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).
The panels were similarly lively and informative, especially "Swingin' New Big Band: the 1960s" with panelists Shew, Owens, Chuck Findley
, Barry Zweig
and Mike Price
, admirably moderated by Terry Gibbs; "The Arrangers" (Holman, Myers, John LaBarbera, Mandel and Don Piestrup, moderated by Berkowitz); "Big Band Machine" (Mintzer, Pat LaBarbera
, John LaBarbera, Charlie Davis and Alan Kaplan
, moderated by Kirk Silsbee) and "Killer Force" (Cunliffe, Keith Bishop and Kevin Richardson, moderated by Ken Borgers). Panelists shared humorous and sometimes harrowing stories of life on the road with the various Buddy Rich bands, his quirks and tantrums when dealing with sidemen, whom he often fired on a whim, as well as his gentler and more benevolent side, not often seen except by those closest to him. Holman and the other arrangers recounted what it was like to write for Buddy, not always an easy task (Myers, for example, contributed the classic chart "Love for Sale," for which he wasn't paid, so he never wrote another). Truth be told, the films and panels were among the highlights of the four-day-long tribute.
Having said that, let us now review the various presentations sequentially, day-by-day, as conclusively as memory allows. Wednesday, May 18:
The bonus event, an all-star tribute to Terry Gibbs (who was present and accounted for), began with a "this is your life" film that neatly summarized the vibraphonist's stellar career, starting at age twelve when the precocious Julius Gubenko won top honors on radio's Major Bowes Amateur Hour. Gibbs went on to star in a number of bands including Woody Herman
's illustrious Second Herd before forming his own "Dream Band" in the late '50s. Following the film, the current edition of the Dream Band, led by vibraphonist Chuck Redd
, performed a number of songs associated with its earlier variant including "Ja-Da," "Pretty Blue Eyes," "Begin the Beguine," "Nose Cone," "Don't Be That Way," "Soft Eyes" and "Sweet Georgia Brown" (there were a few others but the horrendous acoustics made hearing their names impossible). While the band itself was splendid, it was ill-served by a deplorable sound system that made listening a chore instead of a pleasure. At one point, it was so bad that Redd was obliged to hold a microphone in front of the horn as alto Kim Richmond
soloed. Even so, there were respectable (if barely audible) solos by Redd, trumpeters Ron Stout
and Carl Saunders
, alto saxophonist Lanny Morgan
, tenor Terry Harrington
, trombonist Andrew Lippman
and pianist Tom Ranier
, plus stalwart work at the drum kit by Terry's son, Gerry Gibbs
. Toward the end of the concert, Terry, who turns ninety-two in October, bounded onstage to perform Steve Allen
's "Playing the Field" and duet with Redd on the standard "What's New," proving that he remains to this day a master of his instrument. A joyous occasion, even if the sparsely populated ballroom (which was the case throughout the rest of the week) and sub-par sound system didn't hold much promise for what was to follow. Thursday, May 19:
After an opening film, the Jeff Hamilton Trio presented the first "official" concert of the tribute, half a dozen songs featuring the leader in top form with pianist Tamir Hendelman
and bassist Christoph Luty
having their say as well. This is an excellent (and long-lived) trio, one of the best anywhere, thanks in no small measure to Hamilton's dazzling proficiency with sticks or brushes. Besides lending substance to his showmanship, Hendelman and Luty framed a series of pleasing solos in a program that opened, appropriately enough, with "I Love Being Here with You," followed in order by Thelonious Monk
's "Rhythm-a-Ning," Claus Ogerman
's "Symbiosis," Jimmy Giuffre
's "Four Brothers" (trio edition), Rodgers and Hart's "Falling in Love with Love" and Buck Clayton
's "Blues for Stephanie." Six tunes total, leaving ample room to stretch. Thankfully, the sound was much improved, but attendance remained on the light side.
"Quiet Riot," the first of the week's panels, was another fine one, with Buddy's long-time friend and colleague (and consummate story-teller) Terry Gibbs interviewed by Ken Poston. A delightful hour that flew by far too quickly, followed in short order by "Harry James: The Buddy Rich Years," featuring a big band directed by drummer Berkowitz with special guest trumpeter Bobby Shew. The music, mostly from the late Big Band Era (Buddy played with Harry's band off and on from 1953-65), included such evergreens as "Don't Be That Way," "Shiny Stockings," "Cherokee," "Opus One," "Flying Home" and "Two O'Clock Jump" among some lesser-known themes like "Cubano Chant," Neal Hefti
's "The Creeper," "Sunday Morning" and "Queer Street." Shew soloed brightly on several numbers, with other strong statements by alto Rusty Higgins
, trombonist Jack Redmond
, trumpeter Jeff Bunnell
, tenor Roger Neumann
and pianist Geoff Stradling
. Richmond added a lively clarinet solo on a tune whose name was inaudible (something to do with Booker T & the MGs). Again, the sound was noticeably improved (though far from crystal clear); and again, attendance was modest, with far less than half the Ballroom filled.