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Howard "KingFish" Franklin, Drummer and Educator Who Loomed Large on the D.C. Jazz Scene, Has Died at 51

Howard "KingFish" Franklin
courtesy of Bruce Williams
Howard "KingFish" Franklin, Jr., who died on Aug. 18 at 51.

Howard “KingFish” Franklin, Jr., a drummer-bandleader who served as an anchor of the Washington, D.C. jazz scene, and a music educator who established a vital presence in New Jersey, died on Aug. 18 in Montclair, N.J. He was 51.

The cause was complications due to COVID-19, according to his best friend, saxophonist Bruce Williams.

On social media last week, tributes rolled in from an array of other peers, including drummer Johnathan Blake and bassist Christian McBride.

A proud member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, a huge fan of the Washington Football team and the unofficial “Mayor of UDC,” Franklin was known for his outspokenness, sensitivity, and passion, with a loving nature that tempered his typically blunt opinions. He was a people person who loved hard. His first and only album as a leader was in the process of being mixed and mastered at the time of his death.

He was born in Takoma Park, Md. on Dec. 20, 1969, to Howard Franklin, Sr., and Linda Franklin. His nickname — KingFish, after the character on Amos ‘n’ Andy — was bestowed on him by Calvin Jones, founder and director of the jazz studies program at the University of the District of Columbia. Jones was his professor, mentor, and a father-like figure whom he credited with helping him to fall in love with the music.

Williams, now a lauded saxophonist on the faculty at Juilliard, first met Franklin at age 12, when they got into a scuffle on the basketball court of a recreation center in Silver Spring, MD. Eventually they made amends, connecting over their love of music. They attended the same schools, from middle school through college, and forged a deep bond both on and off the bandstand.

A Conversation In Jazz Howard Franklin Part 1

Growing up, Franklin played on a drum set that he fashioned out of plastic buckets. This was the vehicle through which he developed his signature pocket swing, eventually garnering the recognition and respect of jazz greats like Ralph Peterson, Jr. and Wynton Marsalis.

When he was 15, Bruce called him over to his house with urgency to hear Marsalis playing Tony Williams’ composition “Sister Cheryl.” Franklin was instantly drawn into the spiritual quality of the music, vowing to swing from that moment on.

Williams calls him “one of the most swinging drummers I’ve ever known,” and attributes that in part to his friend’s roots in Go-go, the Washington, D.C. funk hybrid. Franklin admired jazz drummers like Cindy Blackman, Winard Harper, Art Blakey, Tony Williams and Elvin Jones — as well as funk drummers like Ricky “Sugarfoot” Wellman, who helped create the foundational Go-go beat with Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers. KingFish played his share of soul and R&B, too — notably with Wildflower, the band he formed in 1994, featuring his sister, Karen Linette, as lead singer.

Howard "KingFish" Franklin

Franklin played at jazz clubs all over D.C., such as Twins, Bohemian Caverns, Blues Alley and HR-57, where he held a weekly residency for years. He became a mentor to many, teaching the art of swing to burgeoning artists like Ameen Saleem, Corcoran Holt, Kris Funn, Eliot Seppa, Ephraim and Ebban Dorsey, DeAndre Schaifer and Christie Dashiell. His mission was to protect the culture and further the reach of jazz to ensure the survival of the music.

When Williams moved to the New York metro area, KingFish remained in D.C., becoming a fixture on the jazz scene and beyond. It was only five years ago that Franklin followed suit and moved to New Jersey, where he found ample work in music education, most recently as a general music teacher at New Horizons Charter School in Newark.

Franklin is survived by his parents, two sisters, four children, and a host of musicians whose lives he touched. In the words of saxophonist Elijah Jamal Balbed: “It’s going to be hard to imagine a D.C. without KingFish.”