Frances Amelia “Frann” Gaddison, jazz pianist and alto sax player, was born in Dallas on June 14, 1925. She was the daughter of John H. Gaddison and Irene A. (Jackson) Gaddison. Her father worked as a cement finisher, and her mother was a domestic worker. She displayed an early musical talent and affinity for jazz. In the 1940 census, the family lived in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas, and her mother Irene was listed as a music teacher. Gaddison graduated from Lincoln High School, which has since become renowned for graduating a number of Dallas jazz greats, including Fathead Newman, Leroy Cooper, and Shirley McFatter. According to Gaddison’s obituary in the Dallas Morning News, she was encouraged to and possibly studied music at the New England Conservatory in Boston but quit to pursue a performance career.
Like so many female jazz musicians of her early career, Frann Gaddison’s contributions to the genre were overlooked, but in retrospect her presence in the jazz world is truly notable. During the 1940s Gaddison, then in her twenties, held down alto saxophone chairs in the legendary Eddie Durham’s All-Star Girl Orchestra, then went on to do the same, first with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and then with the Darlings of Rhythm—both all-female jazz big bands. During this era, female jazz musicians—including Gaddison, an African American—faced major challenges: racism/segregation, misogynistic attitudes of male musicians, and the disparaging attitudes of many jazz musicians who believed women just did not have the strength, stamina, and feel to play jazz, especially hard swing charts of that era. Gaddison persevered by having an indomitable spirit and innate love for her jazz. Male musicians related to her as a “buddy,” a colleague.
Further credence of Gaddison’s accomplishments is that she went on to hold down the piano with Lionel Hampton’s band, appearing at the Strand Theater in New York in 1949 and other venues. She was the only female musician in that band, which included legends such as Wes Montgomery. Gaddison played at Carnegie Hall as well. She also reportedly played for Jackie Wilson and accompanied singer Billie Holiday on occasion. She later became the pianist and arranger for Sugar Ray Robinson when the retired boxer embarked on a musical career.
Like many professional musicians, especially jazz artists, Gaddison spent some time on the West Coast, although the balance of her career was in New York City, and played diverse venues. During some point in her career, she also performed under the name Frann Faine. She returned to Dallas in her later years (returning by the late 1970s), as had so many famous Dallas jazz artists, such as Red Garland. She continued to play in small venues and to collaborate with other local artists, including vocalist Shirley Tennyson McFatter, and performed on jazz education programs for youth and other concerts. Frann Gaddison’s failing health overtook her on August 26, 1996. She died of pneumonia and complications from asthma and congestive heart failure at Baylor Center for Restorative Care in Dallas. She was survived by daughter Amelia Ferrell.