Jazz Profiles from NPR
Buddy DeFranco
Produced by Molly Murphy

Buddy DeFranco  

Smooth, lyrical, lucid, precise - they almost do justice to the unmistakable sound of clarinetist Buddy Defranco. His technical expertise has been likened to that of Artie Shaw, his melodic capabilities rival Benny Goodman's, he's been dubbed "The Charlie Parker of the clarinet."

Listen to writers Ira Gitler, vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, trumpeter Clark Terry, and drummer Louie Bellson describe Buddy's innovations

Born Bonifacio Ferdinando Leonardo Defranco on February 17, 1923, Buddy was quickly given his new name in the interest of brevity. When he was 9 years old, Buddy's father, a blind piano tuner and talented musician in his own right, spent the rent money to buy Buddy his first clarinet.

Listen to Buddy recall receiving his first clarinet

After attending the Mastbaum School and receiving classical training, Buddy broke into the jazz music business when he won a national Tommy Dorsey talent contest.

By 1939, Buddy was on the road with the Johnny "Scat" Davis big band and spent the next several years moving from band to band. Finally, in 1944, Tommy Dorsey himself recruited the gifted clarinetist, and thus began Buddy's four year stint with the most popular dance band of the era.

Listen to Buddy remember auditioning for Tommy Dorsey's band


Although the big band provided a perfect forum for Buddy to showcase his talent on the clarinet, the "king" of instruments during the swing era, Buddy grew restless with the limitations of popular music and Tommy Dorsey's (left) rigid interpretations of hit songs. In 1948, Dorsey had "the talk" with Buddy.

Listen to Buddy explain why Tommy Dorsey fired him from the band

"Everybody that listens to something hears it differently from their own perspective. And you can't please everyone. Don't even try. Please yourself first and then try to please those people around you that you feel know what you're doing."

-- Buddy DeFranco  

The bebop revolution of the 1940s enabled Buddy to break looses from the confines of swing and granted him "the freedom to float" he desired. The challenge was clear: from "king" of the swing instruments, the clarinet was not well suited to bebop, due to its temperamental nature.

Listen to Buddy describe the impact bebop had on his sound

Buddy eventually got recording dates with many of the bebop legends plus a steady spot in the Count Basie septet. While the Basie gig was prestigious within the jazz community, trumpeter and fellow band member Clark Terry (left) recalled the interesting "reverse racism" Buddy encountered for being the only white member of the septet.

The 1950s were a prolific time for Buddy. He formed his own quartet with drummer Art Blakey, pianist Kenny Drew, and bassist Eugene Wright. In 1954, he embraced the opportunity to play a European tour with the spectacular Billie Holiday.

Through producer Norman Granz, Buddy was paired with his boyhood idol, pianist Art Tatum, and was featured on the Jazz at the Philharmonic recordings. Despite his success, Buddy struggled with the only major criticism of his long career, a column by jazz writer Nat Hentoff.

Listen to writers Nat Hentoff and Ira Gitler, and Buddy debate his playing style

When rock and roll began to steal the jazz's thunder towards the end of the 1950s, Buddy made ends meet with studio work for film and television until he was invited to lead the Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1966.

Terry Gibbs  

During the subsequent period, Buddy met and married his wife Joyce, and joined forces musically with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs (left). Gibbs and Defranco formed a dynamic pair, complimenting each other musically and personally.

Listen to Buddy and Terry banter about their musical and personal rapport

Buddy Defranco continues to progresses with time, influencing young clarinetists with his gentle, generous personality and his ceaseless energy for experimentation.

Listen to Buddy talk about his constant strive for growth


View the Buddy DeFranco show playlist


ListenRead the online show summary of Buddy DeFranco's appearance on NPR's Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center.

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org


More InfoBrowse Buddy DeFranco's official Web site