Born Boniface Ferdinand Leonardo DeFranco on February 17, 1923, in Camden, NJ; son of Leonardo, a piano tuner and amateur guitarist, and Louise (Giordano) DeFranco; married Joyce O. Yount, 1975; children: Charles ("Chad") Lee. Education: Graduated from Mastbaum School of Music, Philadelphia, PA, 1939. Memberships: National Association of Jazz Educators; ClariNetwork, board of directors, 1980--; American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Addresses: Home--Buddy DeFranco, 22525 Coral Ave., Panama City, FL 32413-3047; Record company--Concord Jazz, P.O. Box 845, Concord, CA 94522 Phone: (925) 682-6770.

A musician who rose to prominence during the golden age of jazz, Buddy DeFranco is considered the world's premiere clarinet player. Since the 1940s, he has won countless critics and readers polls, recorded more than 150 albums, and remains one of the few clarinetists able to transfer the musical language of Charlie Parker onto his instrument. Challenged after hearing Parker, DeFranco attacked the bebop style and mastered it with ease, developing a fluid speed and inventive style that never faltered. "I first heard Parker in the mid forties," he recalled to Whitney Balliett, author of American Musicians II: Seventy-two Portraits in Jazz, about his conversion from swing and big band to a more modern approach. "It was uptown at some club. He had just come in from upstate--skinny with a mop of hair. He borrowed a horn and sat in. I was completely turned around. I couldn't sleep for two days. I decided immediately that that was it: I was determined to articulate like that on the clarinet. I changed my reed and opened up my mouthpiece. I've worked toward that articulation ever since."

Born Boniface Ferdinand Leonardo DeFranco on February 17, 1923, in Camden, New Jersey, "Buddy" spent his formative years in nearby Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after relocating to the city with his parents and siblings at the age of three. He was one of five children; the youngest, however, died at a year old. DeFranco's father, Leonardo, was a remarkable man, yet his life was plagued with unfortunate circumstances. The son of immigrants from central Italy, Leonardo DeFranco, a native of Philadelphia, lost his sight because of a mistreated infection before DeFranco was born. Determined to learn a trade in spite of his disability, he attended the Overbrook School for the blind, where he learned how to tune pianos, but continued to struggle to support his family.

Nevertheless, Leonardo DeFranco, also an amateur guitarist who played with a blind band called the Jovial Night Owls, "always found time to play for us, or to tell us a story," DeFranco recalled to Balliett, and instilled in his children a love for music. DeFranco's mother, Louise Giordano, was born in Philadelphia as well, and worked as a secretary and in a cigar factory in order to help out the family. She had difficulty dealing with the stress of raising four children on a limited income and attempted suicide, then asked to be committed to a state institution where she lived for the remainder of her life. After DeFranco's mother left, an aunt took the children in one by one, and DeFranco's father remarried twice, though only one of these marriages provided him any degree of happiness.

Drawn to music as a young boy, at the age of five DeFranco took up the mandolin, learning to play by ear with instruction from his father. A few years later, DeFranco wanted to take up the saxophone, and after his father's musician friends suggested that he first learn the clarinet, the eight year old began taking lessons with his first teacher, Chap Cottrell, who instructed DeFranco in clarinet and alto saxophone. As a youngster, DeFranco also studied with Wally DeSimone, a neighbor who played in the pit band at the Earl Theater and gave the youngster lessons free of charge. DeFranco, realizing early on that he wanted to pursue a career in music, attended Philadelphia's Mastbaum School of Music, a vocational school where he received basic musical training and developed his skills on clarinet.

Inspired by Jazz

Meanwhile, DeFranco was increasingly intrigued by less traditional forms of music, specifically jazz. "I once heard Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti play at a music store in my neighborhood," he told Down Beat writer Ted Panken, "and I was overwhelmed by records like Django Reinhardt's 'Nuages' and Art Tatum's 'Elegie' and 'Yesterdays.' My dad and uncle loved the big bands, and they bought every record they could by Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Chick Webb, and took us to hear them. That's how I started getting interested in the idea of jazz."

Thus, DeFranco, largely inspired by the style of clarinetist Johnny Mince, decided to delve further into the techniques of his favorite jazz and big band players. "The first jazz clarinet player who had any effect on me was Johnny Mince, a very underrated player with Tommy Dorsey," he said to Balliett. "Then I heard Benny Goodman, and was enthralled. He had fire and facility. I later became an Artie Shaw fan.... Those three clarinetists have always been top for me." At age 13, DeFranco and his brother, Leonard, organized a swing band that played in a South Philadelphia ballroom every Sunday night and also began to attend performances at local jam clubs, including the Downbeat, owned by Nat Segal, and one owned by clarinet player Billy Kretchmer. "As teenagers, we'd sneak into either club and hear Charlie Christian and Art Tatum and Coleman Hawkins, or guys from Benny Goodman's band coming from the Earle Theater to sit in. Once in a while on slow nights Billy allowed us to play with the rhythm section he had there," said DeFranco, as quoted by Panken.

Upon graduation from Mastbaum in 1939, DeFranco, who sailed through high school in just three years instead of four, initiated his career as a clarinetist, apprenticing with elite and challenging dance bands for a decade. After a stint playing alto saxophone and clarinet with trumpeter Johnny "Scat" Davis, DeFranco joined Gene Krupa's band in 1941. With Krupa, DeFranco met trumpet player and Krupa's featured soloist at the time Roy Eldridge, known as a musician's musician for his creative, emotional playing style. Then in 1943, while touring with the Charlie Barnet Orchestra, he heard Charlie Parker's seminal recordings with Jay McShann for the first time. Parker, a saxophonist regarded as the galvanizing force behind bebop--a form that marked the beginning of the modern jazz movement and transformed jazz from a popular dance style into an art form--would figure prominently in the next phase of DeFranco's development.

Gravitated toward Bebop

DeFranco began to explore different playing techniques, gravitating harmonically and rhythmically toward a more modern approach. "It wasn't until Bird [Parker] came along that both Dizzy [Gillespie] and I said, 'He wrote the new study book; this is it.' No horn player at that time used as many alternate chords or that kind of articulation," DeFranco expressed to Panken. "I decided to play the clarinet like Bird articulated on the sax. It wasn't so easy to imitate Artie Shaw, and even more difficult to copy Bird, because the clarinet is such a hard instrument to play. Bird was the first almost completely unedited modern jazz player; he had a great embouchure and perfect fingers. I align Art Tatum with Bird in that regard. People used to think that he was contrived, but he wasn't. If you hear all his different versions of the same song, you realize that Art Tatum had the most flexibility and was more unedited that anyone of his time. He and Charlie Parker were the best, on a genius level. From that point on, we talk about all the other guys who are really good."

In 1944, DeFranco began the first of three tumultuous stints as a member of the Tony Dorsey Orchestra, and his solo work on Dorsey's "Opus One" led to the clarinetist's first of several Down Beat Readers Poll awards in 1945. After playing with Boyd Raeburn's musically and intellectually adventurous band in 1947, DeFranco, in 1948, settled in New York City, joining the mix of players centered on 52nd Street. Soon, DeFranco began to land important gigs at the Royal Roost and the Clique Club with the likes of the George Shearing Trio, who played opposite the Oscar Pettiford All-Stars, which at that time included Miles Davis, Lucky Thompson, Max Roach, and Bud Powell. By now a well-known figure on the jazz scene in New York, DeFranco started winning critics polls and played dates with the Metronome All-Stars, a connection that allowed him to develop a friendship with one of his greatest inspirations--Charlie Parker. "Charlie Parker invented the modern concept of playing; I was there when it happened," DeFranco recalled to Panken. "There's something of his influence in all jazz music today, which cannot be said of any other jazz player. All the guys that got well-known afterward branched off from Bird, but we all live in Bird's shadow."

Following several modernist sessions as a sideman with big bands and sextets for Capitol Records in 1949, DeFranco, during 1950 and 1951, played with the Count Basie Septet. "I never heard anyone play so much by doing so little," DeFranco said to Balliett of his experience with Basie. "I'd never realized how much Bill Basie influenced the sound of the band from the piano. I became more relaxed, more cognizant of a time feeling," the clarinetist also recounted to Panken. Leaving Basie's small band, DeFranco next participated periodically with Norman Granz for Jazz at the Philharmonic tours before deciding to form his own big band in 1951. However, his first attempt as a leader proved unsuccessful. "I had to be Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw," he recalled to Balliett. "Willard Alexander, the booker, advised me not to do it, but who do you listen to at that age? Your ego outdistances your brain. I had good people--Jimmy Lyon, Bernie Glow, Lee Konitz, Earl Swope, Gene Quill--but I didn't know anything about leading a big band. The band had no identity, and it was the wrong time--big bands were over. It lasted less than a year, and I lost a lot of money."

Nonetheless, DeFranco kept busy during the remainder of the 1950s, recording prolifically with Granz, recording the 1956 Grammy-winning session Cross-Country Suite with Nelson Riddle, and touring from 1952 through 1955 with a quartet that comprised pianists Kenny Drew and Sonny Clark, bassist Gene Wright, and drummers Art Blakey and Bobby White. "I learned more about the idea of rhythm and swing with Art Blakey than any other drummer in my career," DeFranco recalled. "He had so much energy and steam and feeling, that we would burn up, as the saying goes. Sometimes we'd get static from 'civilians' about having a mixed group; I was the only white guy with three black guys. Other than that, we had a great time together; we had a terrific relationship. The only thing I can say about black and white is that during those days the black bands had a swing feeling that gripped you, you felt it in your hips, in the depth of your emotions.... I had an affinity with the black bands, because within the depth of my organism, I knew that was the beat. That's the feeling I liked, and that's the feeling I've always tried to impart when I play."

As the 1960s approached and bebop went out of fashion, DeFranco struggled to find work. He eventually moved to California, where he found gigs as a studio sideman and taught school music clinics, then hit a creative, though financially disastrous peak as a member of the Polytones, a quartet with accordionist Tommy Gumina that focused on classical and film music. From 1966 until 1974, DeFranco took a position as the next conductor of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and his career seemed back on track. "That band is like a religion," he noted to Balliett. "It's booked for years in advance all over the world.... But I had so much to do running the band that I had to stop playing, and for several years I didn't touch my clarinet."

Reunited with the Clarinet

In 1975, DeFranco resumed his jazz career and married his third wife, Joyce O. Yount, with whom he had one son, Charles ("Chad") Lee. The family resides in a beach house in Panama City, Florida, where DeFranco's wife works in the real estate business. "She buys little houses and fixes them up and rents them," DeFranco explained to Balliett. "When I'm there, I help out. I'll hang a door, fix a lock. Then I'll set up a crab trap off the beach and do a little fishing. It's all the life I need."

Since DeFranco's return to the clarinet, he has worked steadily in smaller groups, including co-leading a group with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs off and on beginning in the early 1980s, and presented numerous music clinics, usually in conjunction with his clarinet maker, Yamaha Music Corporation. Remaining active in the 1990s and beyond, DeFranco, who works and tours throughout the world approximately 30 weeks per year, draws from six decades of experience in his most recent recordings, among them the 1997 Grammy-nominated You Must Believe in Swing, a duo with pianist Dave McKenna, as well as the acclaimed 1999 set Do Nothing Til You Hear from Us, also recorded with McKenna along with guitarist Joe Cohn.

"I had about six careers during the last 60 years," he reflected, as quoted by Panken. "Periodically I'll envelop a new concept on the clarinet, stay with that for a while, almost discarding what I was doing before, though not quite. I gradually wound up with a sensible mixture combining whatever new thing I was doing with my earlier way of playing; that is, the idea of swing and a fundamental approach, especially in stating a melody." Admittedly a serious musician, DeFranco, like so many of his contemporaries, approached jazz with a strong passion, always striving to contribute new dimensions to the art form. "All the players who contributed to the idea of jazz are analogous to the artist of the past few centuries," he offered. "The same kind of passion for what they were doing, the same desire to do something different, however minimal, so that you become an original, so that people will say, when they hear your record, 'That's who it is.' That's Bird. That's Art Tatum. That's Oscar Peterson. That's Buddy."

During his 60-year career, DeFranco has performed in concert and recorded with artists including Art Tatum, Tal Farlow, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Lenny Tristano, Nelson Riddle, Billy Eckstine, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Art Blakey, Mel Tormé, Louis Bellson, Terry Gibbs, and Oscar Peterson. He has made appearances on The Steve Allen Show, The Jerry Lewis Telethon, The Pat Sajak Show, and Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show. DeFranco has also appeared as a featured soloist on The Stars of Jazz television show, hosted his own show, The Buddy DeFranco Jazz Forum for public television, and performed with Terry Gibbs for a segment of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) series Club Date.

by Laura Hightower

Buddy DeFranco's Career

Began playing mandolin at age five and clarinet and saxophone at age eight; played alto saxophone and clarinet for the Johnny "Scat" Davis Band, 1939; joined the Gene Krupa Orchestra, 1941-42; toured with the Charlie Barnet Orchestra, 1943; became solo clarinetist with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, 1944-48; moved to New York City and began gigging on 52nd Street with the George Shearing Trio, 1948; played solo clarinet for the Count Basie Septet, 1950-51; led his own short-lived big band, the Buddy DeFranco Orchestra, 1951; toured worldwide with All Stars quartet, 1952-55; conducted the Glenn Miller Orchestra, 1966-74; performer and clinician with the Yamaha Music Corp., 1973--; resumed jazz career in 1975, working since 1975 with smaller groups and off and on with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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