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Buddy Collette R.I.P.

Buddy Collette R.I.P.

September 24, 2010

Buddy Collette was one of my heroes. Not that I knew him well personally, but I have treasured memories of brief encounters over the years, an autographed CD, and many memories of his always impeccable playing and conducting. Even of late, as he was confined to a wheelchair, his gentle and inspiring presence still lit up a room and made musicians perform his music to their best.

Luckily for those who loved and respected Buddy Collette, and for those who take an interest in the history of Jazz and of race and labor relations in the Los Angeles music scene over the decades (where Buddy Collette played a huge role), there is a double CD with his reminiscences, in his own voice and with musical interludes. It was put out in 1994 by Issues Records, then at P.O. Box 1389, Lawndale, CA 90260. 

Earlier today I received an email from my AFM Local 47 from Los Angeles, with the following text:

MUSIC AND THE WORLD LOSES ANOTHER JAZZ HERO

We recently lost a dear friend and hero, Buddy Collette.

When it comes to unsung jazz heroes, Buddy Collette's talents on tenor saxophone, flute, and clarinet are as close to unmatched as it gets. A gifted composer of classical music in addition to his jazz pedigree, Collette flew almost defiantly under the radar of greater renown.

William Marcel Collette was born on August 6, 1921 in the Watts district of Los Angeles. Along with saxophonist Dexter Gordon, bassist Charles Mingus, and drummer Chico Hamilton, he helped keep bebop alive in the city's historic Central Avenue neighborhood. Buddy also played an important role with the development of the cool jazz movement. After attending a concert by the legendary trumpeter Louis Armstrong with his parents, a young Collette was taken by the idea of a career in jazz. Satchmo's achievements and lifestyle presented an appealing alternative to the menial and often degrading jobs open to African Americans during the Depression.

In 1933, at the age of 12, Collette formed his first jazz ensemble. The group contained, of all people, a talented teenager named Charles Mingus, who Buddy convinced to switch from cello to bass. In the years that followed, Collette was instrumental in helping Mingus forge better relationships with various musicians and producers. Buddy's gentle, friendly demeanor was the perfect counterpoint to the ornery bassist; they became lifelong friends.

Buddy overcame tough racial barriers in the industry by becoming the first African American to perform in a television studio band, appearing on Groucho Marx's television show, You Bet Your Life.

Fortunately, Collette was not content on being the only black musician in the television studio orchestra. He eventually became a political and cultural activist in the battle against segregation in the music industry, and the burgeoning influence of McCarthyism. He also helped organize a concert and rally protesting government repression of the legendary African American singer, actor, and political activist Paul Robeson.

Collette's artistic and social activism continued when he led a grassroots campaign to desegregate the Los Angeles musician's union. Gerald Wilson, Frank Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole, and saxophonist Benny Carter were some of Collette's early supporters.

Buddy was also a founding member of drummer Chico Hamilton's legendary quintet. The unusual quintet also featured pianist and cellist Fred Katz, whom Collette calls "the first jazz cello player." A year later, Collette recorded Man of Many Parts, his first album as a bandleader. The album not only demonstrated Collette's mastery on saxophone but also his compositional talents.

Although Collette didn't become a household name like many of his friends, he did become a noteworthy educator in the 1960s. His students included such noted woodwind players as James Newton, Frank Morgan, Sonny Criss, Eric Dolphy, and Charles Lloyd.

 In 1996, the Library of Congress commissioned Collette to write and perform a special big band concert to highlight his long career. For the concert Buddybrought together some of his old musical mates from Los Angeles including Jackie Kelson, Britt Woodman, and Chico Hamilton.

 Our friend Buddy will be dearly missed. If we get any info about a memorial we'll let you know.

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