Like many aspiring musicians in Los Angeles in the 1930s, Buddy Collette picked up the clarinet and never looked back. During the Depression and into the 1940s, music was the only way out of the city's dense-packed black neighborhoods. But in the very late 1940s, with the rapid rise of television and expansion of the movie and record studios, music offered opportunities and possibilities that exceeded just a job. If you were disciplined, highly proficient and easygoing, a remarkably good living could be earned as a musician working in all three industries. [Photo at top of Buddy Collette by Ray Avery/CTSImages.com]
When you talk to Buddy today, you instantly realize how measured and deliberate he is. There's a certain pragmatism and sobriety to Buddy's view, a determined, no-nonsense outlook that comes from years of practice and formal study and hundreds of record dates with artists ranging from Benny Carter to Frank Sinatra.
In Part 2 of my five-part interview series with Buddy, the West Coast reed and woodwind master talks about his rivalry with alto saxophonist Marshall Royal in an Army band during World War II, turning down Duke Ellington, and how the Gerry Mulligan Quartet got its sound:
JazzWax: What did you do after high school?
Buddy Collette: I enlisted in the Navy in 1941. I came in as a Musician Third Class and left as a Musician First Class. Before I enlisted, I went up to San Francisco with Mingus and drummer Bill Douglass to audition for the base band. Bill and I got in, but Mingus talked himself out of enlisting when he heard he’d have to play bass drum in a marching band rather than the string bass. So Bill and I were sent to Oakland. Mingus was 4F. He had a bad heart and bad feet.
JW: What did you do on the base once enlisted?
BC: Up in Oakland, there were 45 guys on the base. There were two bands—one made up of good musicians and the other bad ones. I was supposed to be in the band that could play but it was already filled up.
JW: Who was in that band?
BC: Saxophonist Marshall Royal was the head of the good band. Marshall had arrived at the base earlier than I did. So did his brother and trumpeter Ernie Royal. Jerome Richardson was there. So was Jackie Kelso, Andy Anderson, Que Martyn and a bunch of others. They got all the latest Count Basie arrangements from someplace, but Marshall and Ernie took all the solos. Marshall wanted me in the band but it was mostly filled up by then.
JW: What did he want you to play?
BC: Baritone sax, but I didn’t play baritone. And I didn’t want to. It was too heavy. So I told him I was only going to play clarinet. He told the chief about what I had said, but the chief didn’t bother me. They just put me in the other band with all the not-so-good players.
JW: What did you do in that band?
BC: We just sat around and mopped and cleaned. A lot of the guys had been barbers and postmen, so as the only musician, I became head of the band. Worst of all, we had to mop the floor when Marshall’s band was finished with its two-hour rehearsal.
JW: What was Marshall Royal like?
BC: He was kind of a toughie. He had a big ego and thought he was the best ever. The Royal brothers would take all the solos. Or if they gave you a solo, you’d have it when no one was there. [Pictured: Ernie Royal]
JW: Where did your band rehearse?
BC: The chief wouldn’t let us rehearse in the main hall. So we hung out on the hills out back, near the trees. We were all daydreamers. Finally the guys in the band said to me, “Why don’t you teach us what you want? We can play. Just tell us what to do.” There were no echoes out there on the hills to fool you, like when you played in bathrooms. When you hit those tones in the open air, you either had a tone or you didn’t, so it was a great environment for practicing.
JW: What did your band play?
BC: We bought stock charts from a store in downtown Oakland.
JW: How did the band manage those?
BC: One day we were rehearsing outside when an officer brought a brigade by to show them the hills. The ranking officer had me salute. We called ourselves the Top Flighters. He asked me why were out there playing. I said we had nowhere else to rehearse. The officer said he’d speak to the chief. At the time, we were rehearsing All Or Nothing at All, which was a pretty straightforward arrangement. The officer liked it, and it turned out so did the chief. Marshall was playing Count Basie’s charts, but the chief liked what we were doing better. So he wanted us to play for the officers, and he had Marshall’s band sweep up for us [laughs].
JW: Did you study under the GI Bill when you were discharged in 1945?
BC: Yes, for four years with different teachers from the Los Angeles Conservatory. I studied with classical teachers. One was Henry Woempner, who played flute on a lot of MGM pictures. He was a tough guy and helped get me in shape. I lucked out.
JW: Did formal study change you as a musician?
BC: It did. I studied the Schillinger System on flute, clarinet and saxophone. I also was composing and writing. I was disciplined, and four years was a long time to be in school. I even said no to Duke Ellington?
JW: What happened?
BC: One day my phone rang and the voice at the other end said, “Hello, this is Edward Kennedy Ellington. I want you in my band.”
JW: What did you say?
BC: I said, “Duke, at any other time I would say yes in a second. But I have to say no. I have to finish my studies." Had I said yes to Duke, I often wonder how my life and career would have turned out differently.
JW: You knew Chico Hamilton and Gerry Mulligan in 1952.
BC: The first time that quartet rehearsed was at my apartment. Gerry was there at my place because he knew that Chico and I were friends. My apartment was at 1406 St. Andrews Place (Apt. 1). Everyone was at my place, listening to music or at parties. At first, what Gerry and Chet were doing didn’t sound too good.
JW: Why not?
BC: They didn’t have the right concept. Chetty was playing melody and Gerry was trying to harmonize on the baritone. But they were miles apart. Gerry was trying to do it like he would normally play.
JW: Which was how?
BC: Using the baritone like a bass. He was just playing harmony in same rhythm as the melody. Then he began trying counterpoint. He was moving around differently than just following the melody.
JW: Did Mulligan know the group’s sound was all wrong at first?
BC: Yes, they all knew it. Gerry didn’t want a piano in there. He was filling in for the piano on the baritone with notes a pianist might play if he had that instrument in the group. They finally got it and hit their sound by accident.
Tomorrow, Buddy talks about how the Chico Hamilton Quintet got its accidental start and the rise of West Coast chamber jazz.
JazzWax tracks: In the early 1950s, Buddy played at a sideman on three interesting recordings.
First, in 1953, he recorded on tenor sax with the Jerry Fielding Orchestra, in a band that featured Conrad Gozzo in the lead trumpet chair. Sam Donahue and Phil Urso were in the reed section, and there are early tracks by the Hi-Lo's vocal group. Buddy's sides with Fielding can be found on Jerry Fielding: Faintly Reminiscent (Jasmine) here.
The second was Lyle "Spud" Murphy's groundbreaking 12-tone ensemble in 1954. The band featured Russ Cheever (sop), Frank Morgan and Benny Carter (as), Buddy Collette (ts), Bob Gordon (bar), Buddy Clark (b) and Chico Hamilton (d). The recording can be found on New Orbits in Sound (Gene Norman) here. It's a must-own.
Third, Buddy played alto sax and flute on Best From the West (1954), featuring Conte Candoli (tp), Buddy Collette (fl,as), Jimmy Giuffre (ts,cl, bar), Gerald Wiggins (p) Howard Roberts (g), Curtis Counce (b) and Stan Levey (d). You'll find this album on a CD called Modern Sounds From the West (Lonehill) here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Buddy on flute with guitarist Barney Kessel in 1956 with pianist Claude Williamson, bassist Red Mitchell and drummer Shelly Manne...