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Interview Two: The Welcome Return
Buddy De Franco talks to Les Tomkins about his history in jazz and previous jazz bands.
Source: Jazz Professional
It was ten years ago that I came over here as the leader of the Glenn Miller band—but this is the first time that I’ve ever worked Ronnie Scott’s. And I don’t remember if we worked in England with Jazz At The Phil; but I think there were some Union problems at the time, and we couldn’t work it out. So actually this is my first jazz appearance here. It’s kind of overdue—when you think that this is my forty–first year in the business.
I started in ‘39; my first road band was Johnny “Scat” Davis. Others, like Krupa, Barnet, Dorsey followed. Even Ted Fio Rito—Ted decided he wanted to get a good jazz band, and he called most of the players from the Scat Davis and Krupa bands—for instance, Dodo Marmarosa, Jimmy Pupa. But it didn’t last, because Ted really didn’t know enough about Swing music, or jazz—although he gave it a good try. He was a commercial–type piano player himself, but he featured Dodo heavily; he gave him a big build–up, and a lot of latitude—let him play whatever he wanted to play. Then we went on to Barnet; when I say we, it was actually the three of us who went to these different bands together—mvself, Dodo Marmarosa and the trumpet player, Jimmy Pupa. Pete Candoli was another one who played on the same bands.
Barnet had Gil Evans writing at the time, as well as Johnny Mandel and Neal Hefti, who were also members of the band. For a time, they had two bass players—Oscar Pettiford and Chubby Jackson. Tommy Peterson was playing trombone. It was just an amazing group of players in that band; yes, it could definitely be termed a bebop band. Then Johnny Mandel stopped playing piano to concentrate on arranging, and Dodo came in as the pianist. And there again, Charlie Barnet featured both of us.
Charlie Shavers, in fact, was the guy who told me about Bird; I had known Charlie before we worked together on Dorsey’s band. Dodo Marmarosa had also heard about Bird; then we travelled up to Harlem, and we found out Bird was going to sit in that night. Of course, that changed my concept totally. And I think it was sensible of me, in changing to the modern bop concept, to stay with the clarinet. Because if I had stayed with the alto and done the same thing I would have been one of a long line of saxophone players all trying to play like Bird.
I must blow my own horn in some ways—because I remember some of those old acetate records; they wouldn’t last too long, but when I still listen to those that I made, I was gravitating harmonically to a more advanced kind of playing. And the reason for that was: I would listen deliberately to most piano players, especially those who were harmonically developing—like Tatum, Jimmy Jones and Dodo. I liked what I heard them do, and I was trying to translate that to the clarinet. I wasn’t there as far as the articulation was concerned, but then, when I discovered Charlie Parker, that seemed to spell itself out for me.
As for my time with the Miller band, which was eight years—that was a great experience; surprisingly enough, it was a positive musical experience. By working with that band, having the opportunity to rehearse it, and take it all around the world, I listened and became aware of the fact that that’s probably one of the most difficult books in the whole band business to perform—and it sounds easy. It gave me a deeper appreciation of the guys who played in the original Miller band. Number two: I had the chance to go into the files at the Miller office, in the room where they have all the orchestrations. I’d go and find some obscure Bill Finegan arrangements that were done way back—and, my gosh, it was like uncovering a great painting. So that was terrific. In other words, I put up with wading through “In The Mood” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in order to listen to a lot of good music, and to learn from that band.
I found there was a greater musical and technical depth than I’d thought —although I can remember my brother and I deliberately buying, and going absolutely crazy about the ballads that band played, the way the voicing was done—particularly the Finegan charts. Even in my teen years, I was never enthralled with “Little Brown Jug” or “Chattanooga Choo Choo”—that’s the commercial stuff—but I did take great delight listening to those ballads, such as “Indian Summer” and “Skylark”. They were really beautiful arrangements.
So, at the risk of putting the clarinet aside. I took the job for those eight years in the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies. But there was no place to play, anyway, as regards jazz. Only the most popular, top players were making a good living out of jazz —Miles, Dizzy, Stan Getz, Chick Corea, Wes Montgomery, Coltrane—but not too many others were really making a lot of money. Jazz clubs were all gone. I don’t have to tell you about the record business during that time.
But now—it’s tremendous. I just recently played in Los Angeles, in April and again in May—and April was the first time I’d played there in sixteen years. The business was great, and they liked what I was doing; in fact, I got a marvellous review in the Sunday paper in Los Angeles, by Leonard Feather. And I found out there are about fifteen jazz clubs in Los Angeles. It’s picking up pretty good; young people are becoming more and more aware of bop and modern jazz.
I really wanted a chance at a jazz career again. Certainly, the Miller period ws frustrating for me as a player; eight years—all those one–nighters, fifty weeks a year—that was plenty for me. Enough was enough, and I was simply determined to start playing the clarinet again. I sensed, too, that jazz might have a chance to come back. And I had some great support: one of the vice—presidents of ITT—his name is Keith Perkins—organised a little record company, Famous Solos, for kind of a hobby, and he really created work for me for about a year, while I was making the transition; so that helped immensely. Then I also decided to change my equipment—the clarinet and mouthpiece—and I found I felt better about playing after that.
As for my record output in recent years—yes, there was the “Borinquin” album in ‘75; that was done at the Statler Hilton in Buffalo with my group. Also, we have one that’s on Progressive Jazz, called “Like Someone In Love”, with George Duvivier, Ronnie Bedford, Ta1 Farlow and Derek Smith—that’s really a nice album. Recently I had a reunion, at Carmello’s night—club in Los Angeles, with a phenomenal accordion player, Tommy Gumina—we did four albums for Mercury around 1960—it was a real picnic to get back with him. I have an album, “Waterbed” on the Choice label with another fine accordionist, Gordie Fleming, that we made in Canada in ‘77.
Another recent album of mine is “Ten Jazz Etudes For Clarinet And Guitar”—just the two instruments. I wrote the etudes, and Jim Gillis is an excellent guitarist and jazz player, who writes some interesting material also. He accompanied me on guitar here; it’s kind of a Music Minus One type of album, but it’s released through Inner City. Jim uses a bass string on the bottom, instead of the E, and he works it out so it sounds like a bass playing; we’ve gotten a couple of letters asking why we didn’t list the bass player. Really interesting stuff.
Then we have one more album, that we’re trying to sell now, in fact; we have the master–tape. It’s with George Duvivier, Ronnie Bedford and Albert Dailey on piano. And Al Cohn’s son plays guitar—Joe Cohn is a terrific guitar player. As a matter of fact, I understand they’re coming to London in January—Al and his son. You’ll be surprised; his son is tremendous. So anyway, that’s one of my better albums, I think, and we’ll see what happens with it; we have about three labels that are going to consider if it’s worth–while to them.
Having worked with Terry Gibbs for the first time, at Ronnie’s, I would definitely love to record with him. I think it would be a very musical album, and exciting—maybe commercially, you know. And that’s hard to come by; it’s hard to play what you want to play and have it accepted by the public. I’m past the point specially at my age now—of worrying about making any kind of a compromise. Some years ago, I might have been tempted—when you think your life is that important, or your career. Now, I play what I want to play—when I get paid for doing it, that’s a plus, and I’m happy about it.
Many people don’t know that I did three years of studio work, some time ago—all the clarinet background on Route Sixty–Six, a lot of Donna Reed’s shows, a couple of movies, such as Ocean’s Eleven. It was valuable experience—and you accept that. I think it’s good experience for any musician to play everything during the course of his lifetime. It teaches you a great deal of self–discipline. I’m not unhappy about leading the Glenn Miller band, and I’m glad that I played barmitzvahs, Italian and Polish weddings, dances, circus acts, burlesque shows in my career. Every musician should do as much of other things as he can. I’ll quote the great philosopher Doris Day, who said: “It’s not the song you sing—it’s where you sing it.” It’s the only way you can say something musically—really. The bad times as well as the good are an essential part of your musical expression.
The same thing applies to large cities: I hate New York, I really do, and I’m not too fond of London, as a city—but I’m not too fond of cities. But where would we be without them—right? There would be no jazz without London, without New York. Experience it all, when you can.
Playing jazz full–time is a great feeling; I’m really very happy. It’s been a lot of fun at Ronnie’s club; I think business has been quite substantial—so may be I’ll have a chance to come back. I’m surprised that. as late as the place stays open, it still does so well. The reviews have been great, and Ronnie and Pete seem to approve of what we’ve been doing. Things look pretty good.
It’s true that the clarinet has become a neglected jazz instrument, but I’m certain there will be some further development on it. Somewhere, right now, there’s got to be that young fellow who’s woodshedding in his home. It’s definitely going to happen —I’m sure of it.
Copyright © 1980, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.