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Busy Days, High Honors for L.A.'s Buddy Collette

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The introduction of cherished Los Angeles jazz musician Buddy Collette during the Jazz Mentorship Program’s Jazz & Blues Festival in the streets of Leimert Park on Saturday afternoon was one of the most moving public events in recent memory.

Forced to use a wheelchair since a stroke in February 1998, Collette was introduced by Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, and the nearly 2,000 in attendance rose to their feet in a long and loud ovation. More than a few tears could be seen on the faces in the audience.

Ridley-Thomas called the 78-year-old Collette “a living legend” as he awarded him the Jazz Mentorship Program’s Living Museum Award. Then Collette turned to face a 16-piece big band of longtime associates and new faces, and led them through a scintillating set consisting almost entirely of his original music.

Despite his mobility problems, Collette has had a busy month. The day after the Leimert festival, he was honored at the American Civil Liberties Union’s annual Garden Party awards for “his timeless efforts to integrate black and white musicians,” his “invaluable mentoring of young people” and for “spreading awareness of the rich heritage of jazz music.” Earlier this month, he was named “Class Act of 2000" by the Friends of the Schools Volunteer Program at a ceremony held on the Paramount studio grounds.

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Also this month, Continuum Press of London issued Collette’s autobiography, “The Jazz Generation.” Earlier this year, the Bridge Records label released “Buddy Collette Big Band in Concert,” recorded at Washington, D.C.'s Lincoln Theatre in June 1996 with many of the same players seen with Collette at Leimert Park.

Tonight, the native Angeleno directs a combo of longtime associates--trumpeter Al Aarons, guitarist Al Viola, bassist Richard Simon and drummer Harold Mason--in a program of his compositions and standards at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s free jazz concert series (5:30-8:30 p.m.).

Collette says all the attention feels great, even though the act of signing dozens of autographs on copies of books and records over the weekend took a little something out of him.

“But it’s all been wonderful and everyone has been so good,” says the gentlemanly multi-reed player and composer. “And it was great to be honored by the ACLU, an organization for which I’ve been performing for some 30 years.”

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Colette was born in Los Angeles in August 1921, attended Jordan High School and was a teenage friend of Charles Mingus, who switched from cello and trombone to bass at Collette’s encouragement. Collette’s 30-hour recorded oral biography for the UCLA archives tells how he and Mingus would jam on L.A.'s Red Car trolleys as they traveled from Watts to downtown.

The saxophonist, flutist and clarinetist was an important part of Chico Hamilton’s mid-'50s quintet that included cellist Fred Katz.

But Collette’s most significant contribution to the Los Angeles jazz scene was his work to integrate the separate white and black musicians’ unions that existed in the city before 1951. Along with Marle Young, Benny Carter and others, Collette sought to tear down the walls between musicians of different races and to open opportunities previously denied African American artists.

Also during that period, Collette was the first African American to break through L.A.'s segregated studio musician scene when musical director Jerry Fielding recruited him to play in the ensemble of a TV show starring Groucho Marx.

“I knew that was something that had to be done,” Collette says today of his efforts a half-century ago. “I had been in the service, where our band was integrated. My high school had been fully integrated. I really didn’t know anything about racism, but I knew it wasn’t right. Musicians should be judged on how they play, not the color of their skin.”

In the years before his stroke, while maintaining an active performance schedule, Collette championed jazz education, founding the Jazz America program, which provides free music instruction to aspiring students, and taking an active role in the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department’s Jazz Mentorship Program, which brings the area’s best musicians into schools.

“The future of jazz in Los Angeles is guaranteed, especially when you have professionals like Ann [Patterson] and John Stevens and Anne King and Richard Simon and all the others keeping the programs going, keeping the public informed. It’s unbelievable now to see some of the kids who started at age 11 or 12 that are now 18 or 19 and doing great. Jazz is a skill that’s handed down. That’s how I learned, and it continues today.”

Collette is involved in rigorous therapy and exercise programs and says there’s a chance that one day he’ll again be able to take up the saxophone. “The therapy is working, things are changing with my hand and arm. I may not be as fast [on the horn] as I once was, if I can play, but we’ll see. It’s all a matter of constant exercise and being positive.”

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Honorees: The Los Angeles Jazz Society has announced its list of honorees for 2000, to be feted at the group’s 18th annual Tribute and Awards Dinner-Concert at the Regal Biltmore Hotel on Sept. 10. This year’s tribute honoree is David L. Abell, longtime supporter of jazz in Los Angeles and former owner of Abell Fine Pianos. The life achievement award goes to drummer Lee Young, the brother of saxophonist Lester Young, who worked with Buck Clayton, Nat King Cole and others.

Also being honored are saxophonist Teddy Edwards for arranging and composing, saxophonist and big-band leader Ann Patterson for jazz education and Dianne Reeves for jazz vocals. Kevin Kanner, a 20-year-old drummer, will be given the Shelly Manne Memorial New Talent Award, which carries a $1,500 scholarship. Kanner is the first drummer to win the award in the society’s 16-year history. Information on the event: (818) 994-4661 or at the Web site: https://www.lajazzsociety.org.

In Town: Bassist Jeff Johnson and saxophonist Han Tauber are in from Seattle to play the Open Gate Theatre’s Sunday Evening Concert series. They’ll be joined in a trio by Los Angeles drummer Billy Mintz. Also on the bill is San Francisco-based composer pianist Graham Connah’s Sour Note Seven, with clarinetist Ben Goldberg, saxophonist Eric Crystal, trombonist Adam Theis and vocalist Jewelia Eisenberg. The Connah ensemble’s latest self-produced recording is the cleverly titled “Gurney to the Lincoln Center of Your Mind.” The concert will be held at the Eagle Rock Community Cultural Center, 2225 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock. Information: (626) 795-4989.

Free Jazz: The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra plays the Grand Performances 2000 Celebrations! Jazz Series today at noon at California Plaza, 300-350 S. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles. On July 7, the noontime series features guitarist Anthony Wilson’s quartet, followed that evening by a performance from the big band of Wilson’s father, Gerald Wilson, at 8 p.m. Information: (213) 687-2159.


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