Buddy Rich: The Beat Goes On

Jack Bowers By

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Was Buddy Rich really "the world's greatest drummer"? The answer to that speculative question is debatable, of course, and opinions may vary, as they no doubt do on what kind of a person (or persons) he was when not weaving his particular brand of magic behind a drum kit. Buddy's remarkable talents as a drummer and his ambivalent and often volatile nature were the twin focus June 1 of a spectacular Buddy Rich alumni reunion and concert at the KiMo Theatre in Albuquerque.

The idea for the reunion was first broached to trumpeter Bobby Shew, an Albuquerque native and alumnus of Rich's superlative band from the late 1960s, by Larry Schwartz, past president of the New Mexico Jazz Workshop. After thinking it over, Shew decided it was something he'd like to do, and set about contacting fellow alumni who might be able to take part. "It wasn't easy," Shew said, "because many of them were dead." After all, more than forty-five years had passed since Buddy formed his definitive ensemble, the one that recorded half a dozen of the most superlative albums in big-band history. Perseverance, however, paid off, and Shew was able to track down five other past members of the band who said they would be willing and able to come to Albuquerque for the occasion: trumpeters Carl Saunders and Chuck Findley, and saxophonists Pat La Barbera, Charles Owens and Andy Fusco.

The key lay in finding a drummer who could sit in for Buddy without embarrassing himself or the band. The choice, as it turns out, was brilliant. Steve Smith, a member of the Modern Drummer Hall of Fame who is best known for his work with the rock group Journey, is not only an ardent admirer of Buddy Rich but one who can play the drums and drive a big band almost as well as the master himself. During the afternoon concert, which followed an hour-long alumni panel discussion, Smith performed with such dexterity and power that one could almost believe Buddy's spirit was inhabiting his body. As for the others, they were similarly adept and inspired, even though they'd had time for only one brief rehearsal. "I hadn't played some of those charts in more than forty years," La Barbera said afterward, "but they came back to me almost as if I'd played them yesterday."

The band assembled for the occasion was a hybrid, with the half-dozen alumni (and Smith) accompanied by first-class local players. Trumpeter Paul Gonzales joined Shew, Saunders and Findley in that section, while alto Sam Reid and baritone Glenn Kostur rounded out the sax section. The trombonists were Ben Finberg, Christian Buckholz and Bill Austell, with Jim Ahrends on piano and Michael Glynn on bass. The concert was, naturally, devoted to music performed by the Rich bands between the years 1966-71, when its series of exemplary albums was recorded. Even though Buddy and his bands are no longer here, these awesome charts, it should be noted, haven't aged a bit, and while listening to them perform, it was hard to imagine that these talented alumni had either. They worked like apprentices trying to land their first paying gig.

Before playing, however, the alumni were onstage for the panel discussion, laden with fascinating insights about Buddy and the band and personal stories that must seem far more humorous in retrospect than they did in real time. Shew opened with a few words about how Buddy's peerless band came to be. In the mid-60s, he said, Buddy was broke and being hounded by the IRS for taxes that somehow hadn't been paid. To stave off financial disaster he decided to form a band. That didn't seem to be a good idea, as gigs were scarce, and the band soon folded. Not having a Plan B in hand, Buddy decided to assemble a second band, with some changes in personnel, and this time the tactic bore fruit, as a performance with Sammy Davis Jr. and word-of-mouth support led to a sold-out engagement at the Chez in Hollywood and the band's first album, Swingin' New Big Band (a more appropriate title has seldom been coined). Shew played lead trumpet on that album, as he did on the next one, Big Swing Face. Shew said he was "fired twenty-two times" by Rich, and "rehired twenty-one times." By the time The New One! was recorded, in June '67, he'd been replaced in the lead chair by Findley who was only eighteen years old when he was invited to join the band, having been recommended for the job by Shew.

"I was fresh out of high school and knew almost nothing," Findley said. "So after the first rehearsal Buddy says to me, 'I want so see you, kid. In my office.' The first thing he said was, 'Okay, you've got the gig,' But then 'you've got to do this and this and this.' Young as I was, and scared as I was, I told him I couldn't possibly do what he was asking. He stared at me for a long moment, then said, 'Okay, as I said, you've got the gig.' He was testing me, seeing if I had the backbone to stand up to him." While Findley passed the test, many others did not, and the stories about Buddy's sudden tirades and on-the-spot firings are legion. Saunders, who said he was fired "only three times," was on the band briefly with Shew but was already home in Las Vegas before any of the albums was recorded. La Barbera, on the other hand, lasted for seven years, a near-eternity in terms of membership in Buddy's ensembles but well short of the dozen years logged by the great saxophonist Steve Marcus (who must have been blessed with the patience of Job). La Barbera and Owens were on board for the band's fourth album, Mercy, Mercy, and La Barbera for the fifth, Keep the Customer Satisfied, and sixth, Buddy Rich in London, recorded in December '71 at Ronnie Scott's nightclub on Frith Street.

Fusco wasn't there when any of those albums were recorded (he joined the band in 1978) but can be seen on several DVDs performing the same music in various concert locales. He was a late-comer to jazz and big bands, having decided to try his hand at music only after a career as a football player didn't pan out. "I was a pretty big guy [when I joined the band]," he said. "I must have weighed around 280 or so. Anyway, when we traveled on the bus, the new guy had to sit closest to Buddy. 'Don't worry, kid,' I was told. 'Somebody will be fired soon and you'll be able to change your seat.' So I got the seat in front of Buddy. We're on the bus late one night, supposedly sleeping, when the band manager and Buddy start talking about me. 'He's a pretty big guy,' the manager says. 'Suppose he causes trouble. Maybe you could give him a karate chop [Buddy had a black belt], go for his groin, then drive your fingers into his eyes.' I've been on the band a couple of days and they're sitting there planning my demise! Finally I'd heard enough, and I raised myself to go to the men's room. As I passed Buddy, he looked up at me and said, 'Hey, nice solos tonight, kid.'"

Shew, commenting on Buddy's legendary obscenity-laced harangues, said much of what he did was an act, designed to browbeat his sidemen with an eye toward wresting as much effort from them as he could. "I'd think the band was cooking, and I'd say to him about his rants, 'Buddy, why do you do that?' to which he'd reply, 'Don't tell me how to run my band!' But he could be as warm and generous at other times as anyone you'd want to meet. The softer side was one he kept well-hidden." Regardless of his mystifying quirks, one thing Rich never lacked was confidence in his ability or his place in jazz history. As one of the panelists remarked, a fan once approached him in a state of awe. "So you really played with Charlie Parker?" he asked. "No," Buddy quickly replied. "Charlie Parker played with ME!"

Smith, who for obvious reasons is not an alumnus of Buddy's bands, said he was "honored" to have been asked to perform in Buddy's stead. He would later repay the trust in him with interest.

Having set the stage with a clever and amusing discourse, the "alumni band" roared from the starting blocks with Pete Meyers' decisive arrangement of Cole Porter's "Love for Sale," on which Fusco, Findley and La Barbera fashioned blistering solos while Smith offered a preview of explosions to come. Shew, who was doubling as emcee, said the next number, Oliver Nelson's "Step Right Up," was "the first one I played lead on after joining Buddy's band . . . and I'm still trying to get through it." Needless to say, Shew nailed the chart, as did everyone else including soloists Owens, Gonzales and Ahrend. Joe Zawinul's classic "Mercy, Mercy," one of three songs on the program that inspired album titles, was next up, followed by Horace Silver's "Nuttville" (from a later album, Ease on Down the Road) and Don Menza's "Groovin' Hard" (from Keep the Customer Satisfied). Following Bill Holman's alluring arrangement of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," Smith, who'd been largely held in check, had the shackles removed for extended, jaw-dropping solos on Paul Simon's funky "Keep the Customer Satisfied" and Bill Reddie's high-octane "Channel 1 Suite," which, Shew said, was written because Reddie, who'd been commissioned to compose an extended piece for Buddy's band, had no new ideas in mind so he simply reupholstered some music he had written for a Las Vegas show. To say it turned out well would be an understatement. Speaking earlier about Rich's unique approach to such seemingly tortuous charts, Shew said, "Buddy didn't read a note of music. He'd hire a backup drummer, then sit out front and listen while the band rehearsed. After a single run-though, Buddy would say, 'Okay,' climb on the bandstand and play whatever it was perfectly. It's true, he couldn't read music, but his memory was amazing. He only had to hear a piece of music once before he nailed it."
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