Buddy DeFranco, the innovative clarinetist who rose from the remains of the swing era to forge new and lasting prominence as the instrument’s pre-eminent interpreter of bebop, died on Wednesday in Panama City, Fla. He was 91.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Joyce.
From 1939, the year he graduated from a high school music program in Philadelphia, until just a few years ago, Mr. DeFranco was rarely off a stage, large or small.
After a decade of roadwork with big-name dance bands, Mr. DeFranco — tall, handsome and not yet 30 — was poised to inherit the throne shared for years by Benny Goodman, the King of Swing, and Artie Shaw, the King of the Clarinet. But by the time that moment arrived, the big-band clarinet realm had diminished significantly, overtaken by the saxophone and modern jazz.
Captivated by the complex, challenging new sounds and increasingly aware that the music market was evolving, Mr. DeFranco moved quickly to carve out a fresh career in bebop, a perilous undertaking on an instrument that requires nearly superhuman skill and dexterity to keep up with bebop’s sometimes freakishly fast tempos.
“Buddy is unique because he was really the only clarinetist who caught on to the new jazz language,” Dan Morgenstern, the jazz critic and historian, said in an interview in 2012. Unlike Goodman, Mr. Morgenstern said, “he had an ear to deal harmonically with modern jazz” — and unlike Shaw, who ultimately gave up playing, he was more consistent and more disciplined.
Over a 70-year career, Mr. DeFranco became a perennial fan favorite, winning Down Beat magazine’s annual popularity poll 20 times and drawing fresh audiences with his warm tone and effortless technique. In a business known for the volatility — even mortal dissipation — of its stars, Mr. DeFranco was noted, and occasionally needled, for his relentless daily practice regimen. On the bandstand he was focused yet easygoing, preferring to showcase fluid playing over instrument-waving histrionics.
His first big job was playing alto saxophone and clarinet with the band led by the trumpeter Johnny (Scat) Davis, followed by stints with Gene Krupa, Charlie Barnet and Tommy Dorsey. From the late 1940s on, he became known for his more intimate collaborations with other greats, among them the pianists George Shearing, Count Basie, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson and the drummer Art Blakey.
After a brief, unsuccessful stint as the leader of his own big band in 1951, he moved on to small-group performances around the country until 1966, when he returned to swing and a steady income, taking charge of the still-popular Glenn Miller Orchestra for eight years.
Mr. DeFranco’s crucial career change did not come all at once but evolved through the ’40s, as the saxophone, long the stalwart of big-band woodwind sections, moved into greater solo prominence and even greater stature as the driving sound of bebop, with the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker as its prophet.
“DeFranco, unbearably challenged by Charlie Parker, attacked bebop head-on and mastered it,” Whitney Balliett wrote in a New Yorker magazine profile in 1990. “He developed such fluency and invention and speed that he was considered the supreme jazz clarinetist. His work has never faltered, and he has kept the instrument alive in jazz simply by playing it so well.”
Mr. DeFranco’s goal, he told the jazz writer Ted Panken in 1999, was putting his own stamp on whatever music he was playing “so that you become an original, so that people will say, when they hear your record: ‘That’s who it is. That’s Bird. That’s Art Tatum. That’s Oscar Peterson. That’s Buddy.’ ”
“I had about six careers during the last 60 years,” Mr. DeFranco said. “Periodically, I’ll envelop a new concept on the clarinet, stay with that for a while, almost discarding what I was doing before, though not quite. I gradually wound up with a sensible mixture, combining whatever new thing I was doing with my earlier way of playing.”
But dealing with the ferociously fast rhythms and chord changes of modern jazz is often trickier on a clarinet than on the more forgiving saxophone. For one thing, the saxophone is an octave instrument; if you press a key to go up an octave, the fingering is still the same. But a clarinet goes up 12 tones, and the fingering changes, a challenge Mr. DeFranco often mentioned in interviews.
“For a clarinet to keep pace with a big band, or with a rhythm section, takes a lot of energy,” he said in The New York Times in 1982. “It could take 20 years off your life.”
He added, “Young people say to me, ‘I didn’t know you could play modern jazz on a clarinet.’ ”
Boniface Ferdinand Leonardo DeFranco was born on Feb. 17, 1923, in Camden, N.J., and grew up in Philadelphia, one of five children. His father, Leonardo, an immigrant from Italy, lost his eyesight to an infection and eventually trained to be a piano tuner. He was also an amateur guitarist who played with a band called the Jovial Night Owls, whose members were all blind.
Mr. DeFranco’s mother, the former Louise Giordano, who worked in clerical and factory jobs, was, he recalled, frail and high-strung and was committed to a state mental hospital, where she died after 35 years. With their father struggling to make ends meet, the children were taken in by an aunt and uncle.
When Buddy was 5, his father coached him on his first instrument, the mandolin, which he played by ear, but by 8, he had switched to the clarinet and the saxophone. He continued his musical education at the Mastbaum School of Music in Philadelphia (now the Jules Mastbaum Technical/Vocational School). He graduated at 16 and was hired by Scat Davis shortly after that.
Mr. DeFranco was married three times and divorced twice. After a brief first marriage, he wed Mitchell Vanston; they had a son, Christopher, who died in 2001. In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1975, he is survived by their son, Charles.
Mr. DeFranco recorded dozens of albums; his 1958 album “Cross Country Suite” won a Grammy Award for its composer-arranger, Nelson Riddle. An avid experimenter with musical styles and instrumental combinations, he also collaborated with the virtuoso accordionist Tommy Gumina in the 1960s. Through the ’80s and ’90s, Mr. DeFranco and the vibraphonist Terry Gibbs often performed together.
He was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, the country’s highest honor for jazz musicians, in 2006. But his quest to conquer the clarinet and its challenges never ceased.
“You know, this is all tricky stuff,” Mr. DeFranco told the jazz critic Howard Mandel. “Once I was doing some school clinics, and one of the great symphonic clarinet players, Daniel Bonade of the Philadelphia Orchestra, was doing another clinic in the same school. I used to pick the brains of as many clarinet players as I could, to see how they got their sound, what reeds they used, everything. So I went to hear his clinic, and at the end I sidled up and said, ‘When do you finally master the clarinet?’ And he said: ‘Master the clarinet? That’s the funniest thing I ever heard.’ ”