JAZZ : The Jazz Life He Chose : Others went east, but Buddy Collette stayed to play a crucial role in the growth of West Coast jazz. His new oral-history CD tells his life and times.
Hitting the pause button, the story at its dramatic denouement, Buddy Collette takes five.
Unfolding his more than six-foot frame from the confines of a booth at a Beverly Hills coffee shop, Collette, consummately regal, gentleman jazz personified, blushes when a waitress stops him in mid-long-stride. Finger wagging, she shouts a realization she’s contorted into a question: “Aren’t you the famous clarinet player I just saw? You, you on TV the other night. . . .” The query, probably much to Collette’s dismay, doesn’t get lost in the clatter of stemware and ebb and flow of luncheon conversation.
Collette responds with an equivocal nod, the pin-shot smile. Clearly this public recognition is a side of the game he’s still, after more than 50 years in the business, not quite accustomed to.
But of late, multi-reedman Collette, 73, is emerging from the shadows to promote his newest--and probably most unique--release, the oral-history CD project “Buddy Collette: A Jazz Audio-Biography” (Issues Records). Collette, on top of gigging around his usual local musical haunts, is venturing into new rooms, so to speak: a smattering of television (a recent spot on KCET’s “Life & Times”), a signing and discussion of his CD project today at Midnight Special bookstore. Nice way to augment a career that as well as teaching, touring, and TV-commercial work, includes official and unofficial ombudsman roles, working to make sure that black players (who on the West Coast have all too often been eclipsed in local jazz lore) are well-represented on bandstands. Collette, an expert technician, elegant composer and well-respected elder-statesman when it comes to combing the annals of jazz West Coast, is the glue--teacher, historian, objective observer.
But much of this is not necessarily something one might learn on a first or even second try--since William Marcell (Buddy) Collette admits he doesn’t very much like to . . . well . . . blow his own horn.
While swapping the more picaresque of anecdotes--jazzmen on midnight joy rides, the litany of show-stopping excess--his is a name that might not be the first to float to the top of the talk. But the evolution of jazz--and jazz players--might ride a shade differently on the ear without him.
In 1946, he and other local black musicians felt the squeeze of racially segregated musician unions: Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians accepting only white musicians, while Local 767 organized the black players. The insult that played as irony: Most times these players--white and black--shared the same stages, even the same charts, or often frequented rehearsal halls and restaurants together around town. The first discussions about equalizing pay scales, dues and ultimately integrating those unions took place in Collette’s pride and joy--his ’41 Pontiac.
By simply settling down on a chair, first in a radio studio (1949) and then on the TV set (1950) of Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life,” Collette crossed the color bar in his typically casual but atypically public way--for all the world the see. By the simple act of playing, Collette proved to all who listened that black musicians were not only comfortable with the wild and improvisational world of jazz, but could read and finesse with the best.
Collette, one of the cornerstones in the formation of an L.A.-based interracial orchestra in the early ‘40s, saw the grouping as more than an ensemble but a musical give and take: a way for black musicians to learn the ropes of classical music and white musicians the intricacies of jazz.
For a man who has forgone limelight for steady pay, however, success and accolades come in different forms. There’s power in the word. And after other contemporaries have vanished into obscurity or passed on, his longevity has made him the essential link for anyone seeking to fit together the scattered pieces about life on “the Coast.”
“Musicians,” explains Collette, “tend to underplay the amount of information that they do have. It’s part of the music we play. We’re not saying the words, but it’s coming out of the heart. You could put a lyric to some of this stuff.”
Banking on oral tradition’s homespun appeal and Collette’s store of insider knowledge, “Audio Biography,” a double-CD/cassette set, takes a listener through an all-too-brief tour of some of the more high-profile moments and icons of jazz West Coast.
Choosing to set down the details of one’s life on tape, rather than pen-to-paper, is a particularly appropriate move for a jazz musician, even more so for one who is African American, in that it feeds into an antique tradition: an elder orally passing history, homilies and life lessons.
But this word-of-mouth has always been a strong part of the mythology, Collette says.
“When Duke Ellington came to town, you listened for the word: “Well is he going to be at Jack’s Basket or Ivie’s Chicken Shack? The word . . . was even stronger than the newspapers,” Collette adds.
In the early decades, as Collette tells it, L.A. was shot through with stages alive with music. He jammed with neighborhood friends--such as Charles Mingus--or new acquaintances made moving around the circuit in clubs and on stages like Jack’s Basket Room, which offered a full menu of after-hours sounds, with some fried chicken in a basket on the side. Or glamorous Hollywood rooms such as the Rhumboogie at Melrose and Highland, frequented by stage-and-screen-types such as Ginger Rogers and Orson Welles--who, as Collette recalls, impressed by the power and punch, hired the house band (which included the 19-year-old Collette) to record the soundtrack for his film project “Citizen Kane.”
Concurrently, Central Avenue offered a random sampling of sounds for the asking, only strolling-distance apart. Not glowing with Westside glamour, but certainly resplendent with sound: the Down Beat, the Last Word and the Club Alabam kept the avenue alive till 2 in the morning. But quite often, behind locked doors, the joints jumped long after-hours into the first light of morning.
“This guy I knew, Stuff Crouch, had a little after-hours place in his living room. Pulled the shade. He had heavy drapes,” says Collette with a conspiratorial laugh. “Some of them would cook. It was all undercover. They had music, the food, the booze. Since just because it was 2 o’clock, people weren’t necessarily ready to stop.”
Private sessions lit up back rooms or garages at parents’ homes--the Dolphys and Minguses. Dexter Gordon, Teddy Edwards, Gerald Wilson, Red Callender and, when in town, even Miles Davis and Charlie Parker often offered up their own handiwork.
But despite the wealth of work and top-drawer combos like Collette’s session mates-turned-ensemble the Stars of Swing, many local musicians found that making the rounds in L.A. proved to be an exercise in futility. L.A. was a big beautiful practice room but it was the wings.
Careers at stake, the arrangements made, the defection began.
And Collette played a part--of sorts:
He urged tenor player Charles Lloyd to move to New York, to “get a name.” He’d done the same for his student, multi-reedman Eric Dolphy. And drummer Chico Hamilton. He watched Mingus pack his big bags and bass, then flee. He passed on the same advice to flutist James Newton. Meanwhile, he was well aware, that same move might have done him some good. . . .
Or maybe not.
He’s not immune, however, to a few good rounds of what if : “Probably if I had gone there my career would have been different,” he projects, “but I was a rich 25-year-old player. They weren’t writing about me, but a lot of musicians were talking about me: ‘Buddy Collette? He’s on Groucho, got a long car, an apartment!’ That’s what Bird said to me. I guess I wasn’t too stupid.”
The judgments, nonetheless, came swiftly and often unsolicited. Charles Mingus (who Collette coaxed to lay down his cello to wrestle with the bass) in a bluster accused Collette of abandoning his passions--composing and “burning"--to instead limp along as a network studio clone. Collette faced the winds and failed to flinch: the judgments all untrue.
Mingus wasn’t the only one to inquire or offer up a life preserver in the form of an invitation. “When Eric (Dolphy) went to New York, he would work with Coltrane, Mingus; he would call every now and again and say: ‘Buddy, you have to come here. Everything is in New York. They’re asking about you. We want you here with us.’ ” Well, Collette soberly admits, priorities were priorities. “I was keeping my daughters then.” And even though providing for a family may have been viewed as not fitting the lone-wolf jazz profile, “I,” says Collette with a still-steely sense of resolve, “didn’t want to give up on that.”
Challenged by broadening his range beyond quartet or quintet work, Collette believed that as a studio musician, he could do his bit to chip away at some aged perceptions about what black musicians could and couldn’t do.
“A lot of the myths were you . . . didn’t play the instruments properly, or you couldn’t fit in section-wise. . . . You play jazz well but you can’t read (music).”
But Collette, who had served some time in the Navy and had studied his way from musician third-class to first, had already faced a lot of challenges head-on. “It was like I had earned some of this because I had put in the time. I knew where I was going and thought I knew how to get there, but there were still some obstacles,” Collette says. “I used to say, if you can make it in L.A. you can make it anywhere. This one’ll test you.”
As a working musician, Collette has had a curious career, carving steady work out of creative, sometimes unlikely places. “I’m a saxophone player, I’m a clarinet player--but I’m much more than that, I’m a teacher, a composer. I have different groups--quartet, quintets, a big band. I play for some very fabulous (political and social) affairs that people don’t even know about.” Collette also knew the downsides to a life that when it wasn’t simply erratic, was completely unpredictable. Still, he listened with interest to the wild road stories, the copious details of till-all-hours recording sessions. And over the years he’s gathered a store of lore.
“I didn’t see Bird making any money--no matter how much saxophone he was playing,” Collette says with a tone more of concern than one steeped in bitter judgment. “I had gone where the studio stuff was. Where the real money was, where the future was. And also I had chosen a healthier way to go. Sometimes you’re home at night. You’re not hanging out till 4 or 5 in the morning, blowing the bell off that horn, hoping that somebody is going to walk up and offer you a big payday--or something like that.”
Collette has watched the scenes come and go: The neon crackle alive along Central Avenue and dim. The snap and roll of drums keeping the pace of Hollywood’s lively main thoroughfares now faded.
But all of these memories stay crisp and fresh in his evocative retellings--his mellifluous baritone, creating what is in effect jazz cinema--the anecdote--arguably, one of the art form’s most vital elements. Mythology in the making, where sometimes teller becomes as famous as the tale.
There are compelling revelations on “Audio Biography,” like the true origins of Bird’s nickname (not the chicken-eating Yardbird myth that’s gotten the most mileage, but chosen instead because the young Bird and crew practiced in the park with the birds just before dawn). But if one is looking for deep excavation or wide-ranging elucidation, they might not find it here.
“Audio Biography” feels more like a turn through a well-worn scrap- or memory book, the endeavor, anecdotal audio--which offers a collection of cameos at best--pauses largely on bigger lights, such as Nat King Cole (when his “skin wasn’t as smooth . . . hair not as neat”) rather than the indistinct figures, backing voices we hear too little about: a Teddy Wilson, a Britt Woodman, a Gerald Wilson. And save for the occasional fluttering interlude on his woodwind of choice, or briefest of introspective step-back, this collection is slim on Collette the man--his philosophy, his motivation, his interpretation of his struggles. “My life has been really interesting,” he says, setting up an elegant dodge, “but I’ve always been around . . . interesting people.”
“He never talks about himself, just other people,” says project producer Harvey Robert Kubernik. “But it wasn’t just a deflection thing. He wasn’t a recluse. He wasn’t shy. This is a guy who has 30 albums out as a leader. He made just one request when we started the recording. That we don’t want to just talk about Buddy . . . that it was about teamwork.”
Collette, who frequently tosses stories from the bandstand, saw Kubernik’s project as a natural progression. And it was a big step forward in what Collette sees as a way to rework some of the more prevalent misconceptions not just about jazz--but jazz in Los Angeles. The goal: “To make sure that the truth was out about these players.”
Like so many musicians, Collette has taken offense to the impressionistic, at best poetic-license-laced, film portraits of the jazz life--spotlighting these “essential” elements: the discarded hypodermic needle, the upset highball glass, a life in shambles.
In Collette’s rendering of Charlie Parker, for instance, Bird emerges neither as a shell, nor a lost lifeless figure, but more a hot burst of creative energy: an amorphous firelight.
“He was a marvelous musician who had great knowledge, had great insight. He was a person who I learned a lot from by just talking to.”
The careful oral transmission of these stories provides not only another prism through which to view these musical greats, it also constructs a new stage to place those who had been swept into the wings.
If the bicoastal debate over credibility weren’t enough, an intrastate imbroglio still simmers--the limited impression of what indeed is “West Coast jazz.” Something that on “Audio Biography” Collette addresses only indirectly simply by its omission. Something that he’s far more forthcoming about in person.
Cool School--the polite, lambent wash of sound made famous in beachside clubs such as the Lighthouse in the early ‘50s--didn’t reflect the sound musicians like Collette and his compatriots along Central Avenue knew to be the music of their Southland.
While rooms in New York burst with be-bop’s flat fives, wild scales and flat nines, California musicians, Collette says, were free to experiment to their heart’s content--far from the judicious glare--for better or for worse of the critics and tastemakers.
But the christening of two record labels--Richard Bock’s World Pacific and Les Koening’s Contemporary--effectively eclipsed the scene. “It was the so-called style they were playing at the Lighthouse and then, I guess, they began to name it ‘West Coast jazz.’ ” L.A. fixtures like Teddy Edwards, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon--all black musicians, Collette observed--couldn’t be found on Contemporary’s or World Pacific’s backlist.
“Those guys (Bock and Koening) thought they had created a new sound,” Collette explains. “They really hadn’t. It was using more of a pattern. It was more predictable. But the audience bought it for a while. But it’s like you can buy the packaged food only so long.”
This configuration--"West Coast” bands predominantly white, and Central Avenue session men all black--further polarized L.A.'s tiny jazz community, the effects of which still echo today.
“And even now we’re back to some of that same thing--where you go in the studios and you stick your head in, there’s a hundred players and you see no, or one African American player in there. But the fight goes on.”
And on. Most of the time it centers around representation and respect. But Collette keeps his cool and goes in like steel. Confronting the same hurdles, just a different generation, inspires a strange sense of deja vu . “The whole racial thing is worse than it was ever before. The togetherness, the stuff we had even in the ‘40s and ‘50s, has gone backward. We’ve lost 20 years somehow.”
But it isn’t Collette’s way to stay mired in anger. Instead, energies turn to girding the future--the students. President of JazzAmerica, an organization that sponsors a six-week training program for high school-age students, Collette--along with other musicians--works to sharpen skills, from soloing to reading to doubling.
Collette is as impressed with the dedication of the students as he is with the creativity of the instructors, many of whom elevate their task to an art form. “It’s not so much playing as it’s directing them,” Collette says of drummer Ndugu Chancler’s instruction style. “He was telling a student that he was playing too strong, working too hard, just by using his hands, as if he were working with a wand.”
Teacher, observer, is the place where one most often finds Collette, the adviser in the wings, the faceless impresario. And with it comes an almost sub rosa status.
“I’m handling it better,” says Collette of his career incognito. “I think what happens is, it takes people a long time to buy you. But I’m not so much into the critics and the people who write about it anymore. I used to think that was important.
“It really doesn’t feel like I’m in the background,” Collette says, nowadays acutely aware that past and present are inextricable. “Maybe it’s back to my early childhood. My mom was so much into a sharing kinda thing. I could bring a young friend home with me, and she would say: ‘You have to come in and split the sandwich.’ I learned that so early,” he reflects, linking the pieces. “So I’m always . . . making sure that everybody gets their part. Because it seems like there’s always some for me.”