At 83, he continues to practice on the clarinet every day so as to not "lose that edge." The countless artists whom he has played and recorded with include Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Art Blakey, Roy Eldridge, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Tal Farlow, Billie Holiday, Charlie Barnet, Count Basie, Stan Getz, Lennie Tristano, Herb Ellis, Nat "King" Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. In 2002, a lavishly illustrated and comprehensive biography titled A Life in the Golden Age of Jazz (Parkside Publications) was released and early this year he was honored as a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.
His career as a working musician, now in its eighth decade, spans most of the history of jazz and just may be the longest of any major living artist, with the possible exception of Hank Jones. With over 150 recordings to his credit, he will be going back into the studio this month for yet another session.
Virtually singlehandedly he has kept the clarinet alive as a jazz instrument since it fell out of fashion with the demise of the Swing Era over 50 years ago. Possessed of a beaming smile for miles and still handsome, this is Boniface Ferdinand Leonardo De Franco, known to the world simply as Buddy DeFranco.
Born in Camden, New Jersey in 1923 and raised in South Philadelphia, DeFranco began playing the clarinet professionally at local block parties at a mere 12, helping his blind father to support a poor family. Always upbeat, one would never know from him that those years were anything less than ideal. Asked about his introduction to jazz, DeFranco replies, "I must have been about ten years old I guess. My brother and I would go and watch all the big bands at the Earle Theater. We'd stay all day and watch five shows. I was particularly struck by Johnny Mince, who played clarinet with Tommy Dorsey. In fact, at the time I was studying what in the old days we used to call 'serious music' or classical music. I was weaned on classical music. Probably my favorite composer is Prokofiev. I just liked the way Johnny played. He kind of made the decision for me to be a jazz player. Very shortly after that I heard Benny Goodman and that was IT!"
In 1937, at 14, he won a radio national Tommy Dorsey Swing Contest and appeared on the "Saturday Night Swing Club", after which Dorsey remarked to him, "Stick around kid. You're going to play in my band someday." Soon tapped to tour with Johnny "Scat" Davis' big band 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.
Recalling his years with Gene Krupa, DeFranco says, "...He was a marvelous guy. He was a great, great drummer with a musical ear. I picked up a lot of stuff from him in terms of showmanship and musicality. He was a master."
Memories of those big band times seem to come flooding in and DeFranco remembers, "Tommy Dorsey was different. He was very stormy, frightening at times. In fact his idea of settling an argument was OUTSIDE. Having said that, he was also a very generous and caring person. He paid the highest salaries in the business," and further he remembers admiringly that when no one would hire Krupa after he'd been jailed for a pot bust, Dorsey signed him on at a then astounding $1,500 a week.
His playing with Dorsey at the end of World War II, near the end of the Big Band Era, was a pivotal time in jazz history. While DeFranco and his buddy, pianist Dodo Marmarosa, were playing together for Charlie Barnet, they ran into Charlie Shavers who told them, "There's a guy playing uptown, playing alto. He's playing crazy music. I don't know what it is, but it's fantastic. You gotta hear him."
They did indeed go up to Harlem and tracked Charlie Parker down. DeFranco raves, "Sure enough, he was just UNBELIEVABLE. When I left there my head was spinning and I couldn't sleep for two nights. I was trying to figure out in my mind what in the world this guy was doing. And of course, a couple of seconds later Dizzy met Bird and they did great things together. Shortly after that Dodo said to me, 'Why don't you try to play the clarinet like Charlie Parker?' I told him, I'm way ahead of you. That's what I want to do. So I started to study Charlie Parker and then I finally got to play with him a lot. He was marvelous. He was like a teacher."