The Giant Steps of Buddy DeFranco

Christmas Eve saw the passing of another great Jazz artist, the clarinettist Buddy DeFranco , at the grand old age of 91. Not surprisingly, glowing tributes to him have appeared in all the mainstream media as well as in specialist jazz sources as he was an absolutely superb musician as well as a distinctive stylist. Alongside countless other measures of his greatness and popularity, he won no less than twenty Downbeat Magazine Awards and nine Metronome Magazine Awards as the number one jazz clarinettist in the world.

It’s an interesting facet of jazz history that the clarinet, a mainstay of jazz styles from the New Orleans roots through to the Swing Era, fell into disfavour in the post-war era with the advent of bebop when it was largely eclipsed by the saxophone. Very few musicians persisted with the clarinet into the era of modern jazz, but Buddy DeFranco was one who did. That’s not to say that he disliked swing music though. In fact he began his career playing with big bands of that era, such as those led by Gene Krupa and Tommy Dorsey. One of the most famous bands of that era, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, formed in 1935 and saw its greatest popularity during the Second World War. It was disbanded in 1944 on the death of its leader, but it started again in 1956 and, although it has had a number of changes of personnel, it is still going strong. So strong that there’s a minimum two year waiting list if you want to book the Glenn Miller Orchestra for a gig! With the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two coming up this year, I’ve no doubt that there’ll be a great deal of nostalgia evoked by renditions of Moonlight Serenade..

The distinctive sound of the original Glenn Miller Orchestra largely derived from the unusual arrangement of its reed section: usually four saxophones playing in harmony, topped by a high clarinet lead. Many jazz fans found that blend a bit too honeyed compared with the likes of, e.g., the Count Basie Orchestra but there’s no question that it gave the band an immediately recognisable sound. Despite his predilection for more modern jazz idioms, especially bebop, Buddy DeFranco obviously very much liked the idea of a big band with a clarinet playing such a prominent part and, in fact, he was the leader and musical director of the revived Glenn Miller Orchestra from 1966 until 1974, and also guested with them on a number of occasions after that.

Anyway, Buddy DeFranco was one of the most technically accomplished clarinettists in all of jazz. Very few have ever been able to match his control, particularly in the upper register. But what I admired most about him was his willingness to take on material not usually associated with his instrument. Here’s a great example, of him playing the John Coltrane classic Giant Steps together with Terry Gibbs on vibraphone. When I saw the relatively low quality reproduction of the film I assumed the sound quality would be similarly poor, but some superb remastering work has been done and this sounds terrific.

Rest In Peace, Buddy DeFranco (1923-2014).

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