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Jazz clarinetist, inspired by Buddy DeFranco, headlines tribute concert

Jazz clarinetist, inspired by Buddy DeFranco, headlines tribute concert

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There's perhaps no better person to pay tribute to the late Buddy DeFranco than Eddie Daniels.

When he was barely a teenager, Daniels heard DeFranco's album "Mr. Clarinet," a 1953 small-group bebop album.

Daniels had been listening to swing, such as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, and was starting to absorb the newer, harmonically complex developments.

DeFranco, called the "Charlie Parker of the clarinet," spurred Daniels' creativity.

He "inspired me and gave me the feeling that that's the direction I wanted the clarinet to go in," he said in a phone interview earlier this week.

He cited the full, dark quality of DeFranco's tone, as well as "the flexibility, the linear chromatic way he was playing."

Daniels thought, "I've got to try this," and, "I think I can do it."

He's now considered one of the greatest living jazz clarinet players, one who's just as comfortable in the world of classical music as a small group set of Ellington tunes.

At this weekend's 35th annual Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival, he'll play some tunes in memory of the festival's namesake, who passed away last December.

On Friday, Daniels will perform a few of DeFranco's favorite arrangements, such as "More Than You know," with the festival's professional guest artists, as well as fellow clarinet player Ron Odrich, a close friend of DeFranco's.

Then, with the backing of the UM student big band, Daniels will play two compositions from Nelson Riddle's "Cross Country Suite." Riddle, a big-band arranger, wrote the 1959 album especially to spotlight DeFranco, and it became a part of the clarinetist's performing repertoire.

He'll finish off the evening with some of his own work, which is widely seen as the next step in the instrument's development after DeFranco's own music.


Daniels was in his mid-30s by the time he met DeFranco at a clarinet festival and they played some tunes together.

They developed a friendship, and DeFranco was supportive of Daniels' playing in person and in interviews.

He was "a very open, sweet person who would not say a bad word" about anybody, Daniels said.

In contrast to the sometimes highly competitive atmosphere in jazz that DeFranco came up in, he was always supportive to Daniels and other musicians.

Previous clarinet players like Goodman and Shaw had a public rivalry, but DeFranco would invite Daniels to come play with him at gigs and listen to his records.

Daniels stayed friends with DeFranco for the rest of his life, calling him about once a month.

"If he wasn't feeling well, Ron would say, 'Give Buddy a call,' " and it would help lift DeFranco's spirits.

DeFranco, too, "had a great sense of humor about himself."

He always made Daniels laugh, and "always had quick quip about something."

Daniels would ask how he was feeling, and DeFranco would say, "I feel pretty good for a guy who feels pretty bad."

"That gives you a sense of Buddy right there," Daniels said.

That camaraderie may have something to do with the difficulties of their chosen instrument.

Daniels said it's a temperamental and sensitive instrument compared to, say, the saxophone, which he also plays.

"You have to care for her and have to be more present," he said.

The saxophone is well-suited for jazz because of its octave key, Daniels explained. To access a higher register of notes, you press the button and maintain the same fingerings – none of the notes have changed, they're just higher.

The clarinet, meanwhile, has a similar button, but if you press it, it increases the register by an octave and a fifth. That means all of the fingerings now trigger different notes, and the musician has to mentally adjust.

Daniels compared its awkwardness to running and suddenly changing your stride – left foot, right foot, right foot, left foot.

The difficulties are born out by the number of jazz clarinet players, a select few, versus saxophonists, who are legion.

He said it's an easy instrument to lose control of – it squeaks – and it's finicky – it requires a range of different mouthpieces. He's bringing 20-some reeds to Missoula to account for the difference in altitude from his home in Sante Fe, New Mexico.

But a clarinet player's "built-in frustration" is countered by the joy of the instrument.

It's "also very rewarding," he said. "The clarinet is a life's work."

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