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50 Years on Jazz Scene Fail to Dull Creativity of Reed Man, Composer Collette

<i> Zan Stewart writes regularly about music for The Times</i>

Question: If you’ve been a jazz musician for more than 50 years, how do you keep your performances fresh and vital and about today, not yesterday?

Answer: If you’re reed man and composer Buddy Collette--the Los Angeles native and Mid-Wilshire resident who has been a principal participant in the Southern California jazz and studio music scene since the mid-1940s--you compose a new tune.

“I’m always writing. Like some people must have new clothes, I must have a new tune,” he says.

Collette, who gained national renown in the ‘50s as a member of drummer Chico Hamilton’s quintet, will appear Thursday through Saturday at the Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood.

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“There’s often a lot of fear before doing a new number,” says Collette, who has composed about 300 selections. “Players often want to rehearse it over and over. I say, ‘No, we’re just going to go out and do it.’ Wrong notes, wrong chords, I don’t worry about that because I think the audience will go along with you. Perfection is not always possible. You have to get into it. That’s life.

“I always rehearse before I perform. . . . But when we play it, it’s still an experiment, and I don’t know what we’re going to get. I could write all the parts out, but that would be Buddy Collette controlling jazz. Instead, I try to keep in mind what I started with and let the music change as the musicians play it. To me, this is what jazz is all about.”

In composition, he says: “I’m drawing on what I feel, on the people I know. . . . I’m telling a story based on my world, about what’s happening now.”

Characteristic are three easy-on-the-ears selections off “Flute Talk,” his latest album, featuring flutist James Newton, on Soul Note Records. “Crystal” is a lovely ballad dedicated to the youngest of Collette’s three daughters (he also has a son); “Andre” is a vibrant modal composition written for his grandson, and “Roshanda” is an upbeat bossa nova dedicated to his granddaughter.

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Each has a singable melody. “My life has been happy for the most part,” he says, “and I think this is reflected in my melodies, which are based on beauty and melody rather than dissonance. My tunes tend not to be about crying or bitterness, but about love and feeling, and I hope they’re pleasing when you’re listening.”

He continues: “Look, I like dissonance--some of my pieces have it--but it’s strange to write that way. Like when I composed the soundtrack for a film called ‘Trauma’ in the early 1960s. I had to pretend I was this murderer to create a suspenseful mood. I had to write other than myself. But pretty stuff, that’s really me.”

And if melody is at the heart of what Collette writes, it follows that his improvisations stress an essential lyric quality rather than a technical brilliance. “Going a mile a minute, maybe that’s not my style,” he says.

“I don’t care if I’m judged as a fine player. I don’t feel I have to be the best,” he says. “To me, it’s more about the joy of playing. I am playing me, whether you like it or not.”

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It was a joyous response to hearing his mother sing in church or from listening to his parents’ recordings of Duke Ellington and Count Basie in their Watts home that got a youthful Collette interested in playing music.

“The bands were swinging; the sections fit together; this was it,” he recalls. “It was like a dream.”

Older players told Collette to “get a horn, a teacher, and study.” The young reed artist took the advice and flourished. At age 13, he led his first band, which included a fledgling bassist named Charles Mingus. During the early 1940s, he worked with Benny Carter, Gerald Wilson and Louis Jordan.

He also took part in the historic Central Avenue music scene, where, in a business area of South-Central Los Angeles, a series of jazz rooms were overflowing with sounds from the late ‘30s to late ‘40s. Such giants as Lester Young, Art Tatum and Charlie Parker appeared, yet Collette remembers the era less for its “great music, though there certainly were moments,” than for its camaraderie.

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“There was a lot of creativity, of experimentation, and we thought of everybody being good in a sense,” he says. “Here was Miles Davis, before he was a name, but he was just another good trumpet player, like Paul Campbell and Red Mack. But Miles went on to become famous. Bird (Parker) was here, but Sonny Criss, who was from Los Angeles, wasn’t that far behind him and it was hard to say who was better than who. It was more we were enjoying ourselves.”

Collette, who was classically trained from 1946 to ’50 at such institutions as the now-defunct Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, followed drummer Lee Young in 1949 to become the second black musician to work in the Los Angeles film and TV studios.

He was instrumental in the process that, in March, 1953, saw the all-black Local 767 of the musicians union merge with the then all-white main Local 47.

The first step was an interracial rehearsal orchestra, begun in 1949, that played a variety of classical music. Collette, bassist Red Callender, and trombonists Jimmy Cheatham and Britt Woodman were among a handful of black players in the 60-piece ensemble.

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It was at an orchestra rehearsal--the group never performed publicly--that Collette was heard playing a flute solo by Jerry Fielding, musical director of the Groucho Marx radio show “You Bet Your Life.” Fielding hired Collette on the spot, and soon the show went on television and Collette was in Fat City.

“I was making $130 a week at a time when a club date paid maybe $25 or 30 a week,” he says.

Except for the period with drummer Hamilton, Collette has chiefly made his living in the studios, playing behind singers such as Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. But he never abandoned jazz. “I’d be working days in the studios and weekends have a jazz gig.” These days, he rarely works in the studios but tours and teaches.

His life has been “a ball,” he says. “I don’t work every night. I travel to Europe; I’m getting more appreciation for what I do. In a way, it’s never been better. And it’s all happening because I’m being me.”

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Buddy Collette plays at 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at the Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Cover: $10 Thursday, $12 Friday and Saturday, plus two-drink minimum. Call (213) 466-2210.


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