© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
For someone who’s time in the Jazz World had begun almost 30 years earlier, it’s difficult to understand how significant the “starting point” of 1967 - the date of the following interview he gave to Harry Siders - was in drummer Buddy Rich’s career.
Stints with the big bands of Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, and Harry James, a slew of Jazz at The Philharmonic appearances for Norman Granz not to mention myriad appearances of Norman’s various labels from Clef to Verve backing everyone from Lester Young to Lionel Hampton and the various groups both big and small that he led in the 1950’s under his own name; all had really led to this moment - the formation of what would come to be known as The Buddy Rich Killer Force Band.
And yet, now, in 1967, Buddy Rich was now his own man with big time backing and he relished being in charge of his own aggregation for twenty years until he died of a heart attack in 1987.
Buddy was never a drum store groupie. I mean most of the big ‘technique” guys - Louie Bellson, Joe Morello, Max Roach - made the rounds of the local drum stores when they were in town to buy some sticks, hang out and share stories of “life on the road,” and, if you were lucky, give a brief demonstration and answer a few questions.
Not Buddy. He had cartage companies deliver and assemble his drums at gigs and band assistants to shop the drum stores should any equipment needs arise. Usually, all the drum companies sent him tons of stuff - sticks, cymbals, new versions of snare drums, bass drum and hi-hat pedals - all of them looking for some endorsements from him.
Buddy had his running mates, but these were usually important entertainment figures like Frank Sinatra- who staked him to his 1967 band - and other movie star and TV notables, but he rarely shared anything with young drummers.
If you did get a chance to ask him a question, what you generally got back was a good dose of crustiness. Over the years, many young drummers learned to admire his special qualities from afar, shake their collective heads in disbelief when he finished one of his fabulous, lengthy drum solos and to move on while resisting the temptation to go home and burn our drum sticks.
But for all his abrasiveness and/or standoffishness, drummers of all ages couldn’t help admiring him. Because of their own efforts [struggles with?] at playing the instrument, they recognized that they were in the presence of genius
Essentially drummers came to understand what Mel Lewis meant when he said: “Buddy has something that no other drummer had, or will ever have. I don’t know how it came about and I don’t think he does either. It doesn’t matter.”
The following appeared in the April 20, 1967 edition of Downbeat under the title of The Nouveau Rich.
"Who's leaving now?" That's supposed to be a joke, the standard response of bandleaders whenever their road managers ask to speak with them. On good authority, the line is meant to be funny and not a defense mechanism designed to soften the blow of some internal hassle. The authority is Buddy Rich. Last month, he was extolling the virtues of Jo Jones when his road manager, Jim Trimble, came into the dressing room of the Chez, in Hollywood, Calif., and asked to see him.
Until the interruption, Rich had been talking about how great Jones was with the hi-hat, with brushes and just plain keeping time. Rich was talking and sweating with equal profusion, having just completed an exhausting set.
It was Saturday night. And Saturday night in Hollywood is no different than Saturday night in Dubuque. Everybody was out, and it seemed they all had come to the Chez to hear the drummer's band. It also seemed that Rich and the band were pushing themselves beyond their usual, hard-driving threshold, inspired by the deafening audience response and the standing ovation led by Judy Garland.
The contrast between the human dynamo generating white heat among his sidemen and the slouched figure trying to cool off in his underwear in the dressing room was the kind that made me feel guilty for trying to interview him between sets— like asking for his autograph during an eight-bar rest.
Perhaps the interview might continue after the last show?
"Hell no!" he growled. "When 2 a.m. comes, I'm through. No more music, no more musicians, no hippies, no interviews, no nothing. I go right back to my hotel and take it easy. Call me tomorrow—but don't you dare call me before 2 in the afternoon. Is that clear?
One could hardly misinterpret.
During the last set in the split-level main room of the club, the crowd was electrified by the amazing display of raw energy. The carefully planned program built in intensity, broken up by a couple of well-spaced trio numbers (pianist Ray Starling, bassist Jim Gannon and Rich) but never diminishing in excitement.
Occasionally, he would come out to the mike and talk about a particular number or introduce some celebrities at ringside. His out-of-breath banter was welcome, pithy and often sarcastic, never dull. Then he'd make his way back to the drums and plunge into the next number with a long, mood-setting cadenza.
At the end of the set, he gave his fans what they'd been clamoring for all evening—the medley from West Side Story, arranger Bill Reddie's 11-minute kaleidoscope of Leonard Bernstein's themes, with constantly shifting tempos and a climactic extended drum solo that inevitably leaves Rich and his audience limp.
What made the whole scene incredible was the knowledge that Rich, who is twice as old as most of his sidemen (he'll be 5O in June), was the source of energy: he was the one urging them on, exhorting soloists and sections to the point where his young players could hardly take their eyes off him.
Rich sticks to his after-hours embargo and makes no exceptions. And during those precious minutes between sets, competition for Rich's attention is prohibitive. The best time for an interview was his day off. It was quite a compromise on his part, as he made plain:
"These 24 hours belong to me. I like to stay as far away from the scene as possible. I may choose to stay in bed and watch TV—daytime TV, you know, soap operas.
I may go to a movie. Or else I’ll jump in the car and go for a ride to the beach or out to some golf course."
His room at the Continental Hotel had a commanding view of Los Angeles. Rich, however, was engrossed in a science-fiction thriller flickering across the television screen. But instead of watching it until the end, he turned a few dials on his videotape recorder, lowered the sound and began to talk about big bands. He would watch the rest of the program later.
Why did he leave the security of being probably the highest paid sideman in the business for the headaches of fronting his own band?
"What is security?" he asked. "What are headaches? Is there security in crossing a street? Don't you think a guy who operates his own gas station has headaches? And when he gets home at night he still smells of gas, right?"
But why did he leave the Harry James Band?
The answer was terse: '"Cause we needed some good music in the business."
Then he added, "Sure, I had a good-paying job — four and a half years. It was beautiful. But for four and a half years, I didn't play a goddamned thing. I sat up there; I went through the motions. Night after night, I knew what tunes I was going to play. I even knew what time we were going to play them. I had two solos in the band, and what the hell — that wasn't for me.
"It was security, all right. But what good is security if you're not happy, and especially if you know you can do better, be more creative, and let your personality come out? But if you're being held down, so to speak, in somebody else's band, what good is it taking home a heavy check every week? So when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at it."
The opportunity came a year ago. Is he still happy about his decision?
"Happy? I couldn't be happier. Let me repeat that. I couldn't be happier for anything on this earth. The results are beautiful. The band is excellent, and it's a contemporary band. The kids in it are beautiful to work with. They enjoy what we're doing because we're playing young music, and they project their youth through what they're playing. It certainly latches on to the youth wherever we play. Our young audiences understand it, and as you can see, the spenders come out, too!"
That reminded him of what he had said about the need for good music in the
band business, and he launched into an analysis of the business today.
According to Rich, the attempt to bring back the old bands is self-defeating. His advice is to forget about the old days and the old ways and concentrate on today's sounds.
"You can't fool the public," he said. "You can't go on saying, 'This is the original Glenn Miller Band,' or 'This is the original Tommy Dorsey Band!' You just can't continue putting people on like that.
"The Glenn Miller sound was an insipid sound in 1942. It certainly wouldn't be good enough for 1967. It was contrived and mechanical and had no more feeling to it than if you were hypnotized. You knew every night the arrangements were going to sound the same, the tempos would be the same, even the solos were the same. There was no emotional involvement!"
He conceded that "it must have been popular, though, since so many people turned out to see the Miller band." That concession served as a bridge to his own popularity 25 years later. He said his band has not met with the slightest resistance since its inception. He has been invited back to every club he's played.
"We played Lennie's-on-the-Turnpike [just north of Boston], and even before we got there, all seven nights and the matinee had been sold out," he said. "Lennie couldn't squeeze in an extra person. We're going back there in July after the Newport Festival.
"That's the way the reception has been all the way. GAC is handling the band now, and I've got the best arrangers writing for me - he listed Bill Holman, Oliver Nelson, Bob Florence and Shorty Rogers] and the best producer in the business— Dick Bock [of Pacific Jazz]. In fact, you can't get no better."
Everything seems to be groovy for Rich, but it wasn't that way 21 years ago. When he organized his first band in 1946 (following a stint with Tommy Dorsey's band and a hitch in the Marine Corps), he had a modern-jazz outfit, with such side-men as tenorists Al Cohn and Alien Eager and the Swope Brothers (trombonists Earl and Rob). It was a bad time to form a hard-driving band. The trend towards combos was beginning then, accompanied by the postwar decline in dancing. When ballroom operators asked Rich to tone down the jazz, he got cocky and insisted he would do things his way ("This is what I play; take it or leave it"). The big band venture didn't last long.
The following year he began his association with Jazz at the Philharmonic. Then, between leading his own small groups, he rejoined Dorsey for a while, and was in and out of the James band a few times.
Going out on his own again provoked criticism from skeptics who predicted the band wouldn't last. In Las Vegas, especially, odds were figuratively posted not on whether but how soon Rich would be back with James, drawing his "heavy check
Did this give rise to Rich's wanting to "show" his detractors?
"Certainly not," he answered. "I couldn't care less about them. And if you know anything about me, you know I don't give a damn about anybody's opinion. I do exactly what I think is right for me. That shows how much jealousy and envy exists on the part of other people who have led bands or have tried to start bands but were not as successful as I've been with this band. Sour apples, that's all it is — sour apples.
"Actually, it's a compliment to me. Maybe they don't realize it, but every time they knock my band, they're complimenting me, because — against all their great minds, great brains and business sense— my band is a success."
No doubt about it, as the band's reception at Basin Street East will attest. And regardless of how big one makes it in Las Vegas or on the West Coast, New York is still the nut to crack. If the band was such a great success, it must have been a happy band. Why then the noticeable change in personnel between his first and second engagements at the Chez?
"John Bunch, my piano player, quit to work with Tony Bennett," he said. "John's not a youngster anymore, and working with Tony would mean less traveling, and that appealed to him. But I fired a half dozen others."
(Naturally, there are two sides to the firing story. Rumors around Los Angeles indicate that the dissatisfaction was mutual in many cases, and a check with two of those who were allegedly fired revealed some confusion as to whether or not the half dozen were fired or quit. Whatever the full story is, the dissension within the band seems to have come to a quick end.)
"If I hire you in the beginning," Rich said, "it's because I dig what you're doing, dig how you play and dig your personality—and for me to have to fire somebody is a big drag. But it's another way of saying, 'You're a detriment to what I'm trying to produce.'" Then, as if to justify his actions, he said he believes that the band is a better-sounding unit now.
Singers, Rich feels, have no place with his band. They are merely "a throwback to the '40s." Furthermore, he's convinced they just slow down the pacing of the entire set—unless "they happen to be a Sinatra, a Torme or a Joe Williams." In seeming contradiction, while he was recording his second live album at the Chez, his 12-year-old daughter, Cathy, sang with the band. The; were trying out a new arrangement of th current rock favorite, "The Beat Goes On.”
"My daughter knows the song," Rich said. "She got up on the stage — first time ii front of an audience — and she recorded it. When I went over to Liberty to start editing the tapes, I heard it, and it was a gas."
From rock & roll, the conversation swung to the other extreme: the avant garde.
Rich made no bones about his impatience with "know-nothing hipsters who can't even find '1.' They just decide to smash a cymbal here, add a rim shot there. Then other hipsters think that's the thing to do and they follow suit. And that's the story of 'hipdom.'"
He recounted what he calls the funniest contact he's ever had with the avant garde. It happened at the Pacific Jazz Festival last October in Costa Mesa, Calif. His band had been scheduled to follow the Charles Lloyd Quartet, and Rich was waiting on the platform behind the canvas that covered the outdoor stage on three sides. Peering through the peepholes used by photographers, he found himself directly behind Lloyd's pianist, who was plucking the piano strings, gesticulating wildly as he reached over the keyboard.
"That had to be the craziest thing ' ever saw," Rich said. "I was nearly hysterical. I don't think I've ever laughed that much in my life. I just couldn't conceive that they thought they were playing music And that drummer — he had no idea of what the other guys were doing. That must have been the greatest put-on since the Four Stooges."
He began talking about the music and musicians that were meaningful to him and the first and only band that fit that category was Count Basie's. Rich said that some of the best big band drummers have worked for Basie: Shadow Wilson, Gus Johnson, Sonny Payne, Louie Bellson—but he named Jo Jones as the best:
"He fit the band in the way Freddie Green does. Jones, Green and Basie and Walter Page on bass —that's the 'all-American rhythm section' for you."
From Basie's drummers to big band drummers in general was a natural transition. Among Rich's favorites were Gem Krupa, Alvin Stoller, Sol Gubin, Jack Sperling, Mel Lewis, and Don Lamond—all ol whom, he said, could play anything required of them in a big band.
He takes a dim view of what he calls "specialization." As he put it, "In the old days, when a drummer was hired in a band, he was expected to do anything that was called for: if the arrangements required the power of a marching band, that's the way you played; if it called for the drummer to be as gentle as a mouse, that's the way you played; and if there was a combo within the band, if you had to play with a sextet — you know, like Gene Krupa with Benny Goodman's band — you just did it. I can't see a guy with a big band make the announcement, 'Now we're going to do some combo numbers, so now I'd like to present my combo drummer.' Man, what the hell is that — the two-platoon system?"
The two-platoon idea brought up the subject of the two-books concept used by some bands—a book for dancing and a book for listening. Does his band use this method?
"Well, first of all, we play very few dances as such," he said. "We have toured a number of colleges and played what you might call a dance, but actually we played what we play at the Chez or Basin Street East. The big difference today — and another reason why we're so successful — is the big beat. The young crowd has changed their style of dancing so that they can dance to what we play."
Rich will soon find out how European youngsters react to his brand of big band jazz. This month the band is touring England, Switzerland and Italy — the kind of traveling the drummer likes.
''That's the beauty of this business," he said. "You get paid to see the world — and I love it. I hate to spend too much time in one place, anyhow. Besides, it'll be great for my family. Marie [his wife] and Cathy will be with me, and it should be quite an education."
But there are many musicians who wonder just how long Buddy Rich can hold up under his present rigorous routine — not in terms of popularity, but in terms of physical endurance. Rich claims he doesn't look back at what happened seven years ago (the first, and most serious, of three heart attacks).
"I can't worry about that," he said. "I just take care of myself — I got no bad habits — and keep right on working. Any doctor will tell you that if you got a heart condition, you should keep active."
But why does he drive himself to the point of exhaustion? His answer had the direct honesty that cancels any rebuttal:
"Man, 'cause I love it."