Buddy Rich: In a Zone of His Own

Jack Bowers By

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One of the channels that came with my Dish Network package is Classic Arts Showcase, which is a treasure trove of film clips documenting classical, ballet, folk, pop and other forms of music that one is unlikely to see anywhere else (although some footage is presumably available on YouTube, which more and more seems to encompass almost everything musical and beyond). When there is nothing else of interest to watch (which, alas, is much of the time), I sometimes press the remote control buttons for Classic Arts and can usually count on seeing something that is at least historic and educational if not spellbinding. Case in point: once upon a time, when Hollywood produced "film shorts" that showcased various aspects of American culture, music was one of the staples that helped lure audiences into theatres. Strange as it may seem to today's generation, a number of bandleaders were well-known celebrities in those days, and so it was that some of them could be seen leading their ensembles in slickly produced (and cleverly stage-managed) film shorts designed to heighten interest in their particular brand of music. A few days ago I came across one such narrative from 1939, "The Art of Swing," starring clarinetist Artie Shaw and his orchestra. As the film opened my gaze was drawn immediately to Artie's drummer, who looked to be in his late teens. He was of course the incomparable Buddy Rich, whose extraordinary technique, even then, affirmed the promise of larger worlds to conquer. Buddy was actually around twenty-one when the short was made. Watching it now, almost three-quarters of a century on, the thought endures that if anyone was ever born to be "the world's greatest drummer," it was Buddy Rich. He started drumming at age three (as part of his parents' vaudeville act) and continued doing so until shortly before his death in April 1987. In fact, he taped a BBC documentary in February of that year, and appeared to be in the best of health. During his long and storied career, Rich led a number of big bands including several from the mid-1960s onward that are widely considered to be among the finest ever assembled. Yes, Buddy was demanding, and a perfectionist, but that insistence on never taking one's foot off the accelerator and always doing things the right way was one of the qualities that raised his bands to a higher level than their contemporaries. Another was his unrivaled talent as a drummer, one who, in my opinion, was and is in a class by himself. Every performance by Buddy Rich epitomizes a textbook lesson in how to vanquish the impossible and make it look improbably easy. Among his ardent admirers is the British drummer Steve Taylor, whose DVD tribute to Buddy is appraised below, under "Sight and Sound."

The Best Keeps Getting Better

As if things weren't impressive enough already, Ken Poston has announced a special Sunday event to be held as a part of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute's Big Band Spectacular, set for May 23-26 at the L.A. Marriott Airport Hotel. The Sunday brunch, under the rubric "Birth of the Cool and Origins of the West Coast Sound," will consist of three concerts: The Real Birth of the Cool (Music of Claude Thornhill), The Birth of the Cool (Music of the Miles Davis Nonet) and Miles Ahead (The Classic Miles Davis +19 Collaboration with Gil Evans). Details are being finalized, but each group will feature star soloists and other special guests. The $75 cost covers the three concerts and brunch.

In addition to Sunday's special event, two more bands have been added to the weekend lineup, bringing to eleven the number of groups scheduled to take part. The newcomers are big bands led by Don Menza and David's Angels. They join the ensembles already signed and ready to play: The Bill Holman, Tom Kubis, Mike Barone and Steve Huffsteter bands; Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band; Bob Curnow's L.A. Big Band; Roger Neumann's Rather Large Band; the Kim Richmond Concert Jazz Orchestra, and the L.A. Jazz Orchestra playing the music of William Russo. For information or reservations, phone 562-200-5477 or go online to www.lajazzinstitute.org

The New York What . . . ?

I don't know how it slipped past me, but I never knew there was a New York Jazz Museum. Apparently, it opened in 1972 and lasted only about five years, brought down by a struggle for control within its ranks that led to lawsuits and its demise. The story of the ill-fated museum is recounted in a new book, Jazz Expose: The New York Jazz Museum and the Power Struggle That Destroyed It, written by Howard Fischer, the museum's founder and executive director. For information about the book, phone Howard Fischer, 212-864-1479. An e-book version is available at Amazon.com and Smashwords.

The Wilbur Ware Institute

Unlike the New York Jazz Museum, the Wilbur Ware Institute, also founded in the 1970s, continues its mission to preserve the history of jazz as seen and experienced by the innovators and master musicians who create, perform and perpetuate the art form. This is done by creating performance opportunities, seminars, workshops and other educational opportunities by and enlisting the musicians as primary sources while focusing on young people and using seasoned members of the community. The Institute is named for bassist Wilbur Ware who died in September 1979. Among the organizers were Ware's widow, Gloria, and Clifford and Sandra Jordan. It also seeks to ensure appropriate compensation and benefits for musicians, to establish a mentoring program that includes pairing master musicians with novices, and to seek greater national and international exposure within mainstream and popular culture for these music masters, using whatever technology and techniques prove effective, with an over-all goal of perpetuating the music that has been called "America's National Treasure." For information, phone / fax 347-523-9886 or go online to www.wilburwareinstitute.org

Savannah Music Festival to Welcome High School Bands

Swing Central Jazz has chosen a dozen high school jazz ensembles to take part in the 2013 Savannah (GA) Music Festival. Participating students will interact with professional jazz musicians, perform in showcases on Savannah's River Street, play in competition rounds, and attend a variety of SMF performances during their three-day stay, from March 27-29. The bands will be competing for $13,000 in cash awards. The bands are:

Agoura (CA) High School Studio Jazz Band; Agoura High School Jazz Band "A"; Charleston (SC) School of the Arts Jazz; Camden (NJ) Creative Arts Jazz Band; Denver (CO) School of the Arts Jazz Workshop Orchestra; Downers Grove South (IL) High School Jazz Ensemble; Grissom (AL) High School "A" Jazz Band; Lower Moreland (PA) High School Jazz Ensemble; Overton (TN) High School Blue Jazz Ensemble; Savannah (GA) Arts Academy Jazz Band; Tarpon Springs (FL) High School Jazz Ensemble; Lovett (GA) High School Jazz Ensemble.

The 2013 Swing Central Jazz clinicians are Jim Ketch, Marcus Printup, Terell Stafford: trumpet; Bill Kennedy, Stephen Riley, Jack Wilkins: saxophone; Wycliffe Gordon, Ron Westray, Paul McKee: trombone; Dave Stryker: guitar; Jason Marsalis, Leon Anderson, Herlin Riley: drums; Carlos Henriquez, Rodney Jordan, Rodney Whitaker: bass; Marcus Roberts, Aaron Diehl, Dan Nimmer, Bill Peterson: piano. The SMF, which takes place March 21-April 6, is in its twenty-fourth year.

Fond Farewells

January 10, 2013, was a dark day for Swiss jazz, as that country lost not one but two of its leading lights: entrepreneur Claude Nobs and bandleader George Gruntz. Nobs, age seventy-six, was founder and manager of the world-renowned Montreux Jazz Festival. He had been in a coma for several weeks following a skiing accident in the mountains overlooking Montreux. He founded the Montreux festival in 1967 with pianist Geo Vournard and journalist Rene Langel, with support from the then-president of Atlantic Records, Nesuhi Ertegun. Gruntz, a pianist, composer and arranger, led the popular George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band, known for its free-spirited and stylistically unorthodox approach to big-band music, from 1972-2012. Like Duke Ellington, Gruntz wrote with specific members of the orchestra in mind, and they included over the years trumpeters Jon Faddis and Woody Shaw, saxophonists Lee Konitz and Joe Henderson, drummers Elvin Jones and Paul Motian, and many other stars from Europe and the States. Gruntz was eighty years old.

On December 24, 2012, Great Britain lost one of its most celebrated and versatile musicians, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, who died in New York City, age seventy-six. Although better known as a film composer with classical leanings (three of his movie scores were nominated for Academy Awards), Bennett was a jazz devotee from early childhood who wrote and arranged in the jazz and pop fields as well. In the ballet Jazz Calendar (1964), danced by Rudolf Nureyev to choreography by Frederick Ashton, Bennett composed a score that was pure jazz. From the 1970s onward, he worked regularly as a jazz pianist, forming a duo with vocalist Marian Montgomery, continuing as a composer / arranger / pianist with Mary Cleere Haran and, more recently, Claire Martin. There is a big-band CD from 1960, by Johnny Bassett's orchestra (Harkit 8054), in which Bennett is teamed as an orchestrator with another excellent jazz musician best known for other pursuits, the pianist Dudley Moore (who also performs on the album). In 1979, two years after he was appointed a Commander of the British Empire, Bennett moved to New York City, where the patrons for his Green Card included Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Once there, his involvement in jazz increased, and he could regularly be found at various nightspots, jamming on piano. In 1995, Bennett was appointed to the International Chair of Composition at his alma mater, the Royal Academy of Music, and was knighted three years later.

Recent Big Band Releases

Steve Williams & Jazz Nation
With Eddie Daniels
OA2 Records

Saxophonist Steve Williams' Jazz Nation is centered in and around our nation's capital, which is where most of his sidemen (and one woman, trumpeter Liesl Whitaker) have day gigs with the area's leading armed services bands. No less than seven (including the leader) are present or former members of the Navy Commodores; two were recruited from the Army Blues and two more from the Army Jazz Ambassadors, while lead trumpet Brian MacDonald and drummer Joe McCarthy perform the same duties for the Air Force Airmen of Note and U.S. Naval Academy Band, respectively. The only non-service members (aside from guest artist Eddie Daniels) seem to be bass trombonist Mark Morganelli and the rest of the rhythm section: guitarist Pete McCann, pianist Harry Appelman, bassist Mike Pope.
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