When it comes to unsung jazz heroes, Buddy Collette's talents on tenor saxophone, flute, and clarinet are as close to unmatched as it gets. A gifted composer of classical music in addition to his jazz pedigree, Collette continues to fly almost defiantly under the radar of greater renown.
William Marcel Collette was born on August 6, 1921 in the Watts district of Los Angeles. Along with saxophonist Dexter Gordon bassist Charles Mingus, and drummer Chico Hamilton, he helped keep bebop alive in the city's historic Central Avenue neighborhood. Buddy also played an important role with the development of the cool jazz movement. After attending a concert by the legendary trumpeter Louis Armstrong with his parents, a young Collette was taken by the idea of a career in jazz. Satchmo's achievements and lifestyle presented an appealing alternative to the menial and often degrading jobs open to African Americans during the Depression.
n 1933, at the age of 12, Collette formed his first jazz ensemble. The group contained, of all people, a talented teenager named Charles Mingus, who Buddy convinced to switch from cello to bass. Mingus was already an extraordinary talent, but his infamous temper was also firmly in place. In the years that followed, Collette was instrumental in helping Mingus forge better relationships with various musicians and producers. Buddy's gentle, friendly demeanor was the perfect counterpoint to the ornery bassist; they became lifelong friends.
Remembering the action on and off Central Avenue, Collette speaks fondly of the lengthy jam sessions from that district during the 1930s and '40s. During those years the area around Central Avenue was filled with the sounds of swing, and, after World War II, bebop. Collette enlisted in the military during World War II. When he returned to Los Angles, he quickly became one of the city's first bebop players.
In 1949, Collette recorded "It's April" in the backroom studios of Dolphin's of Hollywood. Although "It's April" and other tunes recorded at Dolpin's were receiving radio airplay and selling well, studio owner John Dolphin seldom paid the musicians. This money conflict eventually led to the stabbing and killing of Dolphin by one of his musicians. Buddy left Dolphin behind and overcame tough racial barriers in the industry by becoming the first African American to perform in a television studio band, appearing on Groucho Marx's television show, You Bet Your Life.