Of all the musicians who played bebop when it was new, only a handful are still alive. And though no trumpeters or alto saxists survive, this small group includes a clarinetist–an ironic turn, since the clarinet, in the hands of bandleaders like Benny Goodman and Woody Herman, had come to stand for swing, which bebop supplanted. Now 77, Boniface Ferdinand Leonardo DeFranco, better known as “Buddy” (for obvious reasons), grew up listening to the same swing bands that first energized Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and the other creators of bop. Though a few years their junior, DeFranco had no trouble keeping up with Parker and company: in the early 40s he picked up bop’s innovations quickly, adopting its radical phrasing and accents to his relatively inflexible instrument. Calling him the finest bop clarinetist of all time is faint praise–I can only think of three others–but his ability to spin long, detailed, thrillingly propulsive melodies in a fluid yet hefty tone distinguishes him as one of the best bop talents on any instrument. And I’d go so far as to name him the greatest clarinet virtuoso in jazz history, a musician with technique so graceful and apparently effortless that it almost obscures the keen musical intellect at work behind the horn. I won’t claim that DeFranco keeps up with the times, but even though he hasn’t attempted to adopt new elements–for him, “new” means anything post-Coltrane–his artistic growth in the 60s and 70s places him stylistically ahead of today’s neoclassicists, who mimic the music he helped popularize in the 50s. His prime recordings–which include his 1950s collaborations with Art Tatum, the 1988 Holiday for Swing (Contemporary) with vibist Terry Gibbs, a longtime partner, and the spectacular 1981 album Mr. Lucky (recently reissued on CD)–belong in any collection. DeFranco has continued to record throughout the 90s, and judging by his latest, 1998’s Terry Gibbs & Buddy DeFranco Play Steve Allen (Contemporary), he’s lost barely a step. He’ll appear here with a Chicago rhythm section led by another frequent associate, the elegant veteran pianist Larry Novak, who’d be worth a trip downtown even if he were playing alone. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 and 10 PM, next Friday and Saturday, July 28 and 29, 9 and 11 PM, and next Sunday, July 30, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473. NEIL TESSER