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.