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Medley of a Lifetime

Emory Holmes II is an occasional contributor to Calendar

It’s a few minutes after 8 on a Sunday, and the starry Culver City night sky is panoramic, clear and black as an eggplant.

It’s closing night at the Jazz Bakery for the great percussionist, Chico Hamilton. In the lobby, a few steps inside the big glass doors, sits musician and teacher Buddy Collette, who has been Hamilton’s friend and associate for more than 60 years.

Perched in his wheelchair (resulting from a 1998 stroke), half hidden in the crowd, Collette is attended by his girlfriend, Vicki King. He is dressed for fall in a light sport cap, windbreaker and sneakers, and he looks happy and at home in the milling crowd. Rich-voiced, self-effacing and handsome, the 6-foot-2-inch Collette, 79, has slowed considerably since his days as a young saxophonist and bandleader on Central Avenue in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

The heroism of the homebody could be the title and central parable of Collette’s life. And the idea of home is basic to his identity in music: home as the crucible of the personality, tradition and spirit of a people, with the trade-offs, good timing and good work required for its maintenance. When most of his friends--Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Chico Hamilton, et al--went to New York and got famous, Collette opted to tough it out, stay home and raise his family. All the while, his generosity opened the way for more than a few colleagues to get out. He’s one of the few of his circle who was able to build a solid professional career in Los Angeles. Things our city is known for--movies, television, the recording studios--are where he made his name. From his adolescence to now, he has been a sometimes pivotal, yet almost always invisible, figure in our city’s social, political and cultural life.

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Along the way, he has achieved pioneering status in the hometown businesses. Throughout, he maintained a principled life whose governing theme is that artistic virtue is never the product of individual talent alone, but depends on one’s relations within a broad spectrum of dedicated associates, mentors, family and friends. Ever the attentive master, he looks you in the eye when you speak and still projects the showman’s aura of a big man standing, even in a wheelchair.

The Rev. O.C. Smith, the singing pastor, and Bernie and Don, two of Hamilton’s brothers, are among the old friends leaning down to greet Collette and wish him well.

Collette has been a generous friend to musicians, a committed professional and a dedicated activist. The general facts of his life are these: He was a bandleader in Watts at the age of 12, a cameo musician in “Citizen Kane” when he was 19. In the early ‘50s, he made history as the “Jackie Robinson of the networks” (coined by jazz writer Steven Isoardi) when he joined Groucho Marx’s TV game show “You Bet Your Life"--becoming the first African American musician to be hired as a regular in a network band.

In 1953, when he was 32, he was a leader in the fight to unite L.A.'s segregated musicians union locals and was one of the new, integrated union’s first officers. In 1964, he was one of three journeyman musicians who made Hollywood history by integrating the Oscar telecast band.

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He is a co-founder (with Valerie Fields and Michael O’Daniel) of JazzAmerica, an organization that has grown into one of L.A.'s most important music mentorship programs. He is also executive director of the California Institute for the Preservation of Jazz on the campus of Cal State Long Beach. Following 40 years of distinguished public and professional life, the Cultural Affairs Department and Mayor Richard J. Riordan awarded him official status as a Los Angeles Living Cultural Treasure in 1998.

He recounts all this, and more, in “Jazz Generations: A Life in American Music and Society,” his just-released autobiography, written with the assistance of Isoardi.

Indeed, if one has to choose a local hero whose story is emblematic of the West Coast musical heritage with all its underrated brilliance, originality and traditions, one could hardly do better than the amazing true life of William Marcel “Buddy” Collette.

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At the Jazz Bakery, Chico Hamilton and his backing quartet take the stage almost as soon as the audience is seated. Focused and intent, the band quickly hunkers down in the music. The stage sits at the rear of a big square room whose high walls are tinted with pink and blue floodlights. Hamilton is a mountain of a man and, riffing low over his drums in his flowing white shirt, he resembles a snowcapped volcano. The audience is small but enthusiastic--some folks are jumping out of their seats. Collette, half-visible in the semi-darkness, seems to be digging it too.

At the end of the set, Hamilton stops to acknowledge old friends and family to the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he begins, “I’d like you to welcome one of my oldest and dearest friends--a truly God-given man for music, family man, fantastic musician, composer and arranger. And you won’t believe how good a guy this guy is. Ladies and gentlemen--Buddy Collette.”

Folks turn around to look for Collette in the darkness. The applause is thunderous. It seems both odd and apt that they applaud him as a near-invisible man. Despite his achievements and acclaim, his professional name was made behind the scenes and few Angelenos outside of music circles have ever heard of him. He raises his big hand once to acknowledge the crowd and again to acknowledge his old friend’s gesture.

Backstage after the show, Collette is wheeled up to Hamilton, who is leaning against a dressing room counter, talking with family and friends. The scene has the upbeat informality of an African American barbershop, with the two friends and their circle reflected in the mirror that runs the length of one dressing room wall.

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When asked about their days as kids in the old neighborhoods, back in Watts and L.A., each of the men is eager to tell his story.

“I had heard about Buddy Collette,” Hamilton says. “He had a band out in Watts and I came out to see them. I didn’t know him. He didn’t know me. And I asked, ‘Hey man, can I sit in?’ ”

Collette agrees, and adds, “He was sharp too. We were playing out at the Oddfellows Hall when he walked in. I had a little quintet. When Chico walked in, I didn’t know who he was, but he acted like he could play. He was more professional than we were. He had a suit and tie on. We were dressed neat, with a little jacket or maybe a sweater. But I believed him, so I let him sit in and he did. He could solo, or blend in with the rhythms and things that he could do because he had that early--all that feeling. We were about the same age--16.”

Hamilton is asked if he was afraid of venturing off his L.A. turf and into the unfamiliar territory of Watts. Some of the men in the room laugh out loud. L.A. was so different then, they say.

“Now y’see, Watts was only about a mile long, if it was that long,” Hamilton advises. “And people there were beautiful, man. Beautiful.”

In an earlier conversation, Collette recalled how, “in that area, everybody was moving [to Watts]: all races, whites, Japanese, Mexicans, Chinese. So it was great. It was like a community within itself, which was better than most [places] you could move into. Because all of the kids definitely got along. The parents didn’t have to hang out together. But the kids would be playing [and] they had been to school together.

“I think we were fortunate, the ones that had a chance to get started out that way. Sometimes your favorite friend would be somebody that wasn’t your race--a white kid, I mean. I’d bring ‘em home for lunch, sometime, they’d take me home for lunch. But I think the parents then went along with what the kids wanted to do.”

Whenever Collette recalls the old days in Watts and L.A., it is seldom with disappointment. He sets his gaze as if looking backward through the windows of that vanished place and time and evokes a world where neighbor touched neighborhood, where gifted amateurs thrived among the stars and masters, and where even the hick town of Watts had the power to become one’s crossroads or crucible. Collette tells these stories often. Through his eyes, we look on the Watts of the ‘20s and ‘30s and behold an urban idyll, semi-rustic and working-class, which nevertheless managed to provide a rich social context. Icons, both monumental and human, seemed to be under construction everywhere.

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In his autobiography, Collette writes: “When Charles Mingus, Bobby and Cecil (Big Jay) McNeely and I were going to school, we saw Simon Rodia working on the Watts Towers. Mingus lived on 108th Street, the McNeely brothers on 111th, and the Towers are on 107th. When we went to Mingus’ house, we’d walk right by and see Rodia. Of course then it was only a 4- or 5-foot wall, not towers yet. This was about 1935, 1936. We didn’t know what it was. Sometimes as we passed by, he’d be working. We’d hassle him and he’d chase us away.”

This setting, Collette reveals, “was very conducive to creativity.”

Backstage with Hamilton and Collette, one gets a chance to peer inside the little moments that are the fulcrums of history. Brilliant scenes and one-of-a-kind personalities have coursed through their lives like ribbons of thread passing through the eye of a needle. They top one another with stories of their careers as shoeshine boys long before they became professional musicians.

“I shined shoes for 5 cents a shine,” Hamilton recalls. “I made enough money shining shoes to buy a set of drums.”

“Mingus was different from all of us,” Collette says. He describes Mingus’ shoe box, which he swears looked like a chicken coop, only vertical. He advised people to sit on the hoods of their cars and he shined their shoes standing up. Mingus was using this setup when he first met Collette as kids. Mingus loved Buddy Collette. He had reason to love him; after all, it was Collette who urged the then-13-year-old Mingus to switch from cello to the bass fiddle--a change that would make him immortal.

In his own autobiography, Mingus described their first encounter: “This day as [I] leaned against a lamppost at the corner of 103rd Street and San Pedro reading a book and waiting for [shoeshine] customers, a tall handsome young black man walked up to [me] and said, ‘Are you the kid that plays cello? Remember me? I’m Buddy Collette.’ ”

They would form a lifelong friendship in which Collette became one of the few people, perhaps the only one, who could calm the mercurial genius.

“I was almost on a pedestal for him,” Collette recalls. “If he was having problems, I would talk to him and he would cool down right away. I don’t know why that was. It’s just like you have somebody you can more or less share your thoughts with and feel much better. And also I pointed him to music because I told him to get the bass. . . . He probably didn’t know why he loved me so much. And that was part of it too. I helped him find what he wanted, and really needed.

“It was a very special relationship that I had with him. He could be fighting or shooting somebody with a gun or something and he would say, ‘Whoa, there’s Buddy. I’d better behave myself.’ . . . Before he died in Cuernavaca, he called me on the phone. He could hardly talk, he said, ‘You’ve got to come and see me right now.’ I said OK. I didn’t ask why. I just got on the plane. Because if he called me, it was one of those distress calls. So that was basically the relationship all the time.”

Mingus was one of the musicians who regularly insisted that Collette move to New York City to make a bigger name for himself.

“There was a lot of things I had started in Los Angeles, I had to finish,” Collette recalls. “The amalgamation of the unions, and, you know, the teaching and everything. I think I was more needed in the L.A. area at the time than I was up and down the road and in New York.

“It depends on what kind of musician you are. You want to be a soloist or you want to be a name--New York is the place to be tested, yeah. But Eric Dolphy and Charles Lloyd, I sent them out with Chico, so they could get a name. But I wasn’t looking for a name, you see.”

Collette did tour extensively with Hamilton’s quartet and their close association was evident backstage at the Jazz Bakery as they swapped tales of the old personalities and scenes, and the legions of devoted African American teachers. When Collette speaks of these little-known African American performers and teachers like Lloyd Reese, Alma Hightower, the Woodman Brothers and others, he shows how traditions of self-reliance, scholarship and excellence have always prevailed over the prejudices set up to deny them. He depicts these everyday folk as hard-working heroes and heroines from the swatch of L.A. we now call South-Central, but that all of them knew as the Eastside.

In these simple stories, we watch them set young Collette’s aesthetic compass in place long before his horns take him around the world.

The training would serve him well, providing him with a grounding that couldn’t be challenged and that became quickly evident to other musicians. In his book, Collette recalls touring with Frank Sinatra when the singer boarded the airplane carrying a portable record player.

“Frank put it in back of my headrest, picked out a record and cranked up the volume. It was a tune of mine called ‘Monorail.’ I said, ‘Hey, where did you get that?’

And he said, ‘I know what you’re doing!’ and walked away.

“Very strange. Frank knew me, but had never talked to me. . . . He never said to me, ‘I heard your band.’ But somehow he found a record of mine that was not easy to find, and played it a lot.”

*

After the evening at the Jazz Bakery ends, Vicki King rolls Collette out to his car. It’s been a great night, and he seems very happy.

Good things have been happening of late. Despite being slowed and prevented from playing by the stroke he suffered at a school concert in Watts, Collette still makes appearances fronting his band. And Issues Records has recently released an older biography on CD, which includes narration and performances by Collette.

And now, with the publication of his memoir, following the robust autobiographical statements of his beloved associates Red Callender and Charles Mingus, it seems that the self-effacing master is finally ready for his solo--even if it’s not in performance.

“Being onstage would be important, but that’s not the only thing,” he states. “The main thing is to be able to use the hands and to walk, which I like. But playing is added, that’s like icing on the cake. I miss it, but, you know, just to have two hands. . . . We’re all blessed when everything works. So I’m kind of aiming to get some of that back. And if I play that would be beautiful, but that would be added enjoyment.”

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Buddy Collette appears with his band today at noon at a performance to benefit the BEEM Foundation for the Advancement of Music at the Wyndham Airport Hotel.

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Collette is also scheduled to discuss and sign his book on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Book Soup in West Hollywood.


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