De Franco

photo by Denny Lester
Buddy DeFranco (clarinet), 
Lewis Bellson (drums) and 
Herb Ellis (guitar).

BUDDY DE FRANCO was born in Camden, New Jersey, USA on February 17, 1923. He started playing the clarinet when he was 14 years old. His musical career was launched when he entered an amateur swing players' contest in Philadelphia, sponsored by Tommy Dorsey in 1940. After playing in big bands for three years (with Gene Krupa from 1941 to 1942 and Charlie Barnett from 1943 to 1944, he became the principal soloist in Dorsey's orchestra.

Later, he made two unsuccessful attempts to lead his own band and then turned to performing with smaller groups, including Count Basie's octet (1950). Other major events in his career included a tour of Europe with Billie Holiday (1954), the presentation of the première of Nelson Riddle's Cross-country Suite (1958) and his acclaimed recording of Blues Bag, which demonstrated his great skill on the bass clarinet. In 1958, he began teaching, conducting a number of jazz workshops in California schools. Later in his career, he led the Glen Miller Orchestra (1966-1974), but eventually returned to teaching and occasional night-club performances. 1

Impresario Norman Granz recalls one occasion when Buddy DiFranco was performing with the Oscar Peterson Trio at the Théatre des Champs Elysées in France. The jazz fans of Paris were notoriously unruly, doubting that a white man could play jazz, noted Granz. During a solo of Just One of Those Things, DeFranco stepped up the tempo. “Buddy just kept going,” said Granz. “The trio started to exchange glances. The audience began to get restless, then they started whistling and throwing coins. I don't know how they stopped it. I think Oscar just went clunk on the piano and ended it. Buddy came offstage just shaking. He was very hurt.”

Granz was angry. “I got out a chair and went out on stage and sat down,” he said. “First of all, I told them I wasn't going to speak French to them. And then I said, ‘Okay, and I'll tell you something else. You paid me a certain amount of money for two hours of music. I already have your money in my pocket, and I am not going to give it back. This concert ends at five o'clock. Whether you want to listen to this yelling or to music is up to you.' And gradually they began to shush each other up, which is the way it had to be done, and the concert went on.” 2

Later in his career, DiFranco led a quintet with Terry Gibbs, which performed in London and New York. In the mid-1980s, he made some fine recordings as the leader of a quintet with clarinetist John Denman and a harpsichordist. He also found success as a member of Oscar Peterson's quartet with Joe Pass and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. “His talent (lay) in improvisation with a liquid tone and a prodigious technique, but because of the apparent incompatibility of his chosen instrument and his preferred musical bop style, he has frequently been obliged to perform under circumstances that have failed to challenge his abilities.” 3

Selected Recordings

Crosscurrents with L. Tristano (1949, Cap. 11060)
Buddy De Franco and Oscar Peterson play George Gershwin (1954, Verve 314 557 099-2)
Art Tatum-Buddy DeFranco Quartet with Art Tatum (1956, Verve 8229)
Buddy DeFranco Meets the Oscar Peterson Quartet (1985, Pablo 2310915)


1 Kernfeld, Barry.   The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz.   London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1988.

2 Lees, Gene.   Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing.   Rocklin, California: Prima Publishing & Communications, 1990.

3 Lees, Gene.   Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing.   Rocklin, California: Prima Publishing & Communications, 1990..  

Buddy DeFranco was awarded a Jazz

Master Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006 as a Solo Instrumentalist.

"When I think of all the excellent musicians there are in this world, to be chosen as a recipient of this great award is indeed an honor." – Buddy DeFranco

A brilliant improviser and prodigious technician who has bridged the swing and bebop eras, Buddy DeFranco was born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1923, was raised in South Philadelphia, and began playing the clarinet at age nine. At 14, he won a national Tommy Dorsey Swing Contest and appeared on the Saturday Night Swing Club with Gene Krupa. Johnny "Scat" Davis soon tapped him for his big band, inaugurating DeFranco's road career in 1939. DeFranco subsequently played in the bands of Gene Krupa (1941) and Charlie Barnet (1942-43) and in 1944 became a featured soloist with Tommy Dorsey. Meanwhile, the modern jazz revolution was in progress, led by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie (JM). Excited by the improvisatory freedom of their music, DeFranco became the first jazz clarinetist to make his mark in the new idiom of bebop.

In 1950, DeFranco joined the famous Count Basie (JM) Septet. He toured Europe with Billie Holiday in 1954, led a quartet for three years with Art Blakey (JM), Kenny Drew and Eugene Wright, and then joined with Tommy Gumina in a quartet that explored polytonal music, further solidifying his reputation as a "musician's musician." In 1958, he premiered Nelson Riddle's Cross Country Suite at the Hollywood Bowl and later recorded the composition for Dot Records. His other notable concert and recording appearances have included dates with Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Lenny Tristano, Billy Eckstine, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown (JM), Mel Torme, Louie Bellson (JM), Oscar Peterson, and the John Pizzarelli Trio, as well as several Metronome All Star sessions. He was a featured artist in numerous Jazz at the Philharmonic tours of Europe, Australia, and East Asia. In 1966, he became the leader of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, a post he maintained until 1974.

Since the mid-1970s, DeFranco has combined a busy teaching career with extensive touring and recording. His numerous television performances have included appearances on The Tonight Show with both Steve Allen and Johnny Carson. He was a featured soloist on Stars of Jazz; had his own program on public television, The DeFranco Jazz Forum; and with his long-time musical colleague, vibraphonist Terry Gibbs, shared the spotlight on a segment of the PBS series Club Date. DeFranco has played at concerts and festivals throughout the United States, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, and Argentina. To date, he has recorded more than 160 albums, has won the Downbeat All Stars award 20 times, and the Metronome poll 12 times. The University of Montana, Missoula, now hosts The Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival each April.

JM: NEA Jazz Master