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Buddy Collette Brings L.A.'s Jazz Past to Shrine Concert

For many L.A. musicians, Buddy Collette is a local hero, even a legend.

He was in the forefront of the movement to integrate the musician’s union (until 1953 there was an all-black Local 767, paying lower scales than the white local, and without access to many valuable jobs). Around the same time he became the first black musician to break the studio color barrier by playing in a major TV series (in the Groucho Marx show band under Jerry Fielding).

A native Angeleno, Collette was part of the vital scene that dominated Central Avenue and Watts in the 1940s and ‘50s; he got Charles Mingus his first job as a bassist, and was an early associate of Dexter Gordon, Red Callender, Eric Dolphy and other pioneers.

“That’s the era we’ll be celebrating on Sunday,” says Collette, who has organized a 16-piece orchestra to play the LA Jazz ’88 concert at the Shrine, presented by the International Assn. of Jazz Appreciation.

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The ensemble will include men and women who have long been a part of the Los Angeles scene: Harold Land, Bill Green, Bobby Bryant, George Bohanon, Clora Bryant, Vi Redd, Oscar Brashear and singer Bill Henderson.

A tall, gracious and articulate figure, Collette has been in constant demand in both jazz and studio circles, as flutist and saxophonist, and frequently as composer, with more than 100 recorded compositions and dozens of screenwriting credits (many for documentaries, advertising, films and television projects).

“I remember getting my baptism of fire,” he says, “doing a movie called ‘Trauma,’ a 90-minute feature that called for 60 minutes of music. I led the group that performed it too. That was back in 1962, and it taught me a lot of what I needed to know about movie writing.”

Collette has managed to keep his hand in at every level. “I was in Europe for a month recently, and for starters I did some writing for an 18-piece community orchestra in Freiburg. I taught improvisation classes, then took part in a ‘flute summit’ festival with James Newton and Paul Horn.

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“Next I went to France for the Sorgues Jazz Festival; to Milan for a Soul Note Records session and a nightclub date; then on to The Hague for the North Sea (Jazz) Festival and an interview for the BBC.”

Collette’s professional life began in earnest around 1940 when, at 19, he joined Local 767. During the next decade he was playing saxophone and leading his own band, or paying sideman dues with Les Hite, Benny Carter and Gerald Wilson. After a few years in the studios in the early ‘50s, he acquired his first measure of fame in 1956 as a member of the original Chico Hamilton Quintet.

“By that time I was playing flute quite a bit,” he recalls. “I picked it up around 1946, when it was thought to be a strange animal. When I’d take it into some club and play a ballad, a lot of mouths would fall open. ‘Why are you playing that in a jazz room?’ I studied it with Marty Ruderman. Soon other saxophone players began to follow suit; the ones who didn’t lived to regret it, because it turned out to be essential for studio work.

“A funny thing happened at the recent flute convention in San Diego. One evening we had half a dozen flutists on the stand, so I pulled some of my music out of a bag and passed it around. After we’d played it, one lady in the audience said: ‘That’s fine, but couldn’t you play something without music?’ ” Collette laughed. “So we gave her a few minutes of ‘C Jam Blues.’ What made it interesting, though, was that we had no rhythm section--just those six flutes all on our own.”

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Along with his playing and writing, Collette has maintained a teaching career; until recently he conducted a jazz class for four years at Loyola Marymount University. “We’d have the students bring in their own music, express their own ideas and learn how to solo; I’d bring out my sax or clarinet and switch choruses with them. It was fun, and it kept my chops up, in addition to making me more the regular guy with them.”

For the Shrine concert Collette will include some of his own music to evoke a nostalgic echo of the great Los Angeles years. “I’d like to do some sort of dedication, drawing on our own heritage, the things that happened when Central Avenue was the place.”

It won’t be all nostalgia, of course; for Collette, the past, present and future carry equal weight. The measure of his versatility has been recorded in an astonishingly well-researched book, “Man of Many Parts: Buddy Collette,” assembled by a Dutch fan, Coen Hofmann. It includes a long interview, lists of Collette’s film scores and compositions, and a complete discography from 1945 into the ‘80s.

“When I got to Holland on that last visit,” Collette said, “Hofmann gave me the book. I was amazed at the detail. I said ‘You did all this for me?’ He said ‘Yeah, I love your music.’ He had tears in his eyes, but when somebody can write 160 pages all about me, seems like I’m the one that should have been crying.”

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