.  And I figured you don’t have to get up early in the morning, which was the way it used to be, more or less.

TP:    Well, you’d go to bed early in the morning.

McKENNA:  Yeah, right.  No more of that.  And sometimes you do have to get up ridiculously early in the morning when you’re on the road — to catch a plane.  But I never intended to be a professional musician.  I never did.

TP:    It just happened.

McKENNA:  Yes, I just drifted into it.

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Raw Copy of A Late ’90s Blindfold Test with Ken Peplowski on his 52nd Birthday

Via Larry Appelbaum’s indefatigable birthday notifications to his  Facebook “friends,” I see that Ken Peplowski, the great clarinetist (tenor saxophone, too), hits 52 today. I conducted one of my first Downbeat Blindfold Tests with Ken — I think this was in 1998, maybe 1999.

1.    Sidney Bechet, “Blue Horizon (from “Hot Jazz on Blue Note,” Blue Note, 1996/rec. 1944).  Sidney Bechet, clarinet; Art Hodes, piano; Pops Foster, bass; Manzie Johnson, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  [Immediately] Sidney Bechet, “Blue Horizon.”  From the first note you can identify his sound.  It’s that big vibrato and that big woody sound.  He had that unique clarinet style, and as distinctive of a clarinet sound as his clarinet playing.

TP:    Is he someone who influenced you at all in your approach?

PEPLOWSKI:  He didn’t influence me by the sound.  It’s a little bit much, to be honest, sometimes.  But his intensity kind of influenced me, and the way he plays ballads and the way he plays this Blues, for example, with just 100% feeling.  Also his rhythmic drive and his unbelievable technique.  He’s an example of a guy who had a lot of technique and knew when not to use it.  This solo is a really funky, real blues-oriented solo, and yet he could turn around and play a great technical tour de force on “China Boy” or something like that.  This is a classic record.  This would be 5 stars, no question.  It’s a perfect example of playing for yourself in a recording situation as opposed to playing for posterity, when you worry about every single note.  These guys are so relaxed, and it’s flowing, and obviously, whatever happens, happens.  There’s a lesson to be learned now.  There’s too much value put on perfection.
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2.    Artie Shaw, “Dancing On The Ceiling”  (from The Last Recordings of Artie Shaw,” MusicMasters, 1992/rec. 1954) Artie Shaw, clarinet; Hank Jones, piano; Joe Puma, guitar; Tommy Potter, bass; Irv Kluger, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  I could be fooled right now.  It could be Artie Shaw doing his Bop thing.  It could be Buddy deFranco and it could possibly be Tony Scott.

TP:    You’re very warm.

PEPLOWSKI:  Hank Jones.  The light touch gave him away. [PAUSE] I know it’s not Artie because there’s some things he does that sound like a saxophone player playing the clarinet.  In other words, it’s not completely a Classical kind of clarinet sound.  It’s like Jimmy Giuffre. [PAUSE]

Well, I guess my first instinct was correct.  At first I said this sounds like it could be Artie or Buddy.  It’s very interesting playing, but overall I think it misses the boat.  There’s something that bothers me about certain clarinetists when they play this kind of music, more Bop-influenced.  All of a sudden they lose their tone.  Like, Artie is loosening up in places… He’s doing saxophonic things that don’t really work well on the clarinet.  That’s why, as we listened to it later, I thought this is a guy who sounds more like a saxophone player.  I think Benny did some of this, too.  When they tried to play this kind of music, instead of just doing it their own way, they tried to adjust their sound and some of their phrasing to this new style instead of just interpreting it through their own method.  So I think it’s a valiant effort, but to be quite honest, I prefer his earlier stuff.  so that would be about a 3½, I think.
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3.    Barney Bigard, “Clarinet Lament,” (from Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra, Fargo, ND 1940, Stash, 1990/rec.1940)

PEPLOWSKI:  No question that that’s Barney Bigard with Duke’s band.  Another guy that you can pick out immediately. [PAUSE] Barney Bigard to me is one of the greats of the clarinet.  In fact, between him and Jimmy Hamilton, that covered a lot of jazz history on the clarinet.  That has to be a 5-star thing.  I think that was Barney’s finest period, too.  He played so inspired, and Duke wrote some great stuff for him, and he’s one of the greatest.  He’s so great that I don’t think he is a big influence on people because he’s so unique, that to try to take things from him, you wind up sounding like him.  So he stands alone.
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4.    Jimmy Hamilton, “Bluebird of Delhi” (from “Far East Suite-Special Mix,” RCA, 1995/rec.1966).  The Duke Ellington Orchestra.

PEPLOWSKI:  [IMMEDIATELY] “Far East Suite,” “Bluebird of Delhi.” From the introduction.  This record was a major thing for me when I was growing up.  Jimmy Hamilton, from the first time I heard him, I thought, “This is the direction I want to go.”  He combines the best of the classical clarinet approach with the improvisatory approach.   He could have played in an orchestra, yet he could swing like nobody else.  Plus, that’s got to be 5 stars for the record itself.  “The Far East Suite” is some of the best writing of Strayhorn (mostly) and Ellington.  It’s such a great example of how to write for specific soloists, and has some of the most beautiful clarinet writing.  I love that.  I listened to that over and over and over when I first heard it, and I would recommend it to anybody. [PAUSE] Also, I love the way the ensemble comes in and Jimmy Hamilton answers them.  There was a lot of Duke writing in that fashion for Jimmy.  And he had such great instinctive ears that he knew when to play and when not to play.  He complements the band and they complement him.  It’s beautiful.
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5.    Benny Goodman, “Shirley Steps Out” (from “Undercurrent Blues,” Capitol Jazz, 1995/rec.1947) with Alan Hendrickson, guitar; Mel Powell, piano, Red Norvo, vibes.

PEPLOWSKI:  As soon as they started improvising, I knew it was Benny.  This is one of his Bop experiments.  It’s pretty interesting.  It sounds like a guitarist who was influenced by Charlie, but I don’t think it is.  [VIBES SOLO] Who is this?  Is that Johnny White?

TP:    It’s Red Norvo.

PEPLOWSKI:  Red Norvo, wow. [PIANO] That sounds like Teddy.

TP:    Mel Powell.

PEPLOWSKI:  What is this record?  Is this a Commodore?

TP:    Capitol.

PEPLOWSKI:  It’s very nice.  This to me is a little more successful in this vein than what Artie was attempting.  Because Benny plays closer to himself… It still sounds like him.  It’s very nice.  That was a nice record.  I was surprised.  I don’t remember hearing that.  I’m sure I’ve got it, but I have to confess, I overlooked that period myself.  It was nice.  I’d give it 4 stars.  It was really refreshing.  It’s nice to hear Benny play some different material, too.

TP:    Do you find Benny’s style stays integral through all of his improvising?  Is that characteristic, that he keeps his sound through any situation?

PEPLOWSKI:  Pretty much, yeah.  Critics love to write about his double-lip embouchure period, and he allegedly changed and all this stuff.  But you could pretty much recognize him all the time.  When we first heard the head, then I was thinking this could obviously be Buddy De Franco.  But as soon as he started playing, the way he gets around the horn, that’s Benny.  First of all, there’s only a few people who sound like they really play it like a clarinet and not like a double, as opposed to if you heard somebody like Jimmy Giuffre.  I love the way he plays, I love the way Lester Young played, but they’re still saxophone players.  And Benny does some distinctly clarinet things that could only lend themselves to that instrument.  That was nice.
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6.    Jimmy Giuffre, “Conversations With A Goose” (from “Conversations With A Goose,” Soul Note, 1996), Giuffre, clarinet; Paul Bley, piano; Steve Swallow, electric bass.

PEPLOWSKI:  It sounds like Barney Bigard on acid! [AFTER A WHILE] I have no idea.  Who is this?

TP:    It’s Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley and Steve Swallow.  Do you see any changes in his playing from the earlier things they did?

PEPLOWSKI:  Well, if anything, I think he’s into even more of a kind of primitive approach.  Actually, to be quite honest, it was more interesting to me what the piano was doing and the bass player, because they had a certain groove going on.  But that may be partly due to the way it’s recorded.  It kind of bothers me.  It sounds like the microphones are thrust right inside the piano, we’re hearing the piano so clear and loud, and the clarinet is kind of off in the distance a little bit in the mix.  So automatically, psychologically, he doesn’t feel like part of the ensemble.  It’s interesting.  Obviously, he’s heading into an ever more free zone than he ever was.

TP:    Is this music that’s appealed to you?

PEPLOWSKI:  I like the idea.  Sometimes I like the idea more than the execution, and this would be an example of that.  Obviously, it’s kind of a crap shoot when you’re just playing freely like this, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  This time it was kind of interesting, he got into some different sounds and things, but it was a little bit rambling for me.  I’d give that 2½ stars.  I don’t know if I’d listen to that over and over.
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7.    Bill Easley, “Come Sunday” (from “Wind Inventions,” Sunnyside, 1988) Easley, clarinet; James Williams, piano; Rufus Reid, bass, Tony Reedus, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  Obviously, I know “Come Sunday” by Duke Ellington.  The clarinet has a little bit of a New Orleans type of approach, whether he’s from there or not.  Actually, he sounds a little bit like Barney Bigard in his sound.  But I don’t know who it is yet. The piano player is a little heavy-handed for me on this song.  He sounds a little bit like he’s playing with hammers instead of fingers. [THE SONG GOES INTO UP-TEMPO]
I really don’t know who it is, but they’ve got a very beautiful clarinet sound.  It’s a little curious to me to play this song like this.  Why not use anything else as a vehicle for improvisation.

TP:    Well, the interpretation could be the jubilation of…

PEPLOWSKI:  I know.  But sometimes it seems a little arbitrary, like “Gee, let’s pick this song and jazz it up.”  But it’s interesting.  The clarinet player sounds nice.  I have no idea who it is. [PAUSE] It bothers me that when you listen to the rhythm section improvising, the bassist is way ahead of the drummer… It’s not a very good rhythm section.  They sound kind of heavy-handed and definitely not together.  So I feel a little bad for the clarinet player.

TP:    It didn’t seem to faze him much.

PEPLOWSKI:  No.  He’s got a very even sound and even phrasing.  I would give it 3½, I think, because I like his playing, but I’m not completely happy with the overall performance. [PAUSE] One last comment.  Beautiful sound.  Beautiful clarinet approach.  I just wasn’t really nuts about the overall record, but he’s a great player.
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8.    Alvin Batiste, “Banjo Noir” (from “Late,” Columbia, rec. 1993), with Fred Sanders, piano; Elton Heron, bass; Herman Jackson, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  It’s a very nice record.  Whoever this is knows how to write for the instrument.  It’s a nice groove.  He’s playing a lot of stuff that comes right out of clarinet etudes.  I know this guy has studied the clarinet.  Nice, interesting tune.  Good groove.  Beautiful sound.  He’s a little bit controlled.  I wish he would open up a little bit more even during this.  I don’t know who it is.

TP:    Do you hear any particular lineage in clarinet improvising style?

PEPLOWSKI:  On this guy?  I don’t know where he comes from.  Also, this kind of recording is a little sterile for me — the recording itself.  Even if everybody was in the same room, whatever the engineer did, they sound like they were isolated and then remixed by him.  There’s a little bit too much of an upfront quality of every single instrument.  Especially when you want to have a nice groove like this, it should sound more like a band playing together instead of being able to pick out each individual instrument.  That’s not the fault of the musicians.  It’s the fault of the way it was recorded. [PAUSE]

This is after you told me who it is.  I am pleasantly surprised.  When you asked me did I detect any influence, I definitely didn’t detect any New Orleans influence in there.  A beautiful clarinet player.  I’ve heard a few things of his.  That was very nice record.  I’d give it 4 stars.
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9.    David Krakauer, “Africa Bulgar,” (from “Klezmer Madness,” Tzadik, 1995) with Michael Alpert, accordion; Dave Licht, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  I asked first if that was Ivo Papasov.  It’s got that quality to it, but we’ll see what happens. [PAUSE] As he got into it, I realized this is more a Yiddish kind of a groove. [TEMPO CHANGE] This is just a wild guess, because I haven’t heard any of this stuff.  Is this Don Byron? [TP:  No.] [LATER] PEPLOWSKI:  I don’t really know who it is.  That was nice.  I’m not familiar with a lot of the klezmer guys.  I love Dave Tarras, the old school, and this has a lot of those elements.  It’s nice dance music, it’s kind of fun…

TP:    He was very influenced by Dave Tarras.

PEPLOWSKI:  Oh.  It’s nothing earth-shaking, but it’s fun music and…

TP:    You used to play this…well, Greek music.
PEPLOWSKI:  I used to play this and polka music.  I used to play Polish polka music.  It’s interesting to me that this music is so popular now, and people have overlooked that music, which is also a great showcase for the clarinet.  I think if I put a polka band together and did a gig at the Knitting Factory, we’d be as popular as anything.  I’m not trying to take away from this music because it’s great stuff, and it’s music for the masses.  But if you put a little bit of an ironic twist on it and work at a hip club, all of a sudden everybody starts paying attention.

TP:    Now, in their defense, that’s just one tune of a whole program of very different pieces.

PEPLOWSKI:  I know.  It’s a strange time for music, because… I bet I could do that.  If I’d put a polka band together and we dressed up in funny suits and worked at the Knitting Factory, and did exactly what I did in Cleveland when I was playing weddings, people would think, “Gee, this is the hippest music I can imagine.”  But if that’s a way for people to discover this stuff, that’s great because it is valid music and it’s great music.

TP:    This is the Millennium.  Marketing is everything.

PEPLOWSKI:  We’ve reached that stage where we’re just looking back at everything that’s happened and drawing from all these different sources.

TP:    How many stars?

PEPLOWSKI:  I would give it 3 stars.  I liked it, but I could listen to a hundred of those records — this doesn’t stand out, in other words.  I wish he might have played with a little bit more passion in some places and used more of the entire range of the clarinet.  He kind of stayed in one little area.  But I applaud him for what he’s trying to do, and I can hear the Dave Tarras thing.
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10.    John Carter, “Encounter” (from “Comin’ On,” Hat Art, 1988) Carter, clarinet; Bobby Bradford, cornet; Don Preston, synthesizer; Richard Davis, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  I like this very much.  The writing sounds a little bit influenced by Miles, and I love the use of electronics as pure sound sometimes instead of trying to imitate another instrument. It’s pretty refreshing. [PAUSE]

John Carter.  Guessed it.  As soon as he started doing the upper register thing, I knew it was him. [PAUSE]

As most stars as I can give, 5-6, whatever.  This is very refreshing music to me.  I think it’s completely not pretentious.  It’s fresh, it’s exciting, interesting writing and playing, and the use of electronics is really well done and really integrated into the ensemble.  It’s really great. [PAUSE] The thing that strikes me is that it really sounds like a band playing together.  This is the way music is supposed to be.  And John Carter is completely unbridled.  It’s really open.  I have a feeling that he does exactly what he wants to do, and he doesn’t have any limits to what he’s trying to achieve.  It’s great.  I think his music is as important, maybe more so, than Ornette’s music as far as this kind of thing.  The writing is as interesting, and I just love the way they use the electronics.  It’s really free and open, and yet at the same time it’s got a structure to it, and everybody is listening and reacting to each other.

TP:    Talk about his clarinet style.  Is he an innovative clarinet player?

PEPLOWSKI:  He’s innovative in the sense that he does on the clarinet what people like Ornette and maybe Eric Dolphy did on the saxophone.  He kind of plays completely free and open… You know, a lot of clarinet players sound a little bit too controlled.  It’s part of the nature of the instrument.  You’re taught from the beginning that you have to play with this rigid embouchure, and the ideal sound on the clarinet is this wooden, kind of round sound, and as soon as you start fluctuating from that, the tone kind of goes.  The technique is a little bit difficult.  So it’s refreshing to hear somebody that’s gone past some of those restrictions.  The only way I can describe is he’s a completely open player, which on the clarinet is kind of rare to hear.

11.    Don Byron, “St. Louis Blues” (from “Bug Music,” Nonesuch, 1996).  Byron, clarinet; Steve Wilson, alto saxophone; Kenny Davis, bass; Billy Hart, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  It sounds like Dan Block, but I’m not sure that it is.  In the beginning there was almost a klezmer kind of influence.  It was nice.  The band sounds good and tight.  Again, the recording quality bothers me.  It’s so sterile-sounding.  It’s this close, miking, separated sound of everything that kind of takes away a lot from the feel to me.  It really bothers me on more modern recordings.

TP:    Anything else about the clarinet player?

PEPLOWSKI:  He sounded nice.  There’s nothing distinctive there that I could pick him out?

TP:    Did he sound like he was in the bag of any of the older clarinet players?

PEPLOWSKI:  I can’t identify him.

TP:    It’s Don Byron.

PEPLOWSKI:  Don Byron.  Wow.  It’s a nice surprise.  It was good.  Like I say, there’s nothing there that would draw me and say I’ve got to go out and buy this record, but it was a nice record.  3 stars.
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12.    Buddy DeFranco, “I Got Rhythm” (from “Buddy DeFranco and Oscar Peterson Play George Gershwin,” Verve, 1998/rec.1954) DeFranco, clarinet; Peterson, piano; Russell Garcia, arranger & conductor.

PEPLOWSKI:  An interesting thing is, I recorded this song with almost the same groove and the same tempo, and I haven’t heard this record.  That’s not Buddy, is it? [TP:  Yes.] It’s beautiful.  He’s one of the innovators.  Here’s an example of a great recording technique, too.  It sounds like the band is playing with a groove, they’re playing together.  It’s almost like in the late ’50s-early ’60s they really perfected the style of recording this kind of music, and ever since they’ve been trying to mess with it.  This is the way it would sound if you were standing this far away from a band playing.  This is the way it’s supposed to be.  Instead of the middle of an orchestra.

Obviously, Buddy came from a combination of Benny and Artie, but he forged his own style, and he’s got a unique sound and approach. And he was an innovator.  He turned a lot of people’s heads.  Because he was the only guy at this time who was playing real more Modern-influenced music.  And it’s a great combination to me of kind of Bop-influenced lines and real pretty phrasing.  It’s wonderful. This is 5 stars.  I love it.
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13.    Pee Wee Russell, “Wailin’ D.A. Blues” (from “Pee Wee Russell: Jazz Original,” 1997/rec. 1944) Russell, clarinet; Jess Stacy, piano; Sid Weiss, bass; George Wettling, drums.

PEPLOWSKI:  Pee Wee.  From the first note.  A complete original.  I love him.  Mister Soulful.  Strangely enough, in the very early records, he did have a lot more technique — in the real early days.  But he just kind of threw everything out.  In his own way, as strange as it seems, he’s like the Thelonious Monk of the clarinet.  He pared everything down to real basics.  But obviously, he understands… He’s not simple player or a primitive player.  He understands all the harmonic ideas that are going on around him.  Like, he strips his own playing down to just the basics.  He’s a very intelligent player in my mind, with a lot of soul.  It’s great.  I would have to give that 5 stars.

TP:    Can you pinpoint this in time.

PEPLOWSKI:  Just from the sound of the recording, I would guess it’s got to be somewhere in the mid to late 1940′s.
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PEPLOWSKI:  There were some pleasant surprises in there; some eye-openers.  There does seem to be a little bit of a resurgence in the clarinet, and there are some people trying different things with it, which is refreshing.  My only general comments about that stuff is it’s nice to hear people try to break the preconceived boundaries of what the clarinet is supposed to be…

[ETC.]

The Bobby Bradford-John Carter was definitely the best thing I heard, because it’s the most refreshing.  Frankly, sometimes I get bored just hearing the same things over and over.  Sometimes you get the feeling that it’s all been played, and then you hear something like that, and you realize there’s life yet in music.  It’s an eye-opener.

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