I’ve been on a kind of clarinet thing lately, reminiscing about my childhood and my own lack of talent while also restating my admiration for some of the greats. With the latter thought in mind, it occurred to me that a few of the great jazz clarinetists have never received the recognition they deserve, and number one on that list might be Buddy DeFranco.
Although he had a nice career, DeFranco had the misfortune to come along a little later than guys like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, who were superstars in their day. Even though DeFranco did play in many of the swing bands — and led them too — he hit the scene just as the popularity of the big bands began to wind down, so missed his chance to become a superstar bandleader. But his talent as a clarinetist was always there, and he changed with the times and became one of the mainstays of jazz’s bebop revolution, eventually becoming a respected jazz soloist and leader.
The New Jersey native was born as Boniface Ferdinand Leonard DeFranco, which probably led to his much simpler nickname, but in any case young Buddy was a natural musician. While still a young teenager he was already winning talent contests, and by his late teens was playing regularly with the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa and Charlie Barnet.
When the bebop movement began taking hold in the post-war years, his fame built among fans who loved his talent and his ability to use his clarinet to replicate the solos of saxophonists like Charlie “Bird” Parker. His ability to do that often showed up with old jazz standards too, and his performances of some of those are among my favorites. For example, Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” with Buddy taking over for Coltrane’s sax lead.
During his bebop period, DeFranco also often led his own, excellent groups. (Video below.) Eventually bebop led to post-bop, and jazz continued to evolve into a lot of different sub-genres, but DeFranco was usually in the middle of most of it. When the popularity of jazz faded a little during the 1960s pop explosion, DeFranco took over as leader of the reconstituted Glenn Miller Orchestra and did a solid job for almost a decade.
In the years since, he’s continued to appear occasionally as the leader of his own small jazz combos, has written a popular book, and has also lent support to the annual Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival. His honors include being named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, and induction into the American Jazz Hall of Fame.