It’s rare in your life to have someone who’s older than you and supports you almost like a good parent would. Buddy DeFranco was like that for me: a great, supportive friend and a kind person.
When I was 13, Benny Goodman was my idol-I played more in that realm. Then I started listening to the records of the day, Stan Getz, Miles and Coltrane; I was no longer trying to play like Benny on the clarinet, but I was stuck in this place of not knowing where to go. And I found one record of Buddy’s called Mr. Clarinet, a great, great record from 1957. I heard the sound on the clarinet and the way Buddy was doing it, and from that record I said, “Holy cow! This is the direction for me!”
And that’s all I needed. I didn’t even need to buy all the records: I just had the one record that was my record, that I loved. I would just listen to one tune on the record over and over, picking up on how he would flow through the chord changes in a different way than the swing guys would. When he came out in his early 20s, playing bebop clarinet with all the beboppers like Charlie Parker, he never sounded like Charlie Parker. He found his own way. I’ve never understood why he didn’t get more credit for that. He was an innovator. He played in a bebop style, but it was a bebop style that nobody else really played. He was a total original.
When I met him we became more than just great friends. Most musicians who play the same instrument are very competitive with each other. I’ve even known clarinet teachers who didn’t like it when their students got good! But Buddy looked at me and saw that we were on a trail together, and he kind of handed me the baton. He really respected that someone would start from his example but then take it his or her own way. He was so supportive, and it was so beautiful. I knew that that was the way I wanted to be with young players. And it’s what I try to do now: find something that will make them feel good about their playing, the way Buddy did for me.
He was a very good spirit. Like Buddy, my mother died in her early 90s. She had issues with her mental as well as her physical health, and you expect that. But Buddy never lost it. He might have been a bit slower here and there, but I’d call him up and he’d be his usual self, funny and with a great sarcastic attitude. He was Buddy.
I last spoke to him probably two weeks before he died. His great line to me, when I’d ask him how he was feeling, was “I feel pretty good for a guy who feels pretty bad.” That gives you a sense of the humor that this guy had! When I last spoke to him, I said, “Are you playing?” He said, “No.” I asked why, and he said, “Because I hate the way it sounds!” He was having trouble with his lips, his physicality and his ears. So I said, “Then play but don’t listen!” And he enjoyed that.
I can’t overstate what a loving, sweet, supportive man he was. Eighteen years ago, when my Vivaldi album, The Five Seasons, came out, he wrote me a note that said, “Eddie, this is a masterpiece.” And whether it is or not, what more do you need? We all should have a father figure like that. [As told to Michael J. West]Originally Published