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

Arthur R George By

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"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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