Back in the heyday of Big Band and Swing, the clarinet was considered king. With it’s woody and breathy tones, the clarinet brought a power and nuance well suited for the optimistic sounds of the early 30s and 40s. Few clarinet players of the day are as well known as Buddy DeFranco, a child of South Philly and a true musical pioneer who only recently passed away at the age of 91. DeFranco was there to transition music from all out swing to the improvisational bebop sound, recorded with heavy hitters such as Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday, and even hosted his own shown on public television. He is survived by his wife and his son.

On February 17, 1923, Bonifacio Ferdinando Leonardo DeFranco was born. His father, a blind piano tuner with his own great musical talent, quickly shortened the name to “Buddy.” Though he’s now revered as one of the world’s best clarinet players, Buddy DeFranco actually picked up the Mandolin first when he was only five years old. Then, at age nine, his father spent the family’s rent money on his first clarinet, thus setting him on his path to become a great legend. Buddy quickly took to the instrument after receiving classical training from the Mastbaum School in Philadelphia, but was instantly hooked by the new jazz sound that was taking hold in America. When he was only 16, DeFranco was on tour with the Johhny “Scat” Davis Big Band and spent the next five years working with different groups on the road.

As the 40s faded away, so too did the popularity of big band swing. Still quite young and with plenty of music left in him, DeFranco left his big band gig with Tony Dorsey and joined the Count Basie septet, a highly coveted position in the jazz scene. At the same time that De Franco was finding new work, other artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were finding new sounds and styles. This new take on Jazz would soon come to be known as “bebop,” and after hearing Charlie Parker perform at Minton’s club in Harlem, DeFranco was hooked. Buddy took all he had learned from swing and made it work in bebop, no small feat considering many people felt the clarinet had died along with big band.

The 50s became a time of prolific work for DeFranco as he performed with both Gillespie and Parker, toured with Billie Holiday, and formed his own jazz quartet with Art Blakey, Kenny Drew and Eugene Wright.

When Rock and Roll began to steal the spot light just as jazz had done to big band a decade before, DeFranco once more made an easy transition into studio and television work. It was during this time that he met and married his wife Joyce and also began a lasting musical relationship with vibraphone player Terry Gibbs. In 1966 Buddy was asked to lead the Glenn Miller Orchestra and served as its leader for nearly ten years until 1974. From there he spent a large portion of the 80s and 90s recording albums with Gibbs and others. He later was rightfully inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame and in 2007 was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.

Buddy DeFranco passed away on Christmas Eve, 2014 in Panama City, Florida. His family had his body cremated and planned a memorial service soon after. DeFranco is but one of the many talented sons and daughters to hale from the City of Brotherly Love. He and his talent will be missed.

We at John P. Donohue Funeral Home know about respect and will treat your family and loved ones with the dignity and care they deserve. We offer easy-to-arrange and affordable memorials and funeral services to all in the Philadelphia area. If you’ve recently lost a loved one, you need an understanding and compassionate team to help you plan and carry out funeral and memorial services. Let our experienced staff assist you in your difficult time while you grieve and remember your loved ones. If someone has died, or if you’d like to discuss preplanning a memorial service, call John P. Donohue Funeral Home today at (610) 991-8842.