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Sonny Buxton: Strayhorn’s Last Drummer, A Radio Master Class Mid-Day Saturdays


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The story of jazz leads, not follows, the story of integration in this country.
—Sonny Buxton
Sociologist, anthropologist, historian: storyteller, raconteur, entrepreneur and griot, in the guise of a deejay. Registrar, dean, professor: The jazz class of Sonny Buxton is barely concealed as entertainment within his weekly radio program every Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Pacific time on San Francisco Bay Area FM station KCSM 91.1, streaming live on kcsm.org.

At age 81, with a still-strong crisp baritone voice, he's like a garrulous and enthusiastic great-uncle, spinning classic songs with stories that he has to tell, and to which one must listen, because (1) they are so darn interesting; (2) they are all true; and (3) he knows all this first hand in the first place. It could be overwhelming, but one changes the dial at risk of missing something important.

As a teenager, he was chased off stage by alto saxophonist Sonny Criss who had sat in, and then pulled aside by someone from the neighborhood, another saxman named Ornette Coleman, and counseled to volunteer in the praise band of a church to get a better sense of rhythm and keeping time. Buxton at the time was initially frightened by the fervor of sanctified worship, but six months later, after sessions on Saturday night and twice on Sunday, he laughs, he could keep time like a metronome.

As life progressed, he played football for the early Oakland Raiders; worked in radio and television news, integrating these fields against great racial entry barriers; did concert promotion; opened, ran, and closed a pair of landmark San Francisco San Francisco clubs, Jazz at Pearl's for 13 years and Milestones for five years before that, along with three clubs in Seattle; pursuing the many things that interested him but also running hard to keep up. When he talks about Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Carmen McRae, Clifford Brown, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Quincy Jones and more, he's recounting his personal experiences of them. It was through Quincy Jones, like Buxton a native of Seattle, that Buxton was introduced to Billy Strayhorn and became the drummer for Strayhorn's last touring trio. Buxton personally remembers separate unions in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle for black and white musicians, and "salt and pepper" clubs where police harassed racially-mixed audiences. The story of jazz, he states, leads, not follows, the story of integration in this country. He identifies the first black musicians to play in white bands as pianist Teddy Wilson in 1935 and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton in 1936, both hired by Benny Goodman, years before there was a "civil rights movement."

Buxton's task has often been to explain jazz, and the African-American musical experience, to those who don't understand it. He sees a need, and takes on the role to advocate and inform. For those who report that they have never stopped to listen to the music, he asks "Why not?" He lectures at the Stanford University Jazz Workshop and the Fromm Institute at the University of San Francisco, and has presented before the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. He feels responsible for enlightening individuals based upon his experiences. "Jazz matters," he has said, "it matters quite a bit."

When Buxton operated Pearl's, he introduced bands by first asking the audience to "please not talk." Listening to the music, he instructed, was "the most important thing."

"We try to present this with all the dignity that we can possibly muster up...and the whole thing works that way," made as a statement more than a request. Teacher as disciplinarian. Class was in session, even in a nightclub setting, cover charge paid, drinks on the table.

The Course of an Afternoon

Over a course of given Saturday afternoons, Buxton's playlist seems to have some preferences for certain performers, but often through their less familiar works: Sarah Vaughan, Dexter Gordon, Ellington certainly; often a quiet favorite Harold Land in a variety of combinations. He will invariably visit Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, McRae, and Vaughn, and has an occasional fondness for the unorthodox voicings of Dinah Washington. Then he might deal up a wildcard from deeper in his deck: such as the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in a big band version of Wayne Shorter's "Pinocchio" first recorded by Miles Davis on the album Nefertiti.

He'll play a particularly delicate rendition of "In a Sentimental Mood" from the 1965 album Lucky Strikes by saxophonist Lucky Thompson, a mostly-forgotten player but remembered by Buxton, with sidemen the well-known figures Hank Jones on piano, Richard Davis on bass, Connie Kay on drums. Buxton reveals the names of each of the musicians after the track with enhanced specificity, as if encouraging further research for further enjoyment. "Go check that out" is the implied homework assignment.

Lucky Thompson got another play a few weeks later in a pairing with bassist Oscar Pettiford, on an album compiled across four dates in 1956 with four different combination of musicians, some overlapping, and with a history so abstruse it was issued under four different titles as it passed through various record companies, now simply titled Lucky Thompson Meets Oscar Pettiford. Hank Jones is a side man on several tracks here as well. Without Buxton as sherpa, one might never have encountered the piece.

After that earlier Thompson play Buxton would be off spinning the next of a series which on that day ranged from Australian saxophonist Andrew Speight now local to the Bay Area; Roy Haynes' and Joe Henderson's second albums as leaders, Out of the Afternoon and Our Thing; Arthur Prysock with Basie; more big band with Patrick Williams; and then concluding with Pepper Adams on baritone in a rare 1969 pairing with Zoot Sims on tenor, backed by Tommy Flanagan on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums.

Another Saturday will yield Flanagan and Elvin Jones together again, in a trio setting. Elvin is best known of course for his dynamic work with John Coltrane, but settles in with Flanagan in much more sedate presentations. They had recorded numerous ballad-type sides together; Buxton knows that Flanagan had been the pianist on the initial recording of Coltrane's "Giant Steps," and later was Ella Fitzgerald's music director and accompanist.

Reviewing different combinations is the signature texture of Buxton's programming. He would follow that Flanagan selection with saxophonist Sonny Stitt sitting in with pianist Oscar Peterson. Later, on the same show, Wayne Shorter is presented in a 1966 Lee Morgan big band aggregation "Delightfulee" that also includes Phil Woods, McCoy Tyner, Bob Cranshaw, and Philly Joe Jones; Oliver Nelson as arranger; and other players on trombone, French horn, tuba, flute, and baritone saxophone and bass clarinet. Shorter was with Miles Davis in this period, had already come through Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and released a series of Blue Note albums as small group leader; here he is tucked in with eleven other musicians.

Playlist as Syllabus

Through Buxton, the unknown becomes merely esoteric. He calls up another orchestra, from 1959 under the leadership of pianist, arranger, and music theorist George Russell containing John Coltrane, Art Farmer, Milt Hinton, Phil Woods, trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, and trumpeter Doc Severinsen who eight years later would lead the Johnny Carson Tonight Show band. 1959 also was the year Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and Miles Davis' modal Kind of Blue with Coltrane were both recorded. Russell's keynote book from 1953 on the Lydian scale laid the foundation for modal jazz. John Coltrane and Doc Severinsen would not typically be considered fellow travelers, yet here they are in an album titled New York, N.Y., not by Sinatra. One could drown in the cross-currents without a navigator.

Still another Saturday will include Ray Charles' "I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town" from Genius + Soul = Jazz, with Buxton adding the notation that the piece was arranged by Quincy Jones for a supporting orchestra drawn from Ellington and Basie alumni. Pepper Adams, Tommy Flanagan, and Ron Carter return in still another combination, adding Frank Foster on tenor and Billy Hart on drums, in The Adams Effect recorded in 1985, Adams' last album as a leader.

So, week to week, the playlist becomes a syllabus, by which the developments, pairings, and even passings of musicians can be traced. There are often scholarly insights into the work of Billy Strayhorn for Ellington, and performances of Strayhorn compositions by a variety of musicians, and individual efforts by various Ellington staffers with others: Ellington's Jazz Violin Session has Stephane Grappelli, Svend Asmussen, and Ray Nance (normally a trumpeter) on strings, recorded in Paris in 1963. But Buxton can go deep as well into the combinations and circumstances of various dates produced by Rudy Van Gelder in a golden era circa 1957-1961, as well as settings featuring Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole.

Birthdays and deaths may occasion a retrospective, as might a presentation of past and current works of artists appearing in and around San Francisco that week. Buxton honored the November passing of Roy Hargrove with "My Funny Valentine" from Hargrove's 2009 big band recording Emergence. A Kenny Barron piece was introduced with the immediacy that pianist Barron was playing a series of dates in San Francisco that weekend. San Francisco's first stormy weekend of the season occasioned "Willow Weep for Me," Billie Holliday's voice just off the beat for a rainy day. After Nancy Wilson passed, the second play on his show that week was from her 1961 debut album with Cannonball Adderley. Later, he dedicated to "Miss Nancy" Kenny Burrell's "Listen to the Dawn," a 1998 choral collaboration by the guitarist with the Boys Choir of Harlem.

Buxton's selections do greatly reference the past, but therein yields the deep education, particularly when he cues up gems with some historical reference points attached. He favors orchestral swing, highlights small groups, and will focus on the role of individual players within groups. His playlist does include the contemporary, but less so the very newest releases, and seldom ventures to the avant-garde.

There are some performers who he initially did not get: Cecil Taylor, for example, until pianist Cedar Walton advised him there were things there worth hearing, which sent him back for more listening. He will regard Sun Ra's outside Arkestra style, hearing Sun Ra's grounding in swing. However, there is nothing moldy in his archives, whatever he dusts off. To the extent he repeats selections, it is to reiterate favorites for a reason: mastery through repetition.

A Matter of presentation

He doesn't program that which he doesn't like or wouldn't listen to at home himself. A program has to flow; he says it is unfair to jar an audience with Louis Armstrong followed by John Coltrane: "both master musicians, but too different from each other. I'm not here to experiment." The show is shaped not only by Buxton's tastes, but its mid-day time slot.

"Who is my audience at 10 a.m.? What are they doing at that point in their day? Maybe they're just waking up. And what are they doing as the day proceeds towards 2 in the afternoon? So maybe I'll play more singers as we get into the day and people are up and about. "

He has opinions, which he is not shy to share. He plays lots of Jackie McLean, but revealed once that he always thought that McLean played a bit too sharp. On the birthday of Sonny Stitt, he drew from Sonny Side Up, a 1957 Dizzy Gillespie album featuring Stitt paired with, and against, another tenor, Sonny Rollins. Stitt, Buxton said, was six years older than Rollins but sounded as if he had twenty years more experience, and to the extent the album is a competition between the two, mediated by Gillespie, Buxton believes Stitt was the winner. But he admits he has had that debate many times with others, and not everyone agrees. One is invited to go make one's own judgment, after the requisite listening.

With all the pedigrees of his experience, Buxton is not above sharing embarrassing moments. He had a personal fantasy that if he could only meet Lena Horne, he would sweep her off her feet and embark on a Hollywood movie romance. When Strayhorn introduced them, Horne radiant in a blue chiffon gown, Buxton found himself speechless. He literally said nothing. The romance may have continued in his mind, but otherwise did not launch; Horne moved on past him.

Similarly awestruck, he spoke with Duke Ellington for a radio retrospective on the 45th anniversary of Ellington's orchestra. Buxton was just a young man of 30 then. Ellington was so eloquent, so articulate, and so a master of words that Buxton realized only later in reviewing the tape that Ellington had dazzled the interviewer without revealing anything of note.

Buxton remembers Ellington as having been a unique combination of hip, savvy, down-to-earth; dignified approaching grandiose, with a different line of greeting "for every woman from 17 to 70. He was the Duke!"

Strayhorn, often characterized as Ellington's silent partner, was a lyricist, and a descriptive everyday wordsmith. Touring Europe in the last months of Strayhorn's life, Buxton recalled, Strayhorn was always taking photographs, accompanied by "marvelous descriptive powers that would make you see things." Although Strayhorn was already suffering from the esophageal cancer that would be fatal, Buxton recalls he remained "a sophisticate, with a wonderful personality, well-liked by all, still smoking and enjoying cocktails." Buxton remarks it was one of life's chance happenings that he was hired, out of New York where there were likely many dozens of available highly-skilled drummers, to accompany Strayhorn. "I've always been a dilettante, but I was a good timekeeper, and our personalities just clicked."

Buxton has a dapper personal style, modeled after the performers he saw growing up, and those he met along the way, but he says that by now he is not conscious of making the effort: it's just a part of him. His suits are well-tailored, his shirts showing a perfect measure of cuff. As a child, musicians who had toured in Europe came through his family's home, wearing suits complete with silk pocket squares, and Buxton early on decided he wanted to be like that.

It's a smartness similar to that of Ellington; the mid-century stylishness of Miles Davis; or pianist John Lewis putting the Modern Jazz Quartet always in suits so as to be taken seriously as musicians. He recalls seeing Hank Jones playing Charlie Parker's "Bloomdido" in Seattle Jazz Alley in Seattle with perhaps 25 people in the audience, but Jones and his band were nevertheless dressed in tuxedos.

"Jazz is American classical music, and the importance of the music requires a certain kind of presentation. It's also show business, and in show business presentation means a lot. You wouldn't go to the symphony and expect the conductor and musicians to be in tennis shoes, jeans, and with their shirts hanging out." Again, to Buxton, it all matters quite a bit, and he does not like it to be otherwise.

The result of Buxton's tutelage is sometimes previewed on KCSM in the selections played by fellow, but younger, deejay Keith Hines in the earlier 6-10 a.m. "Morning Cup of Jazz" program. One Saturday Hines dug out Cue for Saxophone, a 1959 recording by the Billy Strayhorn Septet, which featured altoist Johnny Hodges, masked for contractual reasons under the name "Cue Porter," with other members of the Ellington band. Such a rarity might characterize a Buxton find, and tuned listeners' ears for what might follow in Buxton's mid-day slot.

In December, Hines played Curtis Fuller's first album as a leader, New Trombone, made in May 1957 when Fuller was only 22 years old, with Sonny Red on alto saxophone; Louis Hayes, drums; Doug Watkins, bass; and, yet again, Hank Jones on piano. Four months after that recording date Fuller would be on Blue Train, John Coltrane's only Blue Note release as a leader. It's a reminder, and a lesson in the Buxton manner, in how great some of the greats were at early ages a long time ago, and how branches of the jazz tree grew. It was as if some of Buxton had leaked into Hines' show, or, more likely, that Hines had absorbed large doses of Buxton. It could happen to you.

Photo credit: Forrest Dylan Bryant

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