In a full (and long – 1923-2014) life, Buddy DeFranco recorded in excess of 150 albums, both as leader and sideman, won 20 Downbeat, nine Metronome and 16 Playboy awards, and yet, to many people he is remembered for leading the Glenn Miller orchestra – the full billing was The World-Famous Glenn Miller Orchestra Directed By Buddy DeFranco – between 1966 and 1974.
He was born – and saddled with a mouthful of names – Boniface Ferdinand Leonard DeFranco on 24 February 1923, in Camden, New Jersey, albeit he was raised in South Philadelphia. He learned to play the mandolin at five years, the clarinet at nine, and aged 14 he won a nationwide swing contest, sponsored by Tommy Dorsey, and performed on the radio programme, Saturday Night Swing Club, alongside drummer Gene Krupa.
Perhaps because he was a late starter – he was just 12½ years old when the big band / swing era was ignited by the Benny Goodman orchestra, via a date they played at the Palomar Ballroom, on Vermont Avenue, Los Angeles on 21 August 1935 – DeFranco had no trouble moving from swing to bop in the 1950s, an area into which clarinettists seldom, if ever, ventured.
Despite missing the birth of the big band era he did, nevertheless, play for several leaders – Gene Krupa, Ted Fio Rito, Boyd Raeburn – not to mention two solid years with Tommy Dorsey, during which he earned a little fame on the strength of his swinging solos. In 1950 he spent a year with the Count Basie septet, in which he formed the front line alongside Wardell Gray and Clark Terry.
In addition to his albums as leader he also recorded with more or less every name in jazz, from vocalists like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald to big bands like those of Les Brown, Charlie Barnet and Buddy Rich to small combos, such as those of Lennie Tristano and Gerry Mulligan.
In 1960 he put together and co-led one of the most unusual groups ever heard in jazz, the Buddy DeFranco-Tommy Gumina Quartet, consisting of himself on clarinet, Tommy Gumina on accordion, Bill Plummer or Bob Stone on bass and Frank DeVito or John Guerin on drums. Between 1960 and 1964, the quartet issued four albums – Pacific Standard (Swingin’) Time, Presenting The Buddy DeFranco-Tommy Gumina Quartet, Kaleidoscope, and The Girl From Ipanema. Although innovative and mildly successful the group failed to make the kind of impact DeFranco had hoped and shortly after disbanding, he accepted the job of “director” to the Glenn Miller orchestra, which occupied him for the next eight years.
Still only 51, he spent the remainder of his life teaching, making multi appearances on television, and recording, turning out 37 albums as leader and another seven as sideman.
An inductee into the American Jazz Hall of Fame, Buddy DeFranco died on Christmas Eve, 2014, in Panama City, Florida. He was 91 years old. Although he had recorded a final album, Down For Double, at the age of 87 in 2010, ironically the album of the European tour he had made with Billie Holiday in 1954 was re-released in 2014, just weeks before his death.