Saturday, February 24, 2018

Buddy DeFranco - Tommy Gumina Quartet

© -Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“This album  marks the inauguration of what may become an important alliance in modem music. Though individually known for years to wide but disparate audiences, Tommy Gumina and Buddy De Franco might have seemed, to the average observer, a most improbable pair of subjects for the kind of close musical cooperation that can be observed in these sides. Actually their teaming was the result of a lucky accident, combined with one very important factor: the decision of Decca's Sonny Burke that Gumina and De Franco ought to be heard together on an LP

"The way I met Tommy," Buddy recalls, "you would never have dreamed that we'd have wound up with a group of our own. What happened was that one day I needed a piano player for a gig. I had Frank DeVito booked on drums and he asked me whether I could use an accordion player instead. My immediate reaction was: 'Not on your life!'. But when Frank explained that this was not just another accordion player— this was something else. And it didn't take me long to find out how right he was.

"After recording my composition King Philip with Les Brown for Decca, I had talked to sonny Burke about doing a date of my own. He already had Tommy under contract, so the suggestion that we do something together was very logical from his point of view. By that time there was a real musical marriage between Tommy and me. We got a job together at Ben Pollack's on Sunset, more or less as a place to break in some of the material we wanted to work out together for the album. What you hear on these sides is largely what we were working out on that job."
- Leonard Feather, original liner notes to the Decca Album Pacific Standard (Swingin’) Time, [DL 74031 Stereo]

I met Jack Tracy, the esteemed former editor of Downbeat Magazine and long-time Jazz record producer very late in life and quite by accident.

Initially, my contact with him was through an internet chat group that focused on the West Coast Style of Jazz that predominated in California from about 1945-65.

We later met in person at a number of the biannual 4-day Jazz festivals sponsored by the Los Angeles Jazz Institute.

He was a great supporter of this blog and an earlier contributor to it as a guest writer.

Jack was from the Minneapolis St-Paul area and moved to Chicago during his tenure as Downbeat’s editor in the 1950s. He started producing Jazz records for the Chess label based in the Windy City before Mercury Records, at the urging of Quincy Jones, convinced him to relocate to Hollywood, CA in 1961 to become their resident producer of Jazz recordings on the West Coast. Artists he worked with included Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Oscar Peterson, Woody Herman, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Del Close, Harry Nilsson, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and Terry Gibbs

Jack always maintained that one of the greatest results from “that move West was getting to produce a number of albums by the Buddy DeFranco - Tommy Gumina Quartet. I just loved that group. The musicianship was something else.”

We recently ran across some memorabilia associated with Jack that reminded us of about the DeFranco-Gumina Quartet recordings and we thought it might be fun to develop this feature about them for the blog.

Prior to the association with Mercury, the group recorded one LP for Decca Records - Pacific Standard (Swinging’!) Time: The Buddy DeFranco Tommy Gumina Quartet [DL 740331] and Jordi Pujol provided these insert notes for its reissue as a Fresh Sound CD along with the first Mercury LP - Presenting the Buddy DeFranco Tommy Gumina Quartet [MG 20685].

“Buddy De Franco won his first Down Beat poll in 1945 as the foremost clarinetist in jazz, and his last one was awarded by the International Jazz Critics poll m 1960. During this 15-year span, his career changed direction often and was accompanied by frustration. Known mainly as a sideman for Tommy Dorsey and Count Basie, among others, until 1950, he led a big band after that for a while, but spent most of the '50s touring with a quartet and recording with different instrumental combinations.

His co-leader on this CD, accordionist Tommy Gumina, remains a relatively unknown name for most of jazz fans. Born in Milwaukee, Wis. in 1931. where he began studying music, Gumina had been pushing hard on his chosen instrument since the age of eleven. After two years of study there he began taking lessons in Chicago from Andy Rizzo, according to him, "the greatest accordion teacher who ever lived. A fantastic teacher. He taught 'em all—Leon Sash and all the rest." Before starting with Rizzo, Gumina already had played his first solo concert when he was 12. At 15 he gave his first major concert, a recital consisting of works by Bach, Paganini, Chopin, and DeFalla.

Graduating from Milwaukee's Don Bosco High School in 1949. he made a successful appearance in New York City on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts radio program.

"That's where I first began digging jazz," he recalled, "in New York. George Shearing was highly popular in |azz then. He'd always been an idol of mine. Also, I was close to Bud Powell."

Following his New York period, Gumina returned to Milwaukee and worked in clubs there "as an act in the Contino field." In those days Dick Contino was the most popular accordion player, and he was billed as "The World's Greatest Accordionist." But, Tommy noted, "I stick with jazz and always wanted to make the instrument a jazz instrument.”

It was while working a Milwaukee night club in 1951 that Gumina was heard by Harry James. "Harry dug what I was doing and asked me to join the band as a featured performer. The following year, I did,"

"At that time," he recalled. "I thought I was playing pretty good. But my bebop conception conflicted with the Harry James style, so I had to compromise. So far as playing real jazz was concerned, this put me back five years. But Harry was real great to me. For five years I was his shadow."

He left the James band following "18 weeks of one-nighters and locations." He shuddered at the memory. "That trip did it. I went back to doing a single act in Las Vegas, Reno — that circuit."

Forsaking the night-club circuit in 1957. he returned to Milwaukee, where he started a record label called Continental and cut a couple of singles that made a little noise. The same year saw Gumina and his family pack up and head west They settled in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, where Gumina gigged around town. Then he was signed to a Decca contract and got a king-size reputation as a competent and talented journeyman on his instrument. In 1958 he struck musician's gold — job security: a staff job at the American Broadcasting Hollywood television studios.

Early in 1960, Buddy de Franco and Tommy Gumina joined forces to form a new quartet with Ralph Pena (soon replaced by Bob Stone) on bass and Frank DeVito on drums.

This new alliance with Gumina, was as rewarding and exciting musically for the clarinetist as it was bookable. In March the group debuted for four weeks at the "Pick-a-Rib"—a nightclub and restaurant at 8250 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, owned by drummer Ben Pollack — playing assertive, driving, modern jazz and sharing the spot with Barney Bigard’s Dixieland combo. When he began playing with DeFranco, Gumina left ABC to work with the quartet full time.

As was the case with the Joe Mooney (ace) and Andy Fitzgerald (cl) partnership of 1945, the clarinet-accordion blend was fully exploited m the new group. The basic difference here, however, is that, while the Mooney quartet concentrated on achieving intimate and, for the time, experimental tonal effects, DeFranco and Gumina were intent on getting an ensemble sound suggesting the blast and drive of a big band.

But this overall shouting effect so successfully achieved by the group on the up tempo swingers is by no means the definitive mark of this versatile quartet. DeFranco is the shining light in solo work, and when he blows freely on swingers like How High the Moon, the tension and exhilaration reach coruscating heights.

That spring young San Diego drummer John Guerin replaced DeVito, and with bassist Don Greif the quartet made its first foray away to play a date at a club called Cure's in Milwaukee. Then, in June, they played a successful engagement at the Crescendo in Hollywood and a Sunday appearance at The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach.

In this new setting. Buddy's fleet, fluid clarinet gained a new perspective. Gumina's accordion gave the DeFranco clarinet the tonal rapport it needed. Besides the enhanced over-all sound, the use ol appealing arrangements written by both of them added strong listener interest. The relationship was one of outlook, of emphasis on melody and rhythm. on lyricism and stimulation. Gumina was the key man in the group. He disciplined the accordion to a lean, crisp line of attack, and he phrases very much in the airy, impressionistic manner ot fellow accordionist Joe Mooney. The quality of airiness, of lightness, floats through all the pieces, abetted by lovely voicings in the ensembles and spurred by the quartet's weapons-grade propulsion.

On the first two albums recorded by the quartet, "Pacific Standard (Swingin't) Time," and "Presenting..." De Franco is not only warmed by Gumina's (ire but is also driven along by the accordionist's strongly swinging attack and by the sturdy rhythm support of bassists Bob Stone and Bill Plummer, and drummers Frank De Vito and John Guerin. This is straightforward, thoughtfully conceived but unpretentious small-group jazz with a character all its own.” -Jordi Pujol

I realize that the accordion has a rather contentious history in Jazz mainly to do with objections about the sound quality [or lack of it] of the instrument. But I think that if you spend any time listening to the exceptional improvisations that Tommy develops on the Decca and four Mercury albums, you’ll come away with a totally different perception of the instrument’s worth in the music.


  1. Geez, I wish the DeFranco/Gumina Polytones and Kelaidescope records would be reissued.

  2. Also, typo: 2nd to last Paragraph? "warmed by Gumina's (ire"


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