Buddy DeFranco

One of the greatest jazz clarinetists of all time, Buddy DeFranco (b. 1923) showed that the clarinet, an instrument most closely associated with Benny Goodman–style swing and New Orleans jazz, could be adapted easily to bebop, at least by someone with his virtuosity.

DeFranco was an impressive player from the start. When he was 14 he won an amateur swing contest sponsored by Tommy Dorsey. DeFranco was a key soloist with the big bands of Gene Krupa (1941-1942), Charlie Barnet, Tommy Dorsey (1944-1948), and Boyd Raeburn in addition to being a member of the Count Basie Septet in 1950. Otherwise, DeFranco has spent most of his career leading his own groups or touring with all-star bands.

After heading a short-lived big band in 1951, DeFranco headed combos in the 1950s that featured such sidemen as pianists Kenny Drew and Sonny Clark, drummer Art Blakey, and bassist Eugene Wright. In the early 1960s his quartet matched him with accordionist Tommy Gumina. But despite being a perennial poll-winner, DeFranco found work difficult to find by the mid-1960s and he spent 1966-1974 leading the Glenn Miller ghost band. By the mid-1970s, the musical climate had improved for bebop and DeFranco has led hard-swinging jazz groups ever since, often teaming up with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs.

Some of the most rewarding Gibbs/DeFranco recordings have been Air Mail Special, Chicago Fire, and Holiday for Swing. DeFranco and Gibbs always make for a mutually inspiring team, really pushing each other on the uptempo material and drastically updating the Benny Goodman/Lionel Hampton tradition. In addition, DeFranco has recorded as a leader for Pablo (Mr. Lucky and Hark, the latter with the Oscar Peterson Quartet) and Concord (Chip Off the Old Bop and Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me).

Although challenged by Eddie Daniels, it would not be an exaggeration to call Buddy DeFranco the most significant jazz clarinetist of the past 60 years.