Buddy DeFranco, one of the most innovative and enduring masters of the jazz clarinet, who introduced the complex musical vocabulary of bebop to his instrument in the 1940s and had a career that lasted more than 70 years, died Dec. 24 at a hospital in Panama City, Fla. He was 91.
His wife, Joyce DeFranco, confirmed the death but declined to offer a specific cause.
Mr. DeFranco, who began playing professionally in the 1930s, when clarinetists Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw were superstars, went on to become the most acclaimed jazz clarinet player of his generation. He recorded more than 160 albums and performed alongside dozens of celebrated musicians, including Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole.
He was renowned for being the first clarinetist to be able to play bebop, the harmonically advanced and lightning-fast style of jazz pioneered by alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Mr. DeFranco never forgot the first time he saw Parker, performing on a borrowed saxophone at a Harlem nightclub in 1943.
"I was completely turned around," he told the New Yorker magazine's Whitney Balliett in 1982. "I couldn't sleep for two days. I decided immediately that that was it: I was determined to articulate like that on the clarinet."
With its complicated fingering patterns, the clarinet is difficult to play under the best of circumstances. Mr. DeFranco persevered until he became the first performer to adapt the language of bebop to his instrument. Perhaps inevitably, he became known as the "Charlie Parker of the clarinet," and the two musicians became good friends "” but Mr. DeFranco avoided the drugs that led to Parker's death at 34.
For decades, magazine polls of critics and fans listed Mr. DeFranco as the finest clarinet player in jazz. He continued to perform until 2012, often astonishing listeners with his undiminished technique.
"DeFranco, who's 80 going on 55, makes broad, confident leaps across the range of the horn without wandering out of tune," Chicago Sun-Times critic Kevin Whitehead wrote in 2003. "He improvises compact solos of perfect length: long enough to develop a few ideas, one giving rise to the next, but not so long that inspiration flags."
Early in his career, Mr. DeFranco turned out several well-regarded albums, including "Mr. Clarinet" (1953) and "Cooking the Blues" (1954), before making a landmark 1956 recording with pianist Art Tatum. Released under various titles over the years "” most recently as "The Tatum Group Masterpieces, Volume 7" "” the recording is considered something of an overlooked masterpiece among aficionados. Tatum was known for his ability to improvise intricate arpeggios at breakneck speed and for challenging other musicians to keep pace with him.
"Sometimes he would put his left hand on his lap," Mr. DeFranco recalled of Tatum in a 2009 interview with jazz writer Marc Myers, "and play just with his right hand while looking at me and grinning, as if to say, "˜How about this?' "
Boniface Ferdinand Leonardo DeFranco was born Feb. 17, 1923, in Camden, N.J., and grew up in Philadelphia. He was known as Buddy from a young age.
His father, who was blind, was a piano tuner and guitarist. His mother was committed to a mental institution when Mr. DeFranco was a child.
He was 9 when he picked up the clarinet. He studied with classical teachers through high school, while listening to jazz performers on the side.
By 13, he was performing on radio shows and in hotel ballrooms, often with his brother Leonard, who also became a professional musician. He was 14 when he won a nationwide talent contest sponsored by bandleader Tommy Dorsey, who said he would one day hire Mr. DeFranco for his band.
At 15, Mr. DeFranco went on the road with Johnnie "Scat" Davis, a trumpeter and singer who introduced the song "Hooray for Hollywood." In rapid succession, Mr. DeFranco worked in groups led by Gene Krupa, Ted Fio Rito and Charlie Barnet before joining Dorsey.
Mr. DeFranco had three stints under the volatile bandleader and played the clarinet solo on Dorsey's 1945 hit "Opus One" before embarking on a solo career in the late 1940s. He was in groups led by jazz giants George Shearing and Count Basie before forming his own bands, which included such notable musicians as drummer Art Blakey and pianists Bud Powell, Kenny Drew and Sonny Clark. In the 1950s, Mr. DeFranco toured Europe with singer Billie Holiday and was part of the popular Jazz at the Philharmonic all-star groups.
At various times, he played on recordings by Sinatra, Cole, Ella Fitzgerald and pianist Oscar Peterson. In the early 1960s, Mr. DeFranco had a wildly exciting, but commercially unsuccessful, quartet with accordionist Tommy Gumina before taking over as director of the touring Glenn Miller orchestra in 1966. He led the so-called "ghost band," which performed the music of the popular 1940s bandleader, for eight years before settling in Florida.
Beginning in the early 1980s, Mr. DeFranco often performed with vibraphonist Terry Gibbs and appeared at festivals and concerts around the world. He often led clinics for high school and college musicians, and an annual jazz festival in Missoula, Mont., near his summer home, was named in his honor in 2000.
Mr. DeFranco was selected as a jazz master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006 and, a year later, was one of 33 musicians honored as "living legends of jazz" at the Kennedy Center.
His first two marriages, to Nita Barnett and Mitchell Vanston, ended in divorce. A son from his second marriage, Christopher DeFranco, died in 2001.
Survivors include his wife of 44 years, Joyce Yount DeFranco, and their son, Charles L. "Chad" DeFranco, both of Panama City Beach, Fla.
Mr. DeFranco never contemplated any career except music. From an early age, he accompanied his father to jazz performances by Basie, Duke Ellington and Chick Webb, and he never lost the excitement he felt when the bands began to play.
"That's how I started getting interested in the idea of jazz," he told DownBeat in 1999. "I simply had an affinity with those swing bands. Within the depth of my organism, I knew that was the beat."