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

Arthur R George By

Sign in to view read count
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 Julian "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do greatly reference the past, but therein yields the deep education, particularly when he cues up gems with some historical reference points attached.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.



comments powered by Disqus

Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.

Related Articles

Read Jeff Chambers' Chosen Alternative: The Therapies of Tijuana Profiles
Jeff Chambers' Chosen Alternative: The Therapies of Tijuana
By Arthur R George
May 31, 2019
Read Omar Sosa: Building Bridges Not Walls Profiles
Omar Sosa: Building Bridges Not Walls
By Duncan Heining
May 2, 2019
Read Unforgettable: Nat King Cole at 100 Profiles
Unforgettable: Nat King Cole at 100
By Peter Coclanis
March 17, 2019
Read Robert Lewis Heads the Charleston's Jazz Orchestra Profiles
Robert Lewis Heads the Charleston's Jazz Orchestra
By Rob Rosenblum
January 27, 2019