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Big Band Report

RIP Buddy Childers

By Published: July 6, 2007
His given name was Marion, but to friends, family and admirers around the world Marion Childers was known simply as Buddy—entirely appropriate, as Buddy Childers was a friend to everyone he met.

When Buddy was twelve years old, to keep a trumpet that was given to his father by his mother but lay unused in a closet, he taught himself to play it. A scant three years later he was performing with a number of groups large and small in and around his hometown of St. Louis, MO, and four years later—when he was barely sixteen—he took a seat in the trumpet section of what was soon to become one of the country's leading ensembles, the newly minted Stan Kenton Orchestra. To get there, he had to audition. "At the rehearsal, he recalled later in an interview with Steve Voce, "[Stan] sat me down in the first trumpet chair . . . I played about eight or nine things in a row and the adrenalin was really flying that day. I was sixteen—I probably looked about thirteen—but I played considerably more maturely than that.

To make a long story short, Buddy landed the gig and spent the rest of his life as a trumpet player—one of the best there ever was—until he died on May 24 at age eighty-one. One year after joining Kenton's orchestra he had taken over the lead trumpet chair almost by accident. "Guys were always laying out while waiting to play a high note at the end of a song, he said to Voce. "One night we were playing at the Shrine Auditorium and three guys laid out; I was the only one who played the part, playing a third part. Stan was livid. He had told us not to do that, but they did it anyway. . . 'You, and you, and you,' he said, 'you're fired!' He turned to me and said, 'You, you're my new first trumpet player.' He thought better of that later, but it was too late. He stayed with his word and kept hiring other people who he thought would do the job, but I was doing it properly, and so at seventeen I became [a] first trumpet player on the Bob Hope Show for a year.

Buddy was with Kenton on and off for a dozen years (1942-54), playing between times with Benny Carter, Woody Herman, Les Brown, the Kenton All-Stars, Vido Musso, Charlie Barnet and Tommy Dorsey, whose orchestra he joined in 1951. That was an interesting gig, he recalled, as Dorsey had a way of testing his sidemen, musically and physically. After a heated confrontation in Brazil that almost led to blows being exchanged, Buddy passed the test and he and Dorsey become good friends.

After leaving Kenton for the last time Buddy struck out on his own, freelancing in Las Vegas and elsewhere, writing, arranging and forming his own big band, which recorded for the first time in the mid 1980s in Chicago. That album, titled Just Buddy's (recorded in 1983, re-released on Candid, 2000) includes some of his finest solo work on trumpet and flugel. The band didn't record again until 1996, this time in Los Angeles, with the album It's What's Happening Now! (Candid, 1998), and had almost completed work on a third album when Buddy's illness derailed the enterprise. In the late 1970s, Buddy was a member of the splendid Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin big band, and from 1983 onward served as music director for Frank Sinatra Jr.'s ensemble, which toured the country backing Frank Sr.

Buddy's feature with the Kenton orchestra was "Solo For Buddy, written for him by another good friend, Bill Holman. On May 23, the day before his passing, the Mike Vax Big Band performed the song in his honor at the Balboa Pavilion during Ken Poston's Swing Into Spring big-band extravaganza. A phone call was placed to Buddy's home so he could hear it played over the phone, but his son said he was asleep and couldn't be wakened. Even so, the band played the "Solo with as much warmth and passion as could be mustered.

Buddy himself played almost to the end, the last few times from a wheelchair. After all, that was what he did—what he'd always done—and he saw no reason to stop playing because of illness. He also ignored doctor's orders to attend a dinner honoring longtime friend Russ Garcia during Poston's Neophonic Impressions event in May 2005. To Buddy, loyalty was more than lip service and friends were worth their weight in gold. When the time came to applaud Garcia for his notable career as a Hollywood composer/arranger, Buddy was there, as he always was for the people he loved.

Far from being envious of other trumpeters, Buddy admired most of those he met and with whom he played. Charlie Shavers, who was his roommate and sat beside him in the Dorsey band, "was a dear, dear friend, he told Voce. "He was one of the sweetest people who ever walked, and one of the most talented. What a trumpet player! And what a pianist! He played piano like Art Tatum. He didn't have quite the same technique, because he didn't play [often] enough, but he played exactly like Tatum. He was at least equal to Fats Waller....Charlie was absolutely adorable.

Among other section mates he greatly admired were Shorty Rogers and Ray Wetzel. "I'd been in Woody's band with Shorty, he recalled. "Stan asked me to choose the trumpet section for the 1950 orchestra. We already had Conte Candoli and Maynard Ferguson. I suggested Shorty. Stan wasn't keen. 'He's associated with Woody,' implying the [drug] problems of the Second Herd. I told him, 'Shorty's not a doper.' 'How do you know?' he asked. 'He's too cheap to be a doper,' I said. 'There's no way. He sends every penny he makes home to [his wife] Margie every week. He even sleeps on the bus half the time. You'll love him.' Needless to say, Shorty got the job.

Ray Wetzel, said Buddy, was "one of nature's noblemen. Wonderful, wonderful guy. A great trumpet player and a great musician. There is a difference, of course. There are many people who can play the hell out of an instrument, but just being able to play does not automatically make you a musician. Ray was both. He was complete, and as a human being he was complete....As a trumpet player Ray taught me a lot, and I'm sure he learned a few things from me, too...

"I was driving back from a job in New England somewhere and was listening [on the radio] to someone like Al 'Jazzbo' Collins. [He] took phone calls and this one came in and I heard him say 'What! Ray Wetzel killed?' And that's how I got the news. I just pulled over to the side [of the road] and cried. [Ray] was with Dorsey and was killed in Charlie Shavers' car, and for the rest of his life Charlie never recovered from that.

Even though they seldom had a chance to play together, the legendary trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie was another of Buddy's close friends, primarily because of their shared belief as members of the Baha'i Faith, something neither Buddy nor Dizzy was shy about discussing. It was the foundation on which his character was built, and the nucleus of his relationships with others. Like other musicians, Gillespie (and Garcia) among them, Buddy knew that his strong faith had enabled him to turn his back on the self-destructive habits that had ruined many a promising career.

As playing trumpet was about the only job he'd ever had, Buddy always regarded it as such, and never let it go to his head; in other words, he never saw himself as someone special or "above others. In spite of his remarkable talent, he remained modest and down-to-earth.

Speaking about the great saxophonist Charlie Parker, who had toured with the Kenton orchestra in 1951, Buddy said to Voce, "When you're that good you don't have to be jealous of anyone, and he enjoyed everything. There's a lesson to be learned there. If you get good enough at what you do, part of getting there is enjoying what other people do and learning from it. If you enjoy it enough you're bound to learn something.

People like Buddy Childers, who was indeed very good at what he did, don't come along very often, and he will be greatly missed. Perhaps the most fitting memorial would be to somehow release the album he was working on so the music world could experience his superlative artistry, as Count Basie would say, "one more time.

And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin'!



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