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Buddy DeFranco and Alan Barnes: Top Clarinets

John Robert Brown

No man living has witnessed more jazz history than clarinettist Buddy DeFranco. Born in 1923, he first played in public at the age of 12. Working in some of the top swing bands while still a teenager, DeFranco then contributed to the bebop revolution in New York during the 1940s. He recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and many others. With his mastery of the harmonic language of modern jazz,his characteristic tone and his scintillating command of the top register, Buddy's grit, groove and grace won him 20 Down Beat Polls, 14 Playboy All Star Awards, seven Metronome All Star Polls, and three Melody Maker polls.

DeFranco was the jazz clarinet player of significance during the decades that followed the mid-century hegemony of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. Now in his mid-eighties, he still plays elegantly. For evidence, hear his CD, Cookin' the Books (Arbors Records, ARCD 19298).

We met in the New York Hilton, midtown, located at Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center. DeFranco was a kind and gracious interviewee, generously sharing insights and information.

"There are two approaches to playing jazz. In one area, which is still valid - don't misunderstand me - the players believe that too much practising, or any practising, inhibits you from playing good jazz. So they don't like the idea of study, or practice of any of the fundamentals. Using that approach to jazz are some very well known players. Pee Wee Russell was a good example. He was not a schooled player, but he did play a form of jazz, as opposed to Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw, who obviously had formal training. I'm from the latter school. I believe that you need as much technique as you can acquire, in order to say what you are going to say immediately, extemporaneously.

You've got to learn the formal scales, arpeggios, chords, before you can go into jazz and execute what you're thinking. I acquired the technique from formal training. I was a symphonic clarinettist before I started playing jazz."

Have you worked hard at gaining command of the very high notes?

"What started me thinking about playing that high register was Artie Shaw. He was just fascinating, the way he had control of the high register. He was unstoppable. Most clarinettists, when they played high, they played fail-safe music, fail-safe licks. They would play what they were comfortable with, so that there would be no trouble. Artie disregarded that. He just played. That's what I try to do. In those days you couldn't get close to Artie or Ben or Benny. I did get close to Benny, but even Benny Goodman, when you brought up the clarinet, he didn't want to talk about his secrets.

Times have changed. Now it's very open. You can study so many different ways. I approve. Unfortunately, it sometimes turns out automatons or clones, which I don't approve. Originality is more important than anything you can do on the instrument. There's no such thing as mastering an instrument, but if you want to develop your technique, all it takes is practice. But you cannot develop a personality by practising. Somehow, it has to come through from within.
"The trick is to bring your personality into your playing. If you are staying with all those patterns that you cloned, you are not going anywhere. It's easy to talk about; it's not easy to do."

Nevertheless, Buddy admits that there is a place for fail-safe playing.

"There's a trick that I learned from Charlie Parker. That is, to be so zeroed in on what you're playing that no matter what is happening behind you, it doesn't really matter. Through the years Charlie Parker has played with some of the worst rhythm players. But when you hear him, you're convinced that he's got a great rhythm section. He blanks it out. He's so dominant, so positive."

How do you develop that?

"By listening, observing. It all boils down to the same thing: fundamentals. I practise the fundamentals every day. The only change that I made (it's a question of my ego) is some years ago I wrote a book - it's still available - of Hanon exercises. The original Hanon exercises for the piano are all in C.

"I decided that a Hanon exercise for clarinet should be in all keys, so I called it Hand in Hand with Hanon, and it's a Hanon exercise in every key. I added that to my practice. I'm very strict with practice. It's a question of being very compulsive."

Does Buddy regard himself as compulsive?

"If you weren't compulsive, you wouldn't be a clarinet player."

Alan Barnes

We chatted in the turbulent snooker room of The Swan pub, Heckmondwike, an hour before he was to appear in the adjacent bar which was to serve as a jazz club for the evening. Due back in London that night, Barnes had three engagements the following day: a masterclass at a London college, a film session for the next Harry Potter movie and a television appearance on the Michael Parkinson programme.

Born in 1959 in Altrincham, Barnes plays all of the single reeds, and is a superb clarinettist. His live album, Cannonball, was voted album of the year in the 2001 British Jazz Awards and he was named BBC Jazz Instrumentalist of the Year. He now has his own record label, Woodville Records. Alan Barnes possesses an in-depth knowledge of jazz history, coupled with a sincere love of pre-1950s jazz.

"The difference between jazz and classical clarinet is that if you choose to have a jazz career there are so many different ways you can go. With the classical thing, there's pretty much an agreed path. There are sets of exercises and repertoire. But in jazz, with all of the different sounds, for instance, on the clarinet, you can go different ways. The difference between Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds and Artie Shaw is phenomenal. I'm not sure that anyone clarinettist can get all of those sounds. Maybe Tony Coe could. So I guess that if a student was interested in playing jazz you'd have to choose more specifically than just jazz. It would have to be down to individuals, to clarinettists that enthuse that student.
"Listening is absolutely paramount. The first thing I say to any student who comes to me, before I accept them, is: 'Who do you listen to?' It's phenomenal to me that certain people don't listen to anybody. And they want to be a jazz clarinet player! For instance, I've had tenor students say they haven't heard Don Weller, and they haven't heard Dick Morrisey, or Bobby Wellins. And I think, if they haven't heard these people ... and they are on the doorstep ..."

Alan shrugs, and smiles.

"Often people don't realise that's what music is about: listening. Performing is about listening. In jazz, when you've finished your chorus, you don't then ignore what everybody else is doing, because it should change what happens next."

How would you guide a student's listening?

"I would start with Johnny Dodds - with Louis Armstrong's Hot Five - in Weary Blues. Anybody of Grade 2 or Grade 3 standard could probably play the two Johnny Dodds choruses on Weary Blues, a beautiful solo. You don't have to have the greatest technique in the world to play great jazz. Dodds' sound is probably an acquired taste for some people, but it's instantly recognisable, and it's certainly full. It's only two choruses long, so you learn brevity."

Do you recommend that they memorise or transcribe?

"Whichever you want to do. If you can sing it, you've learnt it. There's also a value in writing it down; you can learn to read by transcribing. To me, the early jazz players played the clarinet like a clarinet. And as it went on, you thought- 'oh, isn't it amazing that they can do that on the clarinet?' In the old days they played clarinetty things. Which is what I think is the instrument's strength. So you get Barney Bigard doing all those odd intervals that would be difficult on the trumpet. That's why I don't really play bebop on the clarinet. I always use it at a point in the programme where it's either a ballad, or something where you can play a clarinet like a clarinet.

"Some of the early clarinettists exploited the problems of the clarinet, like the three different sounds, instead of trying to make it smooth from bottom to top. Why not have three different sounds, as Sidney Bechet did? And then there's Pee Wee Russell, getting in all the wheezy throat notes. Jimmy Guiffre is another one. There's a man who has obviously got the whole of the musical concept together, then he chooses to play the clarinet in the low register! I love his playing."

Is there a place for practising patterns for jazz?

"I think you've got to do some sort of exotic scale practice. For instance, if Bm7b5 to Eb7aug#9 comes up, for a bar each, you've got to have practised whatever you think fits that. I actually get some phrases going on those things. Otherwise, with the clarinet, and the cross-fingering, when you are improvising, you are going to end up in all kinds of trouble."

So, preparation is acceptable?

"There are two schools of thought. Lee Konitz thought that improvising should be just that. Yet Louis Armstrong played the same solos night in and night out. I don't think that stopped it from being some of the best jazz ever played. Jazz is prepared, but not totally prepared."

Website, Buddy DeFranco

Website, Alan Barnes

These interviews first appeared in issue 2004-2 0f Libretto, the magazine of the ABRSM. Reproduced by kind permission.
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