In 1953, a full year before the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, Buddy Collette and other California musicians helped end the "separate but equal" practices of the American Federation of Musicians in Los Angeles. For decades, there were two union locals in the city—one for whites and another for blacks. Buddy, like many musicians at the time, viewed the split structure as unfair. Respected for his musicianship and his engaging, relaxed personality, Buddy was instrumental in helping to amalgamate the two locals and end the union's policies of segregation. [Pictured: Buddy Collette with Giuseppe Barazzetta, an Italian jazz writer and producer]
Once the two union locals were unified, Buddy went on to a sterling career in the 1950s and beyond as a leading jazz and studio musician. A dominant force in Los Angeles on the alto and tenor sax as well as clarinet and flute, Buddy appeared on hundreds of recordings, including many he led. But for what Buddy did to merge the two unions, all L.A. musicians—black and white—owe him a debt of gratitude for ending segregation, creating more competition, and ultimately improving the pool of musicians available for studio work.
In Part 4 of my five-part interview with Buddy, the early civil rights leader and exceptional reed and woodwind player, talks about unifying the Los Angeles union, his favorite flute albums, and recording with Frank Sinatra.
JazzWax: The American Federation of Musicians actually had two locals in Los Angeles that were segregated until 1953?
Buddy Collette: Yes, that’s the way it was. Local 47 was for white musicians and Local 767 was for blacks. Many cities had the same two-local setup. New York and Detroit’s locals were the only ones that had been integrated from the beginning.
JW: How did segregation translate into less opportunity for black musicians?
BC: The union dues may have been about the same but the opportunities and benefits were quite different. For example, the white local originally was downtown on Georgia St. Then it moved to a new building near Hollywood and Vine. The black local was on Central Ave. and 17th St.
JW: What did that mean?
BC: The white local's executives had closer proximity to the studios, which were in Hollywood. The black local was far away from where the money was being made. Also, the white union would always be called first by employers to provide musicians for jobs. This gave the white local a lot of power.
JW: How did the black local react?
BC: Carefully. The black local was dependent on the white local for work and for smart ways of operating in town. The black local never made a move without first asking the white union. It wasn’t a permission thing. It was a systems thing. The white union knew how things worked, so when the black union needed advice, the officials called their contacts at the white local. Over time, the black local became completely dependent on the white local for help and advice.
JW: What was your role in unifying the black and white locals?
BC: Many of us didn’t understand why there were two union locals. So I decided to run for president of the Local 767 in the early 1950s but I lost to the incumbent, who actually was a nice guy. The next year we ran Benny Carter. But he lost to the same incumbent, too. That year I ran for a seat on the local's board and won. So did a couple of the other guys like Bill Douglass and Marl Young [pictured], guys who felt the same way I did about the two locals. Soon we began urging Local 47 to unite. But Local 47 stalled.
JW: What did you do?
BC: The white musicians I knew weren’t concerned with race. It’s hard to explain, but back then, musicians didn’t think much about skin color. Everyone else seemed to, but not musicians. It was always about whether you could handle the music in front of you and what flavor you brought to the session. So we kept asking Local 47 if their delay was about race. They said, "No, it wasn’t about that." Meanwhile, we figured out how to bring the locals together legally to eliminate that as a stall tactic. Finally, in early 1953, the two locals agreed to unite. [Pictured: Representatives of Local 767 and Local 47 signing papers to unite in 1953]
JW: How did the unification improve music in L.A.?
BC: Well, you learned pretty fast who could play and who couldn’t—white or black [laughs]. You now had a chance to know what all musicians played like and who could handle what and who couldn't. I had been the first black musician hired by a television studio in 1948, so I saw first-hand that the selection of talent for studios wasn't always based on ability.
JW: Which TV show?
BC: The Groucho Marx Show. Jerry Fielding brought me in.
JW: Did you feel pressure as one of the first black musicians hired for TV, record and movie studios?
BC: I didn’t feel white-black pressure at all. I never did. I grew up in Central Gardens. All races lived there—blacks and whites. So when I went to work in the studios, it was the same way it was when I was a kid in my neighborhood.
JW: Did white players ever ask you if you were uncomfortable?
BC: Yes. But I told them, “Not at all. I grew up like this.” After a while, they felt more comfortable with me there, too. I remember one musician said, “You play a Selmer?” with the air that a Selmer saxophone was only for serious musicians and that somehow I wasn’t. I just said, “What do you mean? All good players play a Selmer.”
JW: So your strategy was never to make a person feel bad, just to adjust their premise?
BC: Exactly. I never put anyone down or set out to make someone feel bad. I’m just a likable person. That came from my mother.
JW: How so?
BC: My mother didn’t dislike anyone unless someone did something to her. And then it was just a personal thing. She never referred to “those white people.” She never used that kind of language in our home. Neither did my father.
JW: You made quite a few albums on flute.
BC: Yes, it’s an instrument that came naturally to me. Which is your favorite record?
JW: I think Swinging Shepherds and Shepherds at the Cinema. You, Paul Horn, Harry Klee and Bud Shank on flutes—wow.
BC: Oh, yes. those came out beautifully. We played so well, we didn’t even listen to the playbacks in the studio. We all had to go and record on other dates and knew they had come out perfectly.
JW: You and arranger Pete Rugolo on those sessions pioneered the four-flutes sound, didn’t you?
BC: Yes. Before these albums [in 1958 and 1959], most bands used one flute in the woodwind section, with a bass clarinet on the bottom to set off the contrast. But when we used just four flutes in that group and pulled it off, the sound was different and other arrangers picked up on it.
JW: Which arrangers?
BC: At a recording session with Nelson Riddle one time, I noticed that one of the charts called for four flutes. When I looked up at Nelson, he winked at me and said, “Do you recognize that?” I sure did. We pioneered that sound.
JW: What was the studio scene like back in the 1950s and 1960s? Describe a typical session?
BC: You’d go to Hollywood, usually to the Capitol Records tower. You’d come in early and see the music for the first time.
JW: What type of musician was there?
BC: Only the top guys who could play the stuff they saw once. If a date was at 2 p.m., I’d get there a half-hour early for parking. Then I’d go in and warm up and see what I’d have to play.
JW: What if one didn’t leave enough time?
BC: You might wind up with a handful of notes that were tough to sight read—even if you practiced every day.
JW: Were you ever concerned that an arrangement would be too far out?
BC: Never. I was playing so much music during the week that everything and anything was do-able. Once in a while you’d get a creative writer whose charts could be particularly challenging. Pete Rugolo, for example, wrote hard but none of it was ever labored.
JW: You recorded with Frank Sinatra on many albums. What were those sessions like?
BC: Great. Once he got to know me, I worked a couple of parties of his. In recording sessions, he wasn’t above changing an arrangement.
JW: How so?
BC: There was a time when Nelson [Riddle] arranged the orchestra for four cellos. That’s a big sound. Frank listened to the run down and then told Nelson to have just one cello play. He was right.
JW: Sinatra's Swingin’ Session in August 1960 was your first recording date with the singer.
BC: That’s right. I was so excited. On one of the songs [Should I], I had a tenor sax solo. It was an eight-bar solo, which is a lot in a studio. When we played down the chart, Frank was checking me out.
JW: How did you handle the solo?
BC: I had heard Frank's phrasing on records and realized that the way to go was to make my notes round, to enrich his sound. When I took off on the melody during the take, I didn’t watch him. I just stayed within the context of the song. I also didn’t go off on my own.
JW: What happened afterward?
BC: After the tune and my solo, they turned to him for a reaction. He said he wanted to hear it back. So they played the track back. After listening to my solo, Frank just laughed, like he was so content with what he had heard. He loved what I had done. Frank had a way of knowing how a song and a solo had to feel.
JW: What happened after Swingin’ Session?
BC: After that I was in business. Whenever Frank was on the West Coast playing or recording, he’d ask for me. I got a lot of work with him. Frank said, “I need a soloist who can play pretty.” So I wound up on many of his record dates.
JW: Sinatra was loyal to the jazz musicians on his dates?
BC: Very. One time we did a session later in his life. I was one of the guys who had been with him for about 20 years. The first thing he did when he came in was look down the reed section. When he saw me, he said, “Hi Buddy.”
JW: Sinatra liked to see familiar guys in the band?
BC: Who doesn’t? You want to hear guys who know your style. Frank always liked familiar faces in the band. When the older guys who had recorded with him no longer could make the sessions, Frank would come in and say, “Where’s Goz [trumpeter Conrad Gozzo]? Where’s Pete [Candoli]?” Things like that.
Tomorrow, Buddy talks about Charles Mingus' controversial 1962 Town Hall concert.
JazzWax tracks: If you dig jazz flute, here are three Buddy Collette must-owns. The first is Flute Fraternity, with Buddy Collette and Herbie Mann. This 1957 album for Mode is gorgeous from start to finish. Buddy and Mann are backed by Jimmy Rowles (p), Buddy Clark (b) and Mel Lewis (d). This is available at iTunes or here.
Two of my favorites are by the Swinging Shepherds, a flute quartet Buddy formed briefly for two recording sessions in 1958 and 1959 for Mercury. Arranged by Pete Rugolo, At the Cinema and Four Swinging Shepherds showcase flutists Buddy Collette, Paul Horn, Bud Shank and Harry Klee with a Four Brothers arranging style applied to the flute. The rhythm sections on both albums are top-shelf. Both are out of print. Try typing the album names into Google to see what you come up with.
JazzWax clip: Here's Buddy on flute and tenor sax playing Emaline, the love theme he wrote for the film Trauma (1983)...