In addition to being a superb reed and woodwind musician, the late Buddy Collette also was a courageous advocate for civil rights in Los Angeles. Up through the late '40s and early '50s, integration was actively discouraged by the city. Even the musicians' union had two locals—one for whites and another for blacks. By 1950, the jazz scene on Central Avenue had all been shuttered by a police force openly hostile to clubs that catered to black and white patrons and mixed couples.
With the rise of album and movie-soundtrack recordings as well as television, many of the prized and lucrative studio jobs in Los Angeles went to white musicians. The studios claimed they needed trained musicians who could sight-read music perfectly the first time, which made sense. While there were black musicians who could read proficiently, white job contractors preferred to hand studio chairs out to white musicians, even if they were less able or less responsible.
Buddy, was different. In addition to being one of the finest jazz and classical musicians in Hollywood at the time, he was understated, tireless and determined. In short, he was brilliant and admired. In a few short years in the late '40s and early '50s, he broke the color barrier in the studios and was the first black musician hired to play in a West Coast TV studio orchestra. He also helped unite the union locals in 1953.
Here's Buddy on life in Hollywood as a black musician, from the book Central Avenue Sounds: Jazz in Los Angeles:
"Jerry Fielding [pictured] was in the audience one night [in the late '40s] when I took a flute solo during a rehearsal of Bizet's Carmen with the Community Symphony Orchestra. After he learned I could play clarinet and saxophone, he hired me on the spot for Groucho Marx's TV show, You Bet Your Life.
"The first time I played the TV show, I wasn't nervous or anything. I just knew that it was something I had been working for and looking forward to, not just musically. Even meeting the guys and sitting with them. Some of the guys like Milt Kestenbaum and Seymour Sheklow were part of the Community Symphony, and that made it great.
"When I saw Groucho the first time, he looked glad. He said, 'Wow, we got a new guy in the band!' And he starts screaming, 'Hey, how are you doing?' It got to be a good thing. And most of the stuff didn't bother me. It was hard, though. I was like a fighter in top shape: I was ready for a challenge. And I knew everything was based on me doing a great job. I couldn't let down. Everything we had been doing over the two years or so was based on me or somebody getting an opportunity and pulling it off. I always thought this was kind of a little bit like how Jackie Robinson felt.
"During breaks, we'd all go to dinner, five or six of the band guys. We'd go to restaurants that I could never go to alone, but they accepted it somehow. Then, later on, sometimes I'd come there with someone else, and especially if it was someone white, just the two of us, then you'd get the 'You can't do this' treatment.
"Sometimes we used to go to Nickodell's on Melrose right behind NBC in Hollywood. A very classy place. Once I went in with this white lady, Nan Evert, who was a good friend of mine. I had gone with my players in the band, but not on my own. I was kind of afraid to go in, but she said, "Oh, Nickodell's. Great!" She had no idea.
"We go to the door and the maitre d' just about lost his teeth. I said, 'Two,' because I was trying to just outdo him. Stammering, he points to the back of the room. As we walked though this crowded restaurant, the audience reacted. They couldn't believe this. Spoons fell off the table, and it got so noisy for a while, I really got frightened. And he put us in a place in the back where everyone could see us. It was good they had big menus. The noises lasted throughout dinner."
JazzWax note: My five-part interview with Buddy Collette is here.