Buddy DeFranco, Clarinet Innovator, Dies at 91

In his 70-year career, he brought his instrument into the bebop era and beyond

Buddy DeFranco, New York City, 1947
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Buddy DeFranco (l.) and Tommy Gumina
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Buddy DeFranco, who brought the clarinet into the bebop era and maintained a seven-decade career, died Dec. 24 in Panama City, Fla., according to a notice on his website. The cause was not reported. DeFranco was 91.

In the years following the dominance of swing clarinetists such as Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, DeFranco adapted the instrument to the new type of jazz being introduced by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, both of whom were collaborators of his. In an interview posted on the website for the National Endowment for the Arts, DeFranco, who was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2006, said, “When I heard Charlie Parker, I knew that was gonna be the new way to play jazz. And it was right. … It was much more difficult to play as far as fingering and articulation. In fact, even to this day, I can’t explain the articulation of bebop, even though I do it. You know, because it’s a question of the melding between your brain, your tonguing, your phrasing, your breathing and your fingering. It has to work all together. And there’s no way to describe it.”

Born Boniface Ferdinand Leonardo DeFranco in Camden, N.J., on Feb. 17, 1923, and raised in Philadelphia, he took on the nickname Buddy in his childhood and, following a failed attempt to learn mandolin, began playing the clarinet at age 9, the instrument a gift from his father. DeFranco was trained in classical music but took to jazz and won a Tommy Dorsey talent contest while in his teens. By 16 he was touring with the Johnny “Scat” Davis big band, and in 1941 he joined with drummer/bandleader Gene Krupa, followed by stints with Ted FioRito, Charlie Barnet and, in 1944, Dorsey himself, with whom DeFranco stayed until 1948. By the end of that decade, however, DeFranco was feeling constrained by the rigidity of the big bands and, as a member of Count Basie’s septet, in 1950, and in various recording situations, he began exploring the freedoms offered by the newly emerging, more adventurous bebop.

DeFranco formed his own group in the early 1950s, whose members at one point included Kenny Drew, Milt Hinton and Art Blakey. DeFranco also toured with Billie Holiday and was featured in the Jazz at the Philharmonic recordings produced by Norman Granz, for whom DeFranco made some of his first recordings as a leader. His earliest recordings, as Buddy DeFranco and his Orchestra, were cut for Capitol in 1949 and included Lee Konitz, Oscar Pettiford, Al Cohn and others. He also recorded quartet, quintet and sextet sessions in the early ’50s. DeFranco recorded during this era for MGM, Clef, Norgran, GNP and Verve, the latter releasing a 1954 session with Oscar Peterson (piano), Herb Ellis (guitar), Ray Brown (bass) and Louis Bellson (drums). In 1955, DeFranco recorded with his quintet, including Sonny Clark (piano, organ), Tal Farlow (guitar), Gene Wright (bass) and Bobby White (drums). The following year, DeFranco also cut a session for Verve with pianist Art Tatum, Red Callender on bass and Bill Douglass on drums. In the late ’50s DeFranco recorded in septet and octet configurations, and in 1959 he cut a session for Dot with Nelson Riddle’s Orchestra.

By the early ’60s, DeFranco was working primarily with accordionist Tommy Gumina, although a 1964 session featured Lee Morgan (trumpet), Curtis Fuller (trombone), Victor Feldman (piano, vibraphone), Victor Sproles (bass) and Blakey (drums). In 1966, DeFranco was named the director of the Glenn Miller Orchestra “ghost band,” a gig he maintained until 1974. He continued to record sporadically from the ’70s onward, working again with Farlow, Peterson and others. DeFranco’s main collaborator through the ’80s and ’90s was vibraphonist Terry Gibbs.

In his later tears, DeFranco released albums on Concord Jazz, Storyville, Arbors and other labels. According to DeFranco’s website, he recorded more than 150 albums in all. His last public performance was two years ago, at age 89. The University of Montana has held a Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival annually since 1980. The next one is scheduled for March 26.