On February 6, 1956, Art Tatum and Buddy De Franco recorded together in Los Angeles with Red Callender on bass and Bill Douglass on drums. The session was for Norman Granz's Verve Records, one of several American Songbook sessions Granz had set up teaming Tatum with jazz greats of the period.
The Tatum-De Franco date is significant for several reasons: To the best of my knowledge, it marked the first time the pianist had recorded with a clarinet in a duo format. It also was the first time that Tatum and Buddy played together. Sadly, the summit would also be the last time these two frantically busy jazz giants would merge. Tatum would die in November.
I've always been extremely fond of this recording. If you're unfamiliar with the album, the eight tracks and three alternates might seem at first like an attempt to reproduce the Benny Goodman-Teddy Wilson sound. Not so. Buddy's clarinet is more brooding and relaxed, determined to reach reverentially into Tatum's zone. Tatum, for his part, isn't interested in laying back or accompanying anyone. He's up, down, around and in back of every line played by Buddy.
The more you listen to the tracks, the more information you hear. These two aren't just playing a clutch of standards. There's a duel going on—but not between egos. Tatum throughout playfully puts the clarinet through a series of wrestling holds. Buddy, for his part, allows himself to be caught on occasion, only to slip free and come back with holds of his own. There's a cat and mouse quality here that never disappoints, no matter how many times you play the album. Yesterday I listened to the session 13 times in a row, and I still haven't tired of it.
Fascinated to know more about the record date, I called Buddy recently, and we spent a lovely half hour chatting:
JazzWax: Do you remember the Art Tatum session?
Buddy De Franco: Oh sure. That was quite an experience. From the time I was a young boy, my father had brought home 78-rpm recordings of Tatum. The first time I had heard them, I was amazed. From that point on, I was an Art Tatum fan. I consider him a genius. In the jazz era, Art Tatum and Charlie Parker would be my only two picks on the genius level. All the other good players were highly talented and great and all that. But Bird and Tatum were at the genius level.
JW: Whose idea was the Tatum-De Franco session?
BDF: Norman Granz [pictured]. He was doing a series of Tatum sessions with well-known jazz players. When he called me and told me what he wanted to do, it absolutely floored me. I went through a combination of fright, intimidation, thrill, elation—you name it. All those categories of emotion. Tatum was naturally intimidating, because of his facility and his brain and the way it worked.
JW: What impressed you most?
BDF: How Art weaved in and out of chord progressions and keys. It was amazing. The other thing about the date was that Art chose keys that were different from the ones the songs were written in originally. That was a tricky thing. On top of that, I had kind of pretty bad cold.
JW: Let me get this straight: You were anxious, Tatum changed the keys on songs he sprang on you at the session, and you were under the weather?
BDF: Yes, I was so ill on that date I had to sit down in a chair for practically the entire session.
JW: Did you ever consider postponing?
BDF: No. I realized immediately that putting off the date was impossible given Art’s schedule and mine. If f I didn’t do the date then, I’d probably never get do it. The probability of bringing us together again would be slim.
JW: Did you find playing with Tatum distracting?
BDF: Yes, absolutely. In fact, that was one of the things I had to guard against and focus on. I had to work harder to avoid being distracted by what Art was doing on the piano. With Art, every two beats in a measure was a different chord progression or fantastic arpeggio. It was incredible to follow him. It was like trying to catch a train [laughs].
JW: How did you block out the amazing things Tatum was doing?
BDF: That was a matter of survival. I just had to do it or else. I was stubborn enough not to fail.
JW: Who chose the songs?
BDF: Art chose most of them. I chose a couple.
JW: Did you know the songs he chose in advance?
BDF: No. It was impromptu.
JW: Who brought in bassist Red Callender and Bill Douglass on drums?
BDF: Art had worked before with Red in Los Angeles. I'm not sure about Bill. Norman probably brought him in. He was a popular West Coast session drummer at the time.
JW: Did you and Art make small talk at the start of the session?
BDF: We had a brief chat. We both knew that we had to get down to business immediately.
JW: How did he feel about you?
BDF: Art was very gracious. He said it was a real pleasure to be working with me. That made me feel fantastic. He was familiar with my records. I had already read several times in print glowing quotes by Art about my playing.
JW: Did you discuss the approach to the songs before you started?
BDF: Yes, I had some input on the tempo. Some of the tunes he wanted to do at a faster or slower tempo than I did. I don’t recall which ones they were exactly.
JW: Which songs did you want to do?
BDF: If I recall, Memories of You and Once in a While.
JW: As you’re playing with Art, did you get the feeling he was not just playing but challenging and provoking you?
BDF: Oh yes. Art loved that game. At the time, he went at me with both barrels [laughs]. It wasn’t a nasty thing. It was a game. An enjoyable game. It also allowed us to get into the music thoroughly.
JW: Was it tricky anticipating what Tatum would do next?
BDF: I wouldn’t let any time elapse without knowing where he was exactly in a song and what he was doing. You had to listen to everything. Otherwise you were at risk of losing your place.
JW: Was Tatum testing you, seeing if you could handle one thing or another?
BDF: Throughout the whole session. Sometimes he would put his left hand on his lap and play just with his right hand while looking at me and grinning, as if to say, “How about this?”
JW: What is Art doing technically that’s most challenging?
BDF: The chord progressions. He had a way of using great musical devices. They were so accurate that they didn’t sound like devices. His progressions sounded like they absolutely flowed. They were very normal to him. It was difficult to catch onto that—his way of playing progressions through the song.
JW: How so?
BDF: Art had two or three sets of chords for the same tune. His fingering might be different, or he’d use completely different, alternate chords.
JW: For example?
BDF: For instance he’d have four or five different ways of playing a C-7 chord. Both of us, and Nelson Riddle and Tommy Gumina, an accordion player I worked with, were involved in polychordal devices when playing jazz. For instance, if we had a C-7 chord for any basic thing we were playing, you would have your choice of five different alternate triads superimposed on that one chord. So you could weave in an out of those triads. Tatum had that down. It was absolutely amazing how he did it and how natural he sounded. It was complete and natural.
JW: Did Granz play back the recording after each take?
BDF: Yes. And a couple of times we weren’t satisfied with a playback, which is why we did many of the tunes twice.
JW: Did you ever have any self-doubt?
BDF: Not so much. Art was so accurate with what he did. If you had the musicianship to go along with that and followed him, you could almost anticipate what he was going to do, That intensity made it an interesting way to play.
JW: Would Tatum tell you during the date that he was digging what you were doing?
BDF: Oh yeah. He’d comment on how something was good, something else was terrific and how great we played together.
JW: Much of the match has to do with the enormous coloration and beauty of your sounds together.
BDF: Oh absolutely. We had to live the song. In fact, technique is just part of it. Your approach is part of it. But the depth of the song that you’re playing is key. You have to understand the song that you’re playing. No matter how much jazz you’ve played, you never want to destroy the effect of a melody. That’s what Bird [Charlie Parker] and Tatum did. They followed the contours of the melody when playing jazz as opposed to playing a bunch of licks in certain keys.
JW: Was there a point with Tatum that day where his playing became overly complicated to your ear?
BDF: When Art played, almost every tune was complicated [laughs]. To work with Art, there had to be input. The dynamic had to be a coercive thing. You had to be in there with him to pull it off. That didn’t take long to do. I had been so familiar with his playing that it was a natural feeling.
JW: At the end, did you two chat?
BDF: We talked for a while, about the tunes, about which takes we wanted. Naturally I wanted takes where I played better than the other take [laughs].
JW: The date was the first time you had played together. Was there talk about recording together again?
BDF: We both wanted to do it again. We also wanted to play together more. We didn’t have a chance though. That was the only time that we got together or had the time to do so.
JW: Do you regret that?
BDF: Yes, I always did. But circumstances are such that you don’t get the chance.
JW: Thinking back, what kind of guy was he?
BDF: Art was a lot of fun. He laughed a lot. I remember he drank more beer on that date than I could imagine. Once in a while he took a shot of gin. But the effects never showed. There was no sign of faltering or being drunk.
JW: Was he encouraging?
BDF: Yes. When we started, he wanted the sound to gel, he wanted it to work. I think he knew that I understood him. I think he was pleasantly surprised how much I knew about him and his playing. I told him how I had listened to him as a kid. But most of all, I told him how much I admired him through my clarinet. That's what you hear on the record.
JazzWax tracks: The Art Tatum/Buddy De Franco Quartet is available as a download at iTunes as part of the Tatum Group Masterpieces series (Vol. 7). Or the album is available on CD here.
JazzWax clip: If you want a taste of just how sublime this session is on all counts, dig A Foggy Day, which perfectly illustrates the synergy between Tatum and Buddy as well as the magnificent game of musical tag these two undertook in 1956. Be sure to dig that fractured intro by Tatum...