For clarinetist Buddy De Franco, the years between 1949 and 1952 were experimental and disappointing. After spending the 1940s in Tommy Dorsey's band, Buddy decided in 1949 to try his hand at leading an orchestra. But his move came at a time when music tastes were shifting rapidly. Big bands no longer had the same power they once did to excite the imaginations of dancers or listeners. There were exceptions, of course, like Stan Kenton and Woody Herman. But these were really concert bands built on power and high-energy sidemen. The sound Buddy sought was more patient and intimate. "I wanted to give swing an update and pull it gently into the bop era," the legendary clarinetist told me yesterday.
Between 1949 and 1952, Buddy tried big bands with all-star players, as well as a Shearing-esque sextet and a bop quintet. But while these recordings never caught on with the listening public at the time, the sound Buddy was seeking is documented and remains fabulous today. Many of Buddy's leadership dates during this three-year period are on a fabulous CD from Hep Records called Buddy De Franco and His Orchestras: 1949-1952 Studio Performances.
The earliest tracks from April 1949 feature a jaw-dropping band: Bernie Glow, Paul Cohen, Jimmy Pupa and Jack Eagle (trumpets); Ollie Wilson, Earl Swope [pictured] and Bart Varsalona (trombones); Buddy De Franco (clarinet); Lee Konitz and Frank Socolow (alto saxes) Al Cohn and Jerry Sanfino (tenor saxes); Serge Chaloff (baritone sax); Gene Di Novi (piano); Tal Farlow (guitar); Oscar Pettiford (bass) and Irv Kluger (drums). The arrangers were George Russell, Manny Albam and Gerald Valentine. Of the three tracks recorded (there was a fourth that went unissued), Albam's reed-rich This Time the Dream's on Me is the standout, shifting effortlessly between bop, swing and cool while showcasing Buddy's warm clarinet. There's even a terrific solo by trumpeter Bernie Glow.
But these records didn't sell well, and by August, Buddy was back in the studio with a sextet modeled on his earlier collaborations with George Shearing. Joining Buddy was Teddy Charles (vibes) [pictured], Harvey Leonard (piano), Jimmy Raney (guitar), Bob Carter (bass) and Max Roach (drums). These are absolutely lovely sessions, with Buddy sounding almost like an accordion when playing with the group and displaying stinging bop chops on solos.
But this small-group attempt also fell flat financially. As Buddy told me yesterday, "Anyone who dug this sound could have picked up Shearing instead." Buddy disbanded the group and spent much of 1950 in a sextet and octet led by Count Basie.
In February 1951, Buddy formed another big band, this time with 15 pieces. Its book featured more restless up-tempo bop arrangements, like the one Buddy wrote for Out of Nowhere. This band was looser and freer in feel, and we hear Buddy focusing on the middle register of the clarinet.
His March 1951 band was a few members larger and more bop driven, especially on King Phillip Stomp. The band featured Bernie Glow, Don Joseph, Dickie Mills and Dale Pierce (trumpets); Frank "Ace" Lane, Al Robertson and Fred Zito (trombones); Buddy De Franco (clarinet); Angelo Cicalese and Gene Quill [pictured] (alto saxes); Buddy Arnold and Eddie Wasserman (tenor saxes); Danny Bank (baritone sax); Teddy Charles (vibes); Teddy Corabi (piano); Bill Anthony (bass) and Frank DeVito (drums).
In July 1951, Buddy [pictured] changed the mix and toughened up the sound with Ed Badgley, Bernie Glow, Mike Shane and Charlie Walp (trumpets); Al Robertson, Chauncey Welsch and Fred Zito (trombones); Buddy De Franco (clarinet); Leonard Sinisgalli and Gene Quill (alto saxes); Buddy Arnold and Ben Lary (tenor saxes); Vince Ferraro (baritone sax); Teddy Corabi (piano); Buddy Jones (bass) and Billy Rule (drums), with Tiny Kahn writing the charts.
In October 1951, Buddy continued with a 14-piece big band, adding the Dave Lambert Singers. But the formula still wasn't moving records. So in February and March 1952, Buddy tried a bop Gramercy Five of sorts, featuring Kenny Drew (piano) [pictured], Jimmy Raney (guitar), Teddy Kotick (bass) and Art Taylor (drums). But by then, the clarinet was flagging in popularity as a lead jazz instrument, replaced by the hipper alto and tenor saxophones and trumpet.
I spoke with Buddy yesterday about this commercially frustrating but musically rewarding three-year period:
"My 1949 band was a great idea but it didn’t attract too much attention. This was a time when the big bands were folding. It was a miscalculation commercially on my part.
"When Shearing and I parted months earlier, he signed with Capitol and I went with MGM. MGM didn’t want the big band stuff. They said, 'You had better get in the studio with a small group, a la Shearing.' We came up with the arrangements for those tracks on the session. Musicians were pretty good back then [laughs].
"In 1951 I started another band. We got a fair amount of play with Out of Nowhere. I was sure we had a hit. The record was on many of the jukeboxes where we toured. But when the financial tallies were done and brought to my attention, we had what was called a turntable hit. Everyone loved to hear it but very few people bought it.
"When you’re on the road with a band, it’s hard to keep tabs on what’s going on. We heard Out of Nowhere and saw it everyplace. The big band era was beginning to diminish, and popular music was gravitating toward rockabilly, rock 'n' roll, jump-boogie and that stuff.
"I never should have put those bands together. It had nothing to do with the music, which I think still holds up. It cost me a lot of money but went nowhere in terms of the big picture. I should have listened to [agent] Willard Alexander. He told me, 'Big bands are folding. Let me get you a small group, and we’ll make money.'
Instead, I tried what I wanted to do. I liked the idea of leading a big band. I was enamored of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and wanted to give what they did a shot. When I look back, it’s a period of my life that included a lot of work, heartbreak and struggle. Those sessions just weren’t moneymakers."
Profitable or not, Buddy's playing on these sessions is remarkable. His articulation is clean and pure, whether zigzagging up from the lower register or swirling around the instrument's upper notes. Buddy between 1949 and 1952 could swing and bop—which is why he was so revered by musicians and listeners alike. He's clearly his own man here, and the mood and feel of these tracks is all Buddy—upbeat, smart and sincere.
JazzWax tracks: Buddy De Franco and His Orchestras; 1949-1952 Studio Performances (Hep) is available as a download at iTunes and Amazon. Or it's available here on CD.
For the remainder of 1952 and half of 1953, Buddy was backed by strong trios that included Kenny Drew and Sonny Clark (piano), Curly Russell, Gene Wright and Milt Hinton (bass) and Art Blakey (drums). These MGM, Clef and Norgran sessions are not included on this CD.
JazzWax clip: Here's a recording of Buddy and his April 1949 band with Manny Albam's Gil Evans-influenced arrangement of This Time the Dream's on Me. Dig Albam's pretty reed writing, particularly how the chart moves from a Nightmare fanfare opening to a cooler complexity with bop flourishes. And catch Bernie Glow's rising first-chair trumpet solo...