On May 18, Betty and I flew to Los Angeles to attend Time Check: A Buddy Rich Alumni Reunion,
a four-day panorama sponsored by the L.A. Jazz Institute and held at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel, about a stone's throw or two from the LAX airport. We arrived early afternoon so we could also be present for the "bonus" concert that evening, billed as an all-star tribute to vibraphone great Terry Gibbs
with Chuck Redd
sitting in on vibes for the man of the hour and leading an updated version of the Terry Gibbs Dream Band.
As is customary on such occasions, there were a number of big names fronting big bands, most notably composer / arrangers Johnny Mandel
, Bill Holman
, Bob Mintzer
and Peter Myers
; trumpeters Bobby Shew
and Carl Saunders
, and educators John LaBarbera, Charles Owens
and Bill Cunliffe
Even Buddy's daughter, Cathy, was on hand to co-lead the "Buddy Rich Big Band" with drummer Gregg Potter
(more about that later). Before delving into specifics, here are a couple of general observations: first, the acoustics in the Sheraton's Grand Ballroom, where all but one of the concerts was held, are not, to put it as charitably as possible, ideal for big bands (the Jeff Hamilton
Trio, which opened the tribute on Thursday, actually fared much better). The sonic shortcomings were amplified at Wednesday evening's bonus event, for which there was a rehearsal but apparently no sound check. Redd and the band were fine; they simply could not be heard with any clarity beyond the first few rows of seats.
Second, and most important, precious little "Buddy Rich" was actually heard at a reunion presumably held to celebrate the master drummer and his music. There were fourteen concerts in all, during which, by my count, 148 separate pieces of music were presented. Of those, thirty-four (roughly twenty-three percent) were songs written for and / or performed by Buddy's various bands (not counting another thirteen that Buddy more than likely played as a sideman with the Harry James
Orchestra). And nineteen of the thirty-four were performed in two concerts by the Buddy Rich Reunion Band, leaving fifteen (out of 127, or about twelve percent) for the others. Of the fourteen concerts, eight
music associated with Buddy or his bands. Bill Holman, who wrote a number of splendid charts for Buddy's peerless ensemble from the mid-60s, played only one of them ("Norwegian Wood"), LaBarbera four of his own, while drummer Michael Berkowitz
' band performed songs that Buddy played with trumpeter James' orchestra. There were times when the sole link to Buddy's music was that an alumnus was leading the ensemble.
Mind you, I am not criticizing Ken Poston or the LAJI for this, as I have absolutely no idea how these events are planned and designed or the stumbling blocks that must be surmounted. It does seem to me, however, that if a bandleader were asked to perform at a tribute to Buddy Rich, and had almost a year to prepare, he might say to the band, "Hey, guys, let's throw in a chart or two that Buddy played." Or even better, play some the bandleader himself had written for Buddy. As noted, Holman presented one, LaBarbera four, Pete Myers another four, while Mintzer, Mandel, Cunliffe and Owens combined for a total of none (one can excuse the Jeff Hamilton Trio, as it's not clear why they were there in the first place unless it was because Hamilton is an outstanding drummer who happened to be in town and available; obviously, he never played with Buddy's bands, nor did he write for them, and the trio performed no music associated with Buddy).
On a more auspicious note, the four film narratives and half-dozen panel discussions interlacing the concerts were devoted almost entirely to Buddy's singular career and persona, combining humor and insight to paint a memorable portrait of the honoree in all his genius and often bewildering complexity. The films took viewers on a fascinating journey from Rich's early days with the Artie Shaw
and Tommy Dorsey
bands of the late thirties and early forties (when the drum monarch was barely out of his teens) to 1984, only three years before his passing, when Buddy was still inspiring his band with the energy and enthusiasm of someone many years his junior. Included along the way were clips of some of his many appearances on The Tonight Show
with Johnny Carson and "drum battles" with Gene Krupa
, Louie Bellson
, Ed Shaughnessy
and even Animal, one of the stars of The Muppet Show
(battles, by the way, that Buddy never lost).