Yesterday, I wrote about Cross Country Suite (1958), a Grammy-winning symphonic jazz-folk album that was composed by Nelson Riddle, orchestrated by Bill Jones and featured Buddy De Franco on clarinet. A love letter to the American landscape, the album features 11 tracks, each an impressionistic rendering of a different region of the country. Taken together, the album released under Buddy's name has a Rhapsody in Blue meets An American in Paris spirit. Through Riddle's pastoral mini-portraits (each tracks runs between 2 and 5 minutes), you tour the country when it was still dominated by nature rather than industry.
Curious about the jazz album's unusual theme, how it wound up being recorded, and why the LP never became more widely known, I called Buddy to chat:
JazzWax: How well did you know Nelson Riddle?
Buddy De Franco: Nelson and I were very close friends for years. We played together in Tommy Dorsey’s band. I was on clarinet and Nelson was on trombone. We even roomed for a time on the road. I really loved Nelson. He was a great person with a wonderful sense of humor. Our bond was music. He liked the way I played, and I admired his writing. And we were both big fans of Bill Finegan's writing.
JW: Was Nelson mild-mannered?
BDF: Nelson was a funny guy. His shirttail was always out and his tie askew. But he never lost his dignity, no matter what. His countenance was always dignified. He was as easygoing as his music.
JW: How did Cross Country Suite come about?
BDF: In the late 1950s, the rock business started to take hold, and all the jazz clubs, theaters and supper clubs that had bands folded. There was very little work for jazz players. Around this time I ran into Stan Kenton and bemoaned that times were rotten for jazz players and that we were anti-rock ‘n’ roll. I still am. I think the dumbing down of America started with rock ‘n’ roll.
JW: What did Stan say?
BDF: Stan said, “Listen, we’re doing music clinics at colleges all over the country, so contact your agent. Go to work underground at the universities, and we’ll keep this thing alive.” Stan was right. I started doing all these clinics at colleges and high schools. My first clinic was for Gene Hall [pictured] at North Texas State. Gene was the founding director of the jazz education program there, the first in the country. We did the clinic with Stan.
JW: Did Cross Country Suite come out of those clinics?
BDF: Not exactly but there's an indirect connection. At the time, I lived in California and got this bright idea for a large piece of music that I could use when I played at different college clinics throughout the country. So I called Nelson, who was working on a Nat King Cole album at the time. I called him and told him I was doing these clinics and that I’d love to have him compose something for me. I wanted a series of pieces that I could play that would be indigenous to the different regions where I'd be playing.
JW: What did Nelson say?
BDF: He loved the idea. A short time later he called me back and said, “I’ve got it, I’ve got it. It’s called Cross Country Suite.” He said we should record it. So I told Jack Lee, a friend of mine and a big music contractor. Jack said he would try to get the music recorded. He went to a couple of people, who in turn brought him to Dot Records. Jack talked Randy Wood, the head of Dot, into recording it. Dot specialized in a wide range of music, from country and folk to gospel and even polkas.
JW: Quite a commitment on Dot's part in 1958.
BDF: Huge. The music required a swing band plus an orchestra with strings.
JW: When you told Nelson about the date, what did he say?
BDF: He said, “Great. I’ve written it. I’ll see you at the session.” At the first date in June 1958, he brought in the score, and the copyist handed out the parts. They went up on the stands, and Nelson said, "Here we go." We read it down a couple of times and started recording. There were no rehearsals.
JW: The album was recorded over three days. Were there many retakes?
BDF: Look, there were 11 compositions. Most were pretty intricate. Very demanding. We had the best players there: guys who were really experienced doing studio work. Back then, you saw music for the first time when you arrived and then played it perfectly the first or second time. Not like today. The swing band had Don Fagerquist and Conrad Gozzo on trumpets, Milt Bernhart [pictured] and George Roberts on trombones, Vince De Rosa on French horn, Herb Geller on alto sax, Pete Jolly on piano, Billy Bean on guitar, Red Mitchell on bass and Bill Richmond on drums. Plus an orchestra. These guys were the best. I think we ran it down maybe twice to be sure the notes and interpretation were OK. Nelson may have made a few note changes. Then we did it, and we'd have a take. Logistically, it was a monumental task.
JW: Where did Nelson put you?
BDF: I didn’t like the idea of baffles isolating me in a corner of the studio. Fortunately Nelson and the engineer didn't either. So I was right in the middle of everything, standing in front of the musicians. It was incredibly exciting.
JW: Were your eyes closed to capture the music's moods?
BDF: [laughs] No, no I had to read the music. But more than half of it was improvised. My eyes were wide open.
JW: Were you thinking of the different regions of the country as you played the compositions?
BDF: Sure, in my brain and my being, Tall Timber, was tall timber to me. That’s what it meant. Smoky Mountain Country was that. Those compositions got into my soul.
JW: Who played the harmonica on The Mississippi?
BDF: George Fields. He was one of the few guys who could play that instrument and read music. He loved classical music and did a lot of studio work, especially on Westerns. That's his harmonica on Moon River in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
JW: Who sang those boastful lyrics on Longhorn?
BDF: [Laughs] That song was a great takeoff on Texas, wasn't it? Do you remember the song Deep in the Heart of Texas? That's what the vocal parts were based on. The singers were me, Jack Lee, Nelson, the copyist and another guy whose name I can't recall. We overdubbed them. It was Nelson’s idea. He called me up and said, "Let’s go back in and do this crazy idea I have." We met, they ran the music down through the speakers and we overdubbed the lyrics that Nelson had written out.
JW: That song and the vocal really drive home the album's folk roots.
BDF: Exactly—and it was comic relief.
JW: This was a different sort of album for you.
BDF: Yes, but it was great. A great experience. I was happy to do it since I was so close to Nelson. He was very well known as an arranger but not as well known as a composer. I already knew he was a great composer, and this was a chance to show that off. It was a kick. It was interesting to get into the music and discuss the first and second take and make a few minor adjustments. To work that closely with Nelson was a joy.
JW: What did Randy Wood, Dot Records' owner, think?
BDF: He didn’t like the end result [laughing]. He was really a Country & Western kind of guy. He was originally from Tennessee, and his commercial pop music taste and experience were limited to Pat Boone [pictured]. Boone was his biggest artist and a gigantic star.
JW: So how did the “square” photo of you on the cover come about?
BDF: [Laughs] When I went to take pictures for the cover, I came in with a suit and tie. Somebody from Dot said that Randy wanted me to wear a sweater and white bucks, like Pat Boone. So I went into wardrobe and got this dumpy red sweater and white bucks, and that was it.
JW: Did you ever play the suite at clinics?
BDF: Ironically, no. At the time, the cost of playing it with an orchestra and swing band was prohibitively expensive. And the schools weren’t doing that much symphonic jazz. They focused more on swing. We performed it once, in the summer of 1958 [August 29], at the Hollywood Bowl, but it wasn't recorded. Nat King Cole was there.
JW: Was Billy Bean, the guitarist on the recording, a pseudonym?
BDF: No, no. Billy was from Philadelphia. He was one of the very best studio guitarists in the business. I had called Barney Kessel to do the date but he couldn't make it but told me Billy was in town. I called Billy immediately, and he did it.
JW: Over the years, have people asked you about the album, which had become relatively obscure?
BDF: Yes. Many people consider it one of their favorite albums of mine, especially musicians.
JW: Why wasn't it more widely known?
BDF: That's a story and a half. Jack Lee ran with this thing. We recorded it, and when we heard the playback, we knew we had something good. But no one knew how to promote it. No one knew which bin to put it in at record stores. Was it a symphony? Jazz? Folk? So it was shuffled around. It was everywhere and nowhere. We didn’t have the kind of money needed back then to really promote something like that. We couldn’t find anyone outside the music business who was willing to put dollars against TV and all that.
JW: What did you do?
BDF: Jack Lee and I got a hold of the actor Jose Ferrer. He agreed to be the host if we did a TV show. The plan was we'd go from one university to another around the country playing the different compositions, and Jose would be the series host. Then Jack got a friend of someone at the ad agency Young & Rubicam, who in turn got to someone at American Airlines. The airline was introducing a 707 jet and got an idea to put a 45rpm of the album in the seats of all the planes, which would have meant about 4,000 seats. You know, where all the magazines go behind the seats.
JW: So Jose was on board and you had a client in place for a large cross-promotion that tied into a "see America" travel theme?
BDF: Right. We just needed to nail down TV. Since Jose was married to Rosemary Clooney at the time, she agreed to do some of the walk-ons for the TV segments. Rosemary then called Bing Crosby, who agreed to do the first show.
JW: Wow, you were on a roll.
BDF: Oh yeah, we were really sailing. Then we got a gigantic meeting at Columbia Pictures about this thing. When we arrived at the offices, there was a group of seven or eight CBS executives around the table. Jose was there, Rosemary was there, Jack Lee was there, I was there and Nelson was there. We were taking them through the whole thing. And as we're talking, I'm thinking, man, this thing is really becoming monumental.
JW: Sounded like a sure thing. What happened?
BDF: Well, it's funny. As soon as you convince yourself that something is huge, life takes a turn. About halfway through the pitch, one of the executives got up and said, "Ahhh, I don’t get it," and he walked out. Then all of the other executives walked out. So there we were, me, Rosemary [pictured], Jose, Jack Lee and Nelson staring at each other with that "What just happened?" look on our faces. So we left. The next day I called the secretary for one of the executives. She said, "Who is this?" and "Can you spell your name for me?" Just like that, the idea was over. They wouldn't take my call. Everything went down the tubes.
JW: If the show had been approved, how would it have worked?
BDF: In all fairness, we didn’t have too much of an idea. We thought that for each of the 11 shows, there would be landscape footage of the area around the college campus where we were holding a clinic, with the orchestra playing music from Cross Country Suite appropriate for the region. I thought it was a good idea, except it never happened. This was a time when rock 'n' roll was really taking off, and maybe our idea was a little square.
JW: That kind of thing must have happened all the time in Hollywood and the music business.
BDF: Oh sure. The same thing happened in 1954 with my Gershwin album with Oscar Peterson and a band and strings for Verve. We were going to take the concept out on the road but at the last minute they couldn't get anyone to put up the money to promote it.
JW: Barney Kessel was pretty instrumental in the rock scene back then. Did you and other musicians feel he was undermining jazz?
BDF: Oh, no, no. The guys who played rock dates did it to survive. We realized that. You can’t go against a power like that type of music. It was too popular. I never went into the rock thing because I didn’t like it and, honestly, I had no idea what to do with the clarinet on rock 'n' roll records.
JW: What do you think of Cross Country Suite in relation to all of your other albums?
BDF: It stands out as a favorite and one of my best.
JazzWax tracks: Cross Country Suite has been remastered and reissued by the Nelson Riddle estate. It can be found here. Click on the "1 new & used" link, where you'll be able to order the album directly from Nelson Riddle Music, which has hundreds of copies in stock.
Buddy De Franco and Oscar Peterson Play George Gershwin (Verve) features Buddy and the Oscar Peterson Trio with a band and strings arranged by Russ Garcia. It's a gorgeous album, especially I Was Doing Alright. Long out of print, the album or individual tracks are available as a download at iTunes or Amazon.