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Buddy Rich: The Beat Goes On

Jack Bowers By

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"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.

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