Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Forgotten Ones - Buddy Collette: The Gordon Jack Essay

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“If I were going to pick a guy to open the Hollywood studio doors as Jackie Robinson did for baseball, Buddy would have been the man”.
- Gerald Wilson, trumpet player, bandleader, educator

“A spiritual father to Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, James Newton and myself. Buddy was a sage and saint. The doors he opened for us are innumerable and monumental.”
- Charles Lloyd, tenor saxophonist, flutist, bandleader

UK-based author and essayist Gordon Jack “dropped by” the editorial offices of JazzProfiles recently to share the following piece on Buddy Collette which first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Jazz Journal. You can locate more information about the magazine via this link.

And at the conclusion of this piece, you can checkout Buddy’s style of playing on a video that features him on a track from Conte Candoli’s Little Band Big Jazz on which the rhythm section is comprised of Vince Guaraldi, piano, Leroy Vinnegar, bass and Stan Levey, drums.

© -  Gordon Jack/JazzJournal; copyright protected, all rights reserved, used with the author’s permission.

“Buddy Collette should be remembered not only as a consummate multi-instrumentalist equally at home on flute, clarinet, alto or tenor but also for the major part he played in integrating the Los Angeles Federation of Musicians’ Locals in 1953. Until then two different locals operated in many US cities – one for black performers and one for white.

He was born in Los Angeles in 1921 and began learning the piano when he was ten but a couple of years later he switched to the saxophone.  His family lived in the Watts area and Britt Woodman and Charles Mingus were neighbours. It was Britt’s brother who taught Buddy the clarinet and by the mid-thirties he was a member of The Woodman Brothers Biggest Little Band In The World.

Buddy also had his own band around this time playing occasional Saturday night dances but he needed a bass player. A chance meeting with Mingus who was studying the cello solved the problem. Buddy encouraged him to take up the bass and introduced him to Red Callender who became Mingus’ first teacher, charging $2.00 a lesson. After considerable wood-shedding Charles joined Collette’s band for occasional engagements at the Odd Fellows Hall in Watts and over the years Buddy and Mingus remained very close.

Around 1937 he started working at the Follies Theatre backing acts like Tempest Storm, Lily St.Cyr and vaudeville comedian Joe Yule (Mickey Rooney’s father). A little later in 1940 he began studies with the celebrated Lloyd Reese who had acquired a reputation as one of the finest jazz educators on the west coast. While studying with Reese he joined the very popular Cee Pee Johnson band who were usually to be heard at Central Avenue venues like the Club Alabam. Buddy was on baritone and it was possibly when the band appeared at Hollywood’s Rhumboogie that Orson Welles heard them and decided to use them in Citizen Kane. They can be seen briefly during a party scene at the end of the film.

When the US entered WWII in 1941 he joined an all-black US Navy Reserve band serving with Clark Terry, Jerome Richardson and the Royal brothers - Ernie and Marshal.  After the war the Central Avenue scene continued to thrive with clubs like Lovejoy’s, the Last Word and the Turban Lounge featuring young stars like Dexter Gordon, Wardell  Gray, Sonny Criss, Buddy and his friend Bill Green.

Collette started to organise a little band with John Anderson, Britt Woodman, Spaulding Givens, Mingus, Oscar Bradley and Lucky Thompson who had stayed in town after his booking with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker at Billy Berg’s in 1946. They rehearsed at Mingus’ house and their first booking was at the Down Beat which was the hottest spot on Central Avenue. It was a collaborative group so they decided to call themselves The Stars Of Swing. That was to be on a sign outside the club but Lucky Thompson had other ideas. On opening night the club sign said, Lucky Thompson And The All Stars. Mingus apparently wanted to kill him and three days later after the original sign was reinstated Lucky left the group to be replaced by Teddy Edwards

With aid of the GI Bill Buddy began studying at the American Operatic Laboratory, the California Academy of Music and the L.A. Conservatory of Music. This was the time that he began concentrating on the flute studying with Henry Woempner who was the top flutist at MGM. He also had harmony lessons with Franklyn Marks and Wesley La Violette who numbered Shorty Rogers, Marty Paich and Jimmy Giuffre among his students.

For a time in the late forties when work was scarce he went on the road with Joe Liggins’ R&B band on baritone. Joe had just had a big hit with The Honeydripper and the band was working mostly down south where prejudice was severe and very difficult to take. Another southern trip involved Buddy performing with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson who was famous for his work with Jack Benny. Around this time he was playing alto in Benny Carter’s band at the Hollywood Palladium and he was also teaching music at Jordan High School in Watts. The fourteen year old Frank Morgan whose father had played guitar with the Ink Spots, together with Sonny Criss and Eric Dolphy were some of his students. Eric and Buddy were close friends until Dolphy’s untimely death in 1964.

With his superior sight-reading skills Collette was beginning to get regular calls for record dates in the late ‘40s on alto with people like Ivie Anderson, Johnny Otis, Gerald Wilson, Ernie Andrews and Charles Mingus. Then around 1950 he made history by becoming the first black musician to be hired for a national TV show. Jerry Fielding, who had replaced Billy May as musical director for Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life show hired him after hearing his flute performance in Bizet’s Carmen with the Community Symphony Orchestra.  

Duke Ellington wanted him – “So I can feature that flute of yours” - but Buddy was by now doing too well in L.A. He started playing tenor with Herb and Lorraine Geller at a club on Main Street that had the benefit of a weekly radio broadcast. Around this time Gerry Mulligan who had just opened at the Haig sometimes rehearsed his quartet with Chet Baker at an apartment Buddy was sharing with Jimmy Cheatham.  

In 1953 Buddy along with Benny Carter, Gerald Wilson and Red Callender convinced the authorities that there should only be one musician’s local in L.A. James C. Petrillo president of the American Federation of Musicians was against it but with the help of high-profile show-business personalities like Josephine Baker, Nat Cole and Frank Sinatra they were finally successful in their fight to integrate the two unions. As a result a lot of black musicians were later contracted to do the Carol Burnett, Danny Kaye and Flip Wilson shows. Years later Gerald Wilson said, “If I were going to pick a guy to open the Hollywood studio doors as Jackie Robinson did for baseball, Buddy would have been the man”.

Early in 1955 he was playing at Lake Tahoe with Lena Horne and Chico Hamilton was on drums. It was Chico’s ambition to leave the singer and organise a new group with a different sound. Fred Katz had been recruited on cello, Carson Smith was on bass together with the young Jim Hall on guitar who was working in a book-store at the time. Buddy Collette with his multi-instrumentalist skills was to be the final and very important ingredient in what became one of the most distinctive small groups of the era.

Chico had obtained a booking for the quintet at The Strollers a small club in Long Beach about 20 miles south of L.A. Buddy was working with Scatman Crothers at the Tailspin Club in Hollywood so for the first week of the engagement Bob Hardaway took his place. Once Collete was on the stand the group became extremely popular in part thanks to regular broadcasts from the club by disc-jockey Sleepy Stein on KFOX. Prices probably helped too because there was no cover charge unless one of the bigger acts like the Ink Spots were appearing when the door-price would be $1.00.

Collette contributed a number of his intriguing originals like A Nice Day, Blue Sands, Buddy Boo and Sleepy Slept Here - the latter was used by Stein as a theme on his nightly radio show. The quintet of course provided an ideal showcase for his solo abilities. On alto his highly structured lines recalled the elegance of Benny Carter and his tenor had much of the light swing of Lester Young. He was one of the very few performers who could make a convincing case for the flute as a solo jazz instrument and his clarinet playing was acknowledged by Down Beat critics when they voted him the New Star on the instrument in 1956. He stayed with the quintet for about eighteen months but life on the road was tough. He was making about $300.00 a week with Chico which was what he could earn for half an hour on the Groucho Marx show. The studio scene meant good money and short hours which gave him more time for continued study.

In 1957 he appeared on the Stars of Jazz TV show with Gerald Wilson and was booked again for the show in 1958 with Abbey Lincoln. Throughout the late fifties he made numerous albums with Benny Goodman, Buddy Rich, Quincy Jones, Peggy Lee and Herbie Mann. His 1956 recording of Cycle was notoriously dismissed by Miles Davis in a 1958 Down Beat Blindfold Test – “All those white tenor players sound alike to me…unless it’s Zoot Sims or Stan Getz”.

Nelson Riddle often used black performers like Plas Johnson, Harry Edison, Joe Comfort and Buddy for albums with Rosemary Clooney, Nat Cole and Sinatra. Buddy can be clearly seen on the LP cover of Sinatra’s 1960 Swingin’ Session!!! sitting next to Riddle. He has an eight bar solo on Should I and Frank apparently always asked for him whenever he was on the west coast. Apart from his considerable studio work he kept performing with his own quartet at local clubs the Haig, the Cellar and Shelly’s Manne Hole.

In 1962 he made one of his rare visits to NYC because Mingus needed help with music for his Town Hall concert which featured 30 musicians. The occasion turned out to be a disaster described by Clark Terry as, “The most bizarre and chaotic scene I have ever witnessed!”  The following year he was back in the city at the invitation of Norman Granz to conduct the band at Basin Street East accompanying Ella Fitzgerald.

In L.A. the jazz scene was changing like it was everywhere else in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He was still getting a lot of studio calls though from people like Jerry Fielding, Paul Weston, Harry Zimmerman and Billy May. He always had private students but in 1973 he started teaching at California State University, moving on to Loyola Marymount University and later California State Polytechnic Institute at Pomona. In 1994 he helped establish the Jazz America summer teaching programme aimed at young players. The 23 January 1990 was declared Buddy Collette Day in L.A. and in 1998 he was honoured by the mayor as a Los Angeles Living Cultural Treasure.

Buddy Collette died on 19 September 2010. In the March 2011 Jazztimes Charles Lloyd wrote a moving tribute calling him, “A spiritual father to Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, James Newton and myself. Buddy was a sage and saint. The doors he opened for us are innumerable and monumental.”

As leader
Cool, Calm & Collette (Fresh Sound Records FSR 2249)
An Original Westcoaster (Fresh Sound Records FSR 2250)
Buddy Collete & His West Coast Friends (Fresh Sound Records FSR 2248)

As Sideman
The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings Of The Chico Hamilton Quintet (Mosaic MD6-175)
Conte Candoli All Stars, Little Big Band Jazz (Fresh Sound Records FSR 1629)
John Graas Nonet, Jazzmantics (Lone Hill Jazz LHJ 10149)
Red Callender, Swingin’ Suite (Fresh Sound Records FSR-CD 458)

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