Buddy Greco Returns to His Musical Roots : Jazz: The pianist calls the 'Salute to Benny Goodman' tour 'a chance to finally re-establish myself as a jazz player.'

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Life has come full circle for Buddy Greco.

After 60 albums, three gold records and a roller-coaster jazz and pop career that first hit big in the late '40s and early '50s when he toured the world as Benny Goodman's pianist and singer, he will embark Sunday on a 90-day tour of one-night stands in a "Salute to Benny Goodman" show.

"This is a chance to finally re-establish myself as a jazz player," Greco, a resident of Thousand Oaks, said during a recent interview. "Years ago, I had to make a choice during the '50s to stay with jazz or go commercial. Well, I felt jazz was dying at the time, so I went commercial."

Jackie Greco, the reigning Mrs. California 1992, is a central figure in his return to jazz. She sang backup on a few of his records, co-produced several later albums and is an ASCAP member who wrote "Hot Nights," the title tune of his 1987 album.

Greco, 65, credits his wife with getting him back in touch with his jazz instincts: "I owe everything to her encouragement."

Though he will be appealing partly to a new generation of jazz fans, Greco has never been entirely off the scene. He simply opted for a lucrative but less prominent life doing what he calls "a glorified lounge act."

The "Buddy Greco's Greatest Hits" album, just issued on Total Records, shows the products of those commercial years. He traded the piano for synthesizers, playing "MacArthur Park" and singing everything from "The Lady Is a Tramp" to "My Funny Valentine." Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Monte Carlo--the whole supper club circuit was his for the booking.

During those days, Greco was not known for an equable disposition. Quite frankly, he acknowledged, "I had a terrible reputation--a temper like Buddy Rich's. I went through three bad marriages. I became part of a Beverly Hills, rat pack-type crowd. My attitude and my whole life turned around when I met Jackie."

After the pair's marriage in 1977, Greco adopted her two children by a previous marriage. Together, they have a son, Jean-Paul, 12. Greco has three adult children from his first marriage.

Along with his decision to shift gears from pop to jazz, Greco last year decided the time had come to return to the recording studios to make an all-star jazz album.

"I thought I'd call up some friends and see how they felt about working with me," he said. "First I asked Grover Washington Jr. and he said sure, he'd love to do it. Then I called Toots Thielemans, Jack Sheldon and Ernie Watts, who all said yes, and then Buddy De Franco and Terry Gibbs."

With Alf Clausen (composer for "The Simpsons") as his arranging-conducting partner, the result was an impressive album, set for release on Bay Cities, a new jazz label, toward the end of Greco's tour this year. The record should provide a needed reminder of how Greco gained the admiration of such fellow pianists as Oscar Peterson.

This reputation was first earned as early as 1949 when Greco joined the Goodman orchestra; for the previous five years he had led a trio in his native Philadelphia.

Since Goodman was then going through his short-lived be-bop phase, Greco found himself in the company of such luminaries as saxophonist Wardell Gray and Zoot Sims, trumpeter Fats Navarro and guitarist Mundell Lowe. Most of the recorded products of that significant era have yet to be released on CD by Capitol Records.

The post-Goodman years, though removed from the forefront of jazz, were not without a few major rewards. In 1964, during the height of Beatlemania, he was the only American to take part (along with the Beatles) in a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II. There was a prestigious album with the London Symphony Orchestra, for which he wrote arrangements and played with 67 musicians. In 1967, Greco, Rich and George Carlin co-hosted "Away We Go," a summer replacement for "The Jackie Gleason Show" on the CBS television network.

The national tour, with Peanuts Hucko assuming Goodman's role on clarinet and leading the orchestra, will be at Pepperdine University in Malibu on Sunday, the Downey Theatre in Downey on Monday, the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena on Tuesday and Wednesday, at the Norris Theatre in Palos Verdes on Thursday and Friday, , and Citrus College in Glendora on Saturday. Louise Tobin, a former Goodman band singer who just happens to be Mrs. Hucko, will also be a featured singer on the tour.

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