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

Arthur R George By

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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.

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