Buddy Collette interview, 1989

L.A. Style, 8/89
by Greg Burk

This is not the '40s bebop musician blowing junk-smoothed bursts of alienated celerity. This is not the '50s hard-bop musician trying to dig up his blues roots and hit a commercial riff at the same time. This is not the '60s avant-gardist in a dashiki. This is not the '70s mainstream/fusionist in a godawful polyester shirt. This is not the '80s eclecticist.

You can find engravings from some of the best of these times in Buddy Collette, 'cause he's been through it and he has taste and he can play anything he can conceive of on sax or flute. But he really belongs to an early and rare class, thought extinct: the gentleman jazz musician. The class includes Ellington and Armstrong and not many more (especially not many more still living).

Collette is tall; has a big, looming face, long arms, relaxed hands big enough to hide sheet music. He dresses conservatively and well, smiles like a pastor and never swears.

For nearly 50 years, Buddy Collette has been playing jazz in Los Angeles, a city that has proved over time to be a great cradle, a good school and a lousy workplace for musicians. Because of the determinative influence of the swing music that he heard when he first picked up a horn, Collette wasn't part of the aggressively intense bebop wave.

"Through the years, I was playing with a sort of pretty sound. I mean, that was just the way we all heard -- even the people before us, they weren't playing the real hard sound, nyaaah, the real vibrant sound. Just the way people played in L.A. -- I'm talking about Mitch and Les Hite's band, Marvin Johnson and Marshall Royal -- at the time. It was a West Coast sound, even though we had no name for it. We never get the credit for creating maybe part of the sound that was in the East. A lot of those guys that were doing something in the '40s and '50s were influenced by some of the players here: Wardell Gray. Dexter [Gordon] got back, right? He was playing kind of like Lester. Lester Young was from L.A. Lawrence Brown, with Duke Ellington, was from L.A."

The horn men Collette really paid attention to: "Frankie Trumbauer had such a sound on the saxophone. I think even Lester Young said he liked Frankie's sound. No matter what you're going to play, the sound is very important. If the sound is there, then you may not even have to say as much, because you're charming 'em with the sound. Later on I heard Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges, Willie Smith with the Lunceford band, and Teddy Buckner, who also played saxophone with the Lunceford Band -- he played all the more sweet solos, with a real pretty sound that would just get to you, so a bunch of us were trying to play that way."

Pretty is right, but that's not all. Today, at a time when he's playing as well as he ever has, Collette shows that he heard Charlie Parker, he heard John Coltrane, he heard everybody, took just a taste from the ones he liked most, and expanded a sound that was and remains his private property. What you hear on tenor: a ripple of casual, elegant smoothness, with an unconscious aftertaste of ache. The end of a phrase may have the ghost of a vibrato, a repressed cry. He can do all the tricks -- overblowings, false fingerings, half-mutings with the pads -- but doesn't call attention to them, just slips 'em in, leaving the impression of effortless balance. The ideas drift down like snowflakes, making you think there's no particular reason why there should ever be an end. Collette never wears you out.

"The players who play melodically have stayed around much longer. You get a real edgy sound, and after one set, they're saying, `Hey, we're glad we saw ya.'" 'Bye.

Collette was in the Navy from 1942-45. When he got out he studied on the G.I. Bill, and hit the circuit of jazz and R&B clubs that gushed up and flooded L.A.'s Central Avenue in the late '40s and early '50s. It was the kind of scene that will probably never return. There were places to play, there were all-night jam sessions daily, and there was a spirit of competitive interplay and cooperation that would seem frightening to modern musicians used to sampling, digitalizing and multitracking in an atmosphere of divine isolation.

"The musicianship is most important for me, where people are willing to share, play together. Playing together is listening and working as a team. When you're doing that, whether it's a unison line, or an arragement that's not too great, if those people work well together, you've got something very special. You don't get that all the time. I've been in a few bands where that was very natural. The Stars of Swing -- that was the band with Lucky Thompson, [Charles] Mingus, John Anderson, Britt Woodman, Spalding Givens and Oscar Bradley. We had that kind of thing. We had problems with Lucky later on, because Lucky wanted to take the band over. But at the rehearsals, boy, everybody could hold their own in shading and dynamics and all that stuff. It was like being in heaven in a sense, it was just beautiful. We had, like, out of seven people, five guys could write arrangements, so we had plenty of material, with all these creative ideas, and that's it. We were like in a freewheeling state, where we played and . . . gosh, you mean it's over already? It took off, it really did." The band stayed together a short time. As with a lot of L.A. music of the period, no recordings are extant.

The other band with which Buddy Collette's name tends to be rung up is that of drummer Chico Hamilton. It was a popular, adventurous, sometimes off-the wall outfit, and actually got to make a few recordings. Mainly, though, it's known for being a springboard for saxists. Collette was an early member, followed by Paul Horn. The other two notables were both hired at the recommendation of Collette: Charles Lloyd (who would later have the first jazz album that ever went gold) and a young saxist/bass clarinetist/flutist with a bump on his forehead, named Eric Dolphy.

By the time he joined Hamilton (1957), Dolphy had already developed an egg-scrambled take on bebop that, along with Ornette Coleman's harmolodics, would beget jazz's Great Schism of the early '60s. Collette was close to Dolphy, and could fasten onto the rigorous technical underpinnings of his experiments, but wasn't so hot on Coleman.

"I wasn't too impressed with Ornette when he came out. It was hard to say whether he knew what he was doing or not. His intonation was not too good then. He also had that plastic horn, which doesn't allow you to play too well in tune. You can't get away with that for too long, if only because the ears are saying, `Hey, I can't stay here and hear that.' But I heard Ornette playing two years ago in Freiberg, Germany, and he's playing very well.

"He and Eric used to go to a place called Town Hall, at Normandie and Jefferson. Eric had a better foundation at the time. He sounded more in tune. He was still doing a lot of weird, freaky stuff, but between the two, it was night and day. Eric seemed to have a clean life, and Ornette seemed to be really searching for things. His hair was long, all over his face; the only thing that would be showing was his eyes. So he had the look of a dog. Yeah, he was a funny kind of guy, so nobody took him that seriously at the time."

When Dolphy realized that outback Los Angeles was about as good as the Sea of Tranquility for getting his ideas recognized, he packed off to New York. "When Eric got there, it was about a month, he called me up: `Buddy, you've got to come out. This is it.'"

Collette didn't go, though. Family commitments and a growing groundbreaking career as a session musician were enough to keep his tent pegs down. You have to wonder, what would have happened if his choice had been different. He had talent and chops to burn, and though he was a little older, he had the respect of the younger players in the jazz revolution and was called upon whenever possible by his old bandmate, experimental composer/bassist/wild man Charles Mingus. Not that the two were anything alike in temperament or musical style. Mingus just knew that "Buddy can read anything," he could play anything, and he could score music too. In other words, Collette was the total pro, Mingus the total demon.

Collette describes the preparations for the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1964 (released as Mingus at Monterey, Prestige): "Mingus always kept it loose. He rehearsed a lot, but that's the kind of talent he was. He could create right on the spot. You could never trap him. There was always something to do. How he would rehearse: he's trying things. Impossible things. And the guys are doing pretty well. And he's not an easy person to follow, he'll do something and change his mind and do something else. He'll say, `Okay, let's do the first one again,' and nobody would know what `the first one' was, because nothing is in order. He's really chaos, except in the way he'll play the instrument. We'll say, `Well, which number are you gonna do first?' And you don't ask him that; he'll say, `I'll let you know at the proper time.' So we rehearse everything, little parts, we don't know where anything fits. So the next day we all meet on the stage at the appointed time, and he starts playing, and you still don't know the order, but you have a feeling what's there, and he starts playing with the bow and doing things he didn't do, and once he nods at me to come out with him, and we just do something with flute and bass. He's creating, right there . . . and he's got seven, eight thousand people are sitting there, looks like to me, but anything we would do then, the audience is helping it to go also. As long as you're doing something. We're looking at each other, and we haven't played together in years, and the audience is just eating it up. And finally he does that -- he didn't say what it was, but it had to be something where the whole band was playing together, so they hit that, and that came together.

"Bobby Bryant was a big, strong trumpet player. He and Mingus didn't get along too well. They looked at each other like, `You tough, I'm tough,' you know, in the eye. Bobby kept trying to get a solo, and Mingus kept saying no. So Bobby thought, `This guy doesn't like me, doesn't want me to play.' Not at the rehearsal he didn't want him to play. But then they got the thing going, and it was beginning to scream, and Bobby was screaming at him that night, and Mingus said, `Play.' And he blew the bell off the trumpet, you know what I mean, because he was blowing at him. You know, `You think I can't play, you don't like me -- bdttapp.' And Mingus smiled, like, `I got you. I made you work for me.' Mingus was creative, he was playful, he was childlike, he knew how to get what he wanted -- most of the time."

The preparation for Mingus' big-band extravaganza in New York in 1962 had been even more creative: "You've got an idea here and there, and two ideas there, and I'm pretty sure the Epitaph that they've been doing [Gunther Schuller's re-creation, released this year on Columbia], that's probably . . . When I went to Town Hall with him -- that's the time he hit [trombonist/arranger] Jimmy Knepper in the mouth, and broke his tooth -- music was all over the floor, score paper, and Jimmy and he got into an argument. I even wrote some of the stuff, and I'll bet some of that music is there [in Epitaph]. He said, `Buddy, come and help, we've got a rehearsal at 12, I've gotta fill this in and get it copied.' So I just got in the pitch line and started filling in. With Mingus you could have as much freedom as you want. He said, `Oh, man, that's great what you write.' He didn't care, as long as we were creating something."

Anyway, Collette mostly stayed in Los Angeles. A colloquy in his car in 1949 with Mingus and trombonist Britt Woodman had led to a persistent series of efforts that ended up uniting the previously segregated white and black locals of the Musicians' Union in 1953. And also in 1949, Collette was selected by bandleader Jerry Fielding (later blackballed by the House Unamerican Activities Committee) to play in Groucho Marx's studio band -- the first black musician ever to get such a position. He kept the job for the rest of You Bet Your Life's run -- nine years.

Collette got work in TV and movies, got recognition for breaking racial ground (the walls of his house are crowded with plaques from L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley), got pretty good money. He got a life, and a damn real one. What he didn't get was the full-time jazz musician's life: the working bands, the writing, the touring, regular recording with the top musicians of his time (and it has been some time). Most of the recordings Collette did make are hard to get hold of, and they don't often feature him in a setting that really exploits his personality.

Still, he plays out now and then, often with some of the great L.A. musicians from the Central Avenue days. He will take a solo on, maybe, "Take the `A' Train," and you get it all. The full benefit of his experience.

Collette recently played a local big-band gig, and got a fair amount of media exposure for the event. After the show, various of his old friends came up and congratulated him. "The Cheathams -- Jimmy and Janie -- were saying, `You're probably the only guy that made it, and stayed home.'" He thought about that, maybe a few seconds longer than he should have. "You know, I guess that's right.”