Scroll the mousewheel to zoom
Stretch/Pinch the screen to zoom
Scroll the mousewheel to zoom
Les Tomkins brings together two of jazz's greatest drummers, Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson, to discuss their musical careers in 1979.
Source: Jazz Professional
This constitutes a first . . to have two of my very favourite people in jazz together in the same room.
Louie Bellson: It's always a pleasure to be with Buddy, and it's always a pleasure to do an interview with you. Les. I think it's a great occasion man.
I'm very pleased to hear it. How long have you two known one another? It must be a year or two now.
Buddy Rich: Well, since Louie is that much older than I am. . .! Louie and I go back to—let me see—before he went with Duke.
L.B.: I was with Benny's band. . .
B.R.: Wait—you had won the Krupa contest. You were a little boy, right? So it's got to be at least five or six years.
L.B.: It's over thirty years we've been friends.
B.R.: And that's quite a statement for me, because I don't think I've got more than two or three friends who have really been friends for that length of time. Mel Torme and I have been friends for about thirty years, and Louie—and I can't think of too many other people where we've remained constant friends.
Although we don't see each other as often as I'd like to see Louie—we're both busy, both working all the time—it's always fun and it's always warm when I see him. And I don't say that just because he's sitting here. He's one of the few guys that you can talk to away from drums, away from music, and have a very personal relationship—which is totally important to me. I must comment an this: the other day, when we did the thing at the hotel for the International Drummers, that was a total surprise to me, you know that, don't you? I had no idea that there was going to be a presentation. You said some really very lovely things, and I didn't get a chance to thank you; so I want to do it right here. Because those things don't happen too often, and when they do happen, it becomes a very important part of my life. It becomes a very, very special memory to me—and I thank you for that, sincerely.
L.B.: It was a pleasure.
You can be sure that it was deeply felt.
B.R.: Well I felt it very deeply. When I get things like that, I get so emotional about it—I can't really relate to those kinds of presentations and things. I'm at a loss what to say, if you can imagine.
Well, it's something to imagine you lost for words!
B.R.: Yes. Well, there's nobody to insult, you see, and that makes it difficult! But it was a beautiful afternoon, really, and it goes down as a very memorable event.
L.B.: The few minutes before Bud came, they asked me to stand up and say a few words, maybe about experiences that he and I have had. And I told them how really deeply emotional Buddy is—because I've seen him that way on many occasions. As Buddy said, there are always stories about him. Tommy Dorsey used to say: "I don't care what they say about me, as long as they spell my name right." I always remember that, see. But this guy is a target in many areas. . .
B.R.: And they never spell my name right!
L.B.: But, you know, as I get a little older, I find out things, and I tell my band: "You know something? I've got to say—Buddy Rich is right again in many respects." I am maybe a little easier going than he is, but I'm finding out that, in many areas, I shouldn't be. I should be a little more honest within myself, and say: "Wait a minute, man, I came here with my band, and this is not right, that's not right". They don't expect me to get on the bandstand and say: "Okay—you can fluff that tune off"—no way. So I found out that a lot of things that he's done in the past have been right—not wrong.
B.R.: I think the world wasn't ready for me.
L.B.: Right. It's not that you're trying to be a superpower or anything; it's just that you know what you can do, you know that there's an audience out there, and you want to give a hundred per cent every time. That's why I respect this guy; when he gets ready to play, there's no two ways about it—he's ready, and he expects the band to play.
B.R.: Exactly. A hundred per cent, I'll tolerate: I look for more than that—I look for a hundred and ten per cent. Not only from the band, but from myself. Because I am my own worst critic—and I am hardly ever satisfied with anything that I play. But when I am satisfied, .I'm also the first guy to say it. If I think that I played something good on a particular night, I don't wait for somebody to say to me: "Gee, that was really great"; I'll come off and tell you it was great. I'll also tell you if it was rotten. And I can live like that, because I know that at least I'm that honest with myself. If you can be honest with yourself in your performance, then you can also know that the audience knows that it was either good or bad—which is the very important thing.
The thing is, everyone knows where they stand with you.
B.R.: Well, I try to let everybody know that you're either my friend or you're my enemy. That way, you don't have to tolerate an enemy as a friend. They know; you know. It's the same thing with my band, I come in, and I tell `em when the band sounds rotten. See, there isn't anybody in this band that I can't live without. Just so they know: they get paid, and I expect my money's worth just like I expect my money's worth when I go to a restaurant or a theatre. When you're paying a musician the salary that he's asking, he thinks he deserves it, you think he's worth the price, and you pay it, and you find out that you're not getting the total talent of the person, then it's not good enough just to say: "What's wrong?" It becomes important enough to tell 'em: "Either you do it right now, or get on a boat or a plane and go home." Because there are enough players around the world who want jobs, and who are willing to work extremely hard. And that kind of perfection is needed to keep what Louie's doing and what I'm doing alive.
When an audience goes in to see you, they're so inundated now with the rock thing and the showbiz presentation of it—you know, the makeup, the trick lights, the smoke going up, bombs bursting, that music takes a back seat to all that. So, when you do any straight music, unless it's perfect I think the audience might be disappointed. In fear of that, I make sure that, before we go on, my band knows exactly what I expect—every performance, every tune, every bar. Unless they meet those standards and requirements, I look for somebody else. But I'm very fortunate, because the people that I have with me do just that. They try; if it's not always perfect, at least I know that they're trying, and that's all I can ask.
L.B.: Yeah. You can go right down the line—all the great bandleaders of the past. You know, we had this same discussion with Oscar Peterson last night. Oscar said: "If I've got a trio, all I ask of the guys is to be ready—because I'm ready. Even my wife knows that when I get ready to go on stage, for an hour before I've got to get myself together, because I want to do a performance." That next performance is important.
You said that at the drum club; a guy said: "When was your best concert?" and you said: "The one I'm going to do tomorrow—that's the one." I think the way Buddy does; when we were being brought up, there were people who tried to do us with the trick hats and all that. I didn't believe in that. I've seen Buddy many, many times; he's never had to do any trick things—all he's had to do is get behind his drums with that great band of his. And in the audience you have middle–aged people, old people and young people, and you know what they're digging it. Because there's validity, there's a great artist up there; and that's all you need—you don't have to do anything else.
B.R.: The same thing applies to Louie, to people like Diz, Miles, any of the great jazz artists. Unless you have pride in yourself, you can't do it right. Unless you are so concerned about what you're going to do, and the ability of the people that you surround yourself with to be comparable, then you might as well get out of the business. I've never seen him do anything other than play drums. He's got his band—he gets up on the bandstand, he calls the tunes and he goes to work; he sweats and he works, and that's what he's supposed to do. It's not: "Isn't this great?" or "Isn't it marvellous?"—it's that he has dedicated his life to an art form. And I think a lot of people make the mistake of thinking the drums are something that you bang on. A drum is an instrument; it's just as sensitive as a violin, a piano or any other instrument—unless you treat it musically, you get noise. Louie is one of the very few drummers who plays musical drums; you can sit and enjoy him.
We don't have to talk about his technique, his abilities; we talk about the concept with which he plays. It s what's in your head, and can you get it to your hands, your wrists, and execute it so that it's perfect. Louie is one of the few guys that I know who i can do it. There aren't too many drummers that I'm very complimentary to, because I don't think that they're doing anything that I haven't heard before by better drummers. But Louie is also an original; he's the very first drummer, that I know of, to ever sit down behind two bass drums and play them—not just have it sit there. It's a great credit to him, because that goes back—what, twenty–five years? Now, you see the kids today playing two bass drums, and they think they invented it. Well, do they know that Bellson was the first one to do it? It's important. It's like, I listened to Chick Webb, to Krupa and down the list—I know what they did; I knew what they stood for. Do the young drummers who play two bass drums and the twenty–seven tom–toms and all the other nonsense know that this guy started it, and without all of the junk that goes with it? He sat down, and he played drums; so he's an innovator. And I respect him totally for that.
L.B.: Well, that goes for the playing thing. We discussed another important thing, too. You listen to records today—and, believe me I'm not going to put down a certain kind of sound, but, if you're a session player and you go in to record, you have to adjust to the engineer. He doesn't adjust to you any more. Plus you've got the factor of a producer saying: "I want you to sound like this guy or that guy." And everybody sounds alike. There's only a few young guys like Steve Gadd, Harvey Mason—those guys have true identity. But, you know, when we were coming up, you could say: "Hey, I know that's Buddy playing drums"—I mean, there's never a question about him, anyway, because who's got that kind of facility? There was Davey Tough, Shelly Manne, Big Sid Catlett, Gene—all those cats had a definite sound, an individuality that you could respect. Today, there are very few.
B.R.: They were not only identifiable by their sound, but they never played like anybody else. If you were listening to the various bands of the time, every drummer played his own thing, although he may have listened to everybody else in the world. The great thing about creativeness is that once you've listened to everybody, and you've taken two bars from this guy, a bar from that guy, as you grow you seem to leave those things at the side of the road and you evolve into your own person. With today's playing—a young guy hears somebody that he likes, whether it was originally Ringo Starr, with the triplets off the tomtom, or whether it was Steve Gadd today—they listen to the other people, and they play exactly the very same thing. Every drummer that's recorded in the past ten years has done that same fill: diga-diga-digadigadigadum.
L.B.: You've been the most imitated man—straight life. But they want to copy him straight down, and they'll never be able to do it. They'll go listen to his solo, though he plays a different solo every time, and check him out. I had a guy do that to me once—even to the point where he was dressing like me, and wanted the same cologne. I said: "Man, don't take my smell away from me, please! " Ridiculous.
B.R.: Don't take my smell away! Oh, I love that.
L.B.: But more guys try to imitate Buddy. It's got to be a blessing for him in one way, but I know how he feels about guys having their own kind of thing. It's bad to imitate—nobody can imitate a guy a hundred per cent; it's impossible.
B.R.: Nobody should want to be somebody else. I remember, when Sinatra was at his very peak, they had guys with the trench–coat over the shoulder walking down the streets, guys with the same hat. There was one singer who I think Frank wanted to sue a long time ago—he had Frank's arrangements, Frank's expressions. Where's he going? He can only be a shadow; he can't be a star. So if you love Sinatra—and I do, I'm sure Bells does; everybody in the world loves Sinatra—to try to be him is a total waste of your life, because you're never going to be Frank Sinatra. You're never going to be anybody but who you are. If you want to listen to somebody, great, but then—where do you begin? I'm very flattered that somebody wants to play like me, or like Bellson, but, after the flattery wears off, you get a little bugged when you go to hear some drummer, and you find out that he just copied something that you played. I won't mention the name, but there's a drummer—when I look at him, I'm looking at myself, going as far as wearing the dogtag on the neck, whatever kind of hairstyle I may be into, whatever kind of clothes I wear. It was flattering in the beginning; now it's a total pain in my ass And when I see him, I hardly talk to him, because it's not flattering to me: It's a very poor imitation, and I think it's about time he grew up and became whatever it is that he would like to become.
L.B.: I picked up things from Buddy, from Gene. and everything, but I'm not going to try to play like him, because nobody can.
B.R.: Why would you want to?
L.B.: Nobody can play like Buddy, nobody can play like Gene. Guys try to copy me, and they can't.
That's why I appreciate what Buddy says—when you're an innovator, and straight ahead, man, that means so much. It gives you the identification—like Ellington used to say.
B.R.: Well, you got to think of it this way—eventually, he's going to get out of the business—when? It may be twenty years from now. But you look for the young guys, and listen to 'em play, so you can say: "Yeah, there is hope for the continuation of an art form." Because if all it's going to be is an imitation, there's no hope. Unless guys start to create, and become their own personalities, there's no hope. And I want to see the music business survive forever.
Jazz being the art form it is—does it get anything like the appreciation it deserves?
BUDDY RICH: Well, in America—and I have to preface it that way, because jazz is the only true American art form—jazz is the least understood and the least appreciated. Because there's so much of it.
And so—you have to put up with the Donny and Marie Show, but you'll never see the Count Basie Show, the Woody Herman Show, the Louie Bellson or the Buddy Rich Show. What we're doing, to the mini–intellect of the television power, or showbiz power; in America, is not enough. If there isn't something going on, if you don't have twenty broads out there dancing, who wants to listen to music? It's a terrible statement to have to make about the cultural affairs of America. If this were Russia, or any country other than America, Louie and I would probably be hobnobbing with people from the upper echelon of politics and society, because of the things that we both have accomplished in our lifetimes. I think it's about time that America realised that if the art doesn't continue, we're going to lose the only original art form that America's ever produced. And that's a sad commentary.
There seems to be something about drummers. . .
B.R.: Yeah —they're all nuts!
I don't know of any International Saxophonists Association, or any International Trumpeters Association—but there is an IDA.
B.R.: Ah —but if Pres had lived, and Bird had lived, there would have been, you see. That kind of genius—even though there are no Societies dedicated to their memory. . . as musicians, they'll live as long as the pyramids, because of what they started. In my eyes; or my ears, there's never been another tenor saxophone comparable to Pres, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins. There'll be great imitators, but there'll never be a Miles Davis original, or a Dizzy Gillespie original; no matter how close other trumpet players come to them.
Chuck Mangione, whoever—all they're saying is: "I love this guy so much, I want to be him." But when you're as old as I am, and as young as Bellson, you can sit back and say: "I heard those things played by the originator." What a marvellous thing it is to be able to sit here and say that I saw Babe Ruth play baseball, or I saw Lester Young at his height with Count Basie, or Charlie Parker at his height—these are some of. the great memories of my life. That whole tradition has to stay with us; it has to continue—otherwise, what happens? We're going to have to listen to bubblegum music—and I'm not about to do that.
LOUIE BELLSON: Yeah. That's why we both cite guys like Steve Gadd and Harvey Mason —because I know they've done their homework. They've paid their dues —and they get an identifiable sound, you know.
B.R.: Also, I think their ears are more open. Because I've heard Steve Gadd not only play the rock things, but some straightahead jazz too. He can play. He can play his ass off, man.
L.B.: First time I saw him —I was doing clinics at that time; I was with the Rogers Drum Company —and he's a student of John Beck's, up at East man School of Music in Rochester... during that time, when I did my clinics, I used to invite some students to come up and play some fours with me, just to have some fun.
And John Beck asked me: "Are you still doing that?" I said: "Yeah". He said: "Well I got just the guy for you. I've got a young student here, who can play a lot of the things that you and Buddy Rich can play. He's into percussion he's an excellent writer and everything." He was playing good then; so I knew that if he wanted to pursue it as a vocation and stick with it, like Bud and I have, he had to be one of the top players.
Which he is.
B.R.: He certainly is. I was sitting with Alan Ferguson and Jack Parnell the other night; they said : "Have you heard the new Chick Corea album?"—and it's got Steve Gadd on it. I respect Steve because he can be interchangeable; he can play with Chick Corea, and he can play with —what's the trombone player back in the States, who has a big band every now and then?
L.B.: Oh —Bill Watrous.
B.R.: Bill Watrous. He can turn around and play with a sixteen–piece jazz band, and be equally at home, equally proficient. That's the kind of drumming I'm talking about. You know—I don't like to keep going back, but I think Louie will attest to this, too —in the bygone days, there was never such a thing as a big band drummer or a small band drummer. If you played drums, you played drums —if it called for a trio, you picked up the brushes. And Gene was the greatest exponent of that; when he was with Goodman's band, and they had the Trio and the Quartet, they didn't have a specialised drummer come out and sit down and play with them.
L.B.: Or a special set of drums for the trio.
B.R.: Exactly. He just sat down with the trio and he played —that's a drummer. They never said: "Well, you know, so–and–so is a great big band drummer, but can he play with a small band?" Or: "Soandso is a great small band drummer, but he can't play with a big band." Well, what you're doing is limiting your talent, by saying: "No, I don't do that." When you had to play drums with the bands that I worked for, and the bands that he's worked for, you played whatever the goddam thing called for. If it called for brushes with a piano, you had the control of your hands, so that you could do it. I resent the fact that today everything is specialised: "Oh he's okay with a duo, but not with a quartet. He's great with an eighteen–piece band, but no good with a twenty–piece band." You're saying, in essence, that you really can't play. What you're supposed to do is sit down behind the drums and play whatever it is.
L.B.: Buddy and I use twenty–four inch bass drums; we have for a number of years. So I always get the one : "Do you use that when you play with Oscar?" I say: "Of course—why not? I use two of 'em. But I've seen Buddy—right in the middle of his show, he does a wonderful thing with a trio. I don't see him changing the drum set. It's just a matter of .the way you play.
B.R.: It's a matter, I think, of application. You know that you can't use the same power, the same volume with a trio that you can use with nine brass blowing in your ear —right? So you listen, and you treat the sticks and the brushes more gently. Concept, understanding of what music calls for —it's very simple. When people read this interview, they should take it quite seriously, and start to think about mastering the drums —instead of about being a rock drummer, a jazz drummer, a big band or small band drummer. Just be a drummer, and play whatever is supposed to be played. You'll learn —and you'll be better for it.
A1l they have to do is look at you and Louie as perfect examples. At one time or another, you've done every kind of drumming.
B.R.: I think so. Two or three years ago, I did my first symphony date. I was asked by an oflice that handles only the classics and the symphony, and my first time was with the MiIwaukee Symphony, a hundred and five men.
L.B.: Good orchestra, too.
B.R.: Great orchestra. And I had Tommy Newsome write a new chart on "West Side Story", because that's what they wanted. The score was totally different than the jazz arrangement that we play with the band, written for a hundred–and–five musicians. And to go in and play that, the first time —it was so thrilling that I almost lost control of what I was doing. I was so involved with the listening —French horns, twenty–five strings and cellos, violas, and every kind of a horn that you could imagine, playing this really magnificent chart. But there again, I didn't use a different set of drums to play with a hundred–and–five men than I would to play with five men. If you can't carry it over, then you shouldn't play. You should be able to play with any kind of music; with any kind of brain, you should just have to sit down and do it, and not think about it.
There it is, man —I'm playing. And he's done the same thing; he's done symphonies. I don't mean to speak for you, but knowing your talent, I know that you don't have any more of a problem than I did.
L.B.: That's true. But what Buddy said a few minutes ago is so important, man, about developing a touch on that instrument. Yeah, you got strings, you got brass, and you got woodwinds. A long time ago, they used to consider the drummer. . . you had to be important, yet we were sort of in the background. Then, of course, with the advent of Gene and Buddy and players like that, who brought the drums to the foreground, everything changed —and today it's very important that the guy develop a touch. Because the cymbal is an instrument, the snare is a separate instrument, as is a tom–tom, a bass drum. When you're able to play 'em all, you got your own choir. Actually, a drummer has his own symphony you got soprano, alto, tenor and bass, you know. Those points Buddy brought out mean so much. I know him and I used to go to Birdland and a few places, and listen to drummers. The first thing you listen for is a sound and what the guy is playing.
B.R.: And why he's playing it. Why is he playing that?
L.B.: Also, another thing —he made a comment once. All the guys kept saying: "Hey, Buddy .I want you to hear this guy, man. He can really play fast." So Buddy said: Can he play slow?" That's, important. Suddenly everybody wants to be real technical, and play solos, but the important thing Is : can you swing the band? Now, I watch his performance, he's got his little four and eight bar solos, until he gets ready to play "Channel One" or "West Side Story", but you can bet that during that hour he's playing for the band, and playing that time. And that's the true artist right there —when you can play time, and then when you take a solo, you can play as brilliantly as he does, you've got it covered. But if you've got just the technical chops, and can't play one, two, three, four in tempo, then you put the cart before the horse, and you ought to go back and start all over again.
B.R.: Apropos of all this—I did the tour in Australia two years ago; it was a whole show, with the band, plus some local acts, including a rock band. I was in Australia for about three weeks, playing Melbourne, Sydney and some of the outlying, cities, and for the first two and a half weeks the drummer with the rock band never even said "Hello" to me. I would stand in the wings and listen to him, and, of course, he was a very ordinary rock drummer. Finally, he said "Can I talk to you?" I said: "Well, I've been wondering—do I have B. O. or something?" He started talking about drums; he said he was impressed with the way I played, and he asked me: "What drummers did you listen to?" So I started running the drummers down, and I mentioned Jo Jones, ho was one of my alltime favourites. This cat never heard of Jo Jones. Now, if you never heard of Jo Jones, you shouldn't be playing drums. To me, he was the greatest timekeeper, with what was then called the All American Rhythm Section—Basie piano, Walter Page on bass, Freddie Green and Jo Jones. As far as I'm concerned, he was a limited soloist, but his solos were so devastating because they were so right. If he had four bars to play, it wasn't a matter of showing speed or technique; it was a matter of playing exactly what the four bars called for in the chart. That takes brains, it takes ears, it takes concept. I don't know how you feel about it, but nobody, in my mind, has ever played a set of hi–hats the way Jo Jones plays today.
L.B.: That's right. I agree.
B.R.: I had the good fortune to be on that George Wein Newport Jazz tour; we were all over Europe last July. Jo was doing some gigs with some of the other jazz groups, and he got up and sat in with my band one night. Now, my hi–hats are totally different than the things he's accustomed to playing —but when he played, you could be eight blocks away and you knew immediately that Jo Jones was on drums. When you can be that identifiable on a pair of cymbals, you got to be some kind of drummer.
Would you say that a 1ot of young drummers are not sufficiently aware of the roots of their music?
BUDDY RICH: Well, when you get a guy who tells you he's only been listening to various rock guys of the last four or five years—his whole education in drumming is totally limited, because he doesn't know where it all started. And if you don't know where it all starts, then you've already come to the end. Unless you know that there were a lot of guys before you who made it possible for you to do what you're doing today. . .you're nowhere.
LOUIE BELLSON: That's a real valid point, B., because we'll listen to some good rock things, whereas some drummers will just pinpoint one certain thing. Like, you can play the rock things as good, and better than some of the rock players—only because you keep your eyes and ears open. That's very, very important.
B.R.: You know what's important, Louie? They talk about rock 'n' roll; I resent the term, because I remember hearing the same kind of music when it was called first race music and then rhythm 'n' blues. . . And the rhythm 'n' blues bands could outswing just about anybody in music. So this whole thing that's being raved about today as the new concept is really not new, man. It goes back to the original thing where the drummer couldn't play anything but the time thing. That was his function; he wasn't the soloist—he probably didn't even hold the sticks correctly. What he did correctly, and did it better than anybody else, was keep that band together, and keep it swinging. If the young guys would just understand that this rock thing is really very old, rather than new, and listen, maybe they'd' be more creative in their playing. Because they're certainly not being inventive—they're stepping back. It's all been done before.
And I wouldn't be surprised if there are some drummers who are restricting themselves solely to this prevailing pop—disco beat.
B.R.: Yeah, well, I can't make any comment about that, because that's so stupid—just that heavy four with the bass drum, and. . . it's so boring and repetitious that I don't call it drumming. I could teach you how to do it in about five minutes. Because there's really nothing to do. I don't consider that artistic; I consider it money–making, because the records are hits. But I would like very much to see these guys in person playing a five–act vaudeville show—a dance act, a singer, a juggler, an acrobat, comedian—and then go into their thing. It'd be a little different. And I'm sure Louie will agree with that.
L.B.: Right. Today, with the proper exposure, you can really become a big star. I'm sorry to say it, but that's the truth—while you have other people who spend a lifetime believing in something that's good, who are really great, dedicated artists, and they don't get the recognition they're entitled to. But what's disturbing to me, too, is something I've had happen. You recall those wonderful seven or eight TV shows that Oscar Peterson did in Canada, where he had Basie on two of them, Dizzy on one, Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, with Oscar, Niels and myself; they won awards, I think, with that show in Canada and in England. Oscar told me that some of the people in the States said: Well—it's too good." Now can you imagine something being too good? You work all your life for something that's good, but when they tell you it's too good . . .well, like Buddy says, maybe they should have painted us weird colours, with the eye makeup and everything.
B.R.: Go out and stab somebody—you can make the headlines.
L.B.: What's also disturbing to me is: a lot of guys come up to me and say: "Lou, have you heard this group? Man, they did some weird things oh the stage. This guy took his tom–tom, he had a big hose and he blew into it." I say: "Oh—that sounds very interesting, but how'd he play drums?" Everything but play the instrument. My barometer, when I go to hear a guy play, I don't care if he's got a funny hat on or whatever—let me see what he does with his instrument. That, to me, is the magic.
B.R.: Listen, I had a surprise one time. Kathy, my daughter got me out to see Led Zeppelin, when they played Madison Square Garden. I wasn't too anxious to go, but I went, to please Kathy. We sat fairly much in the front; and for what seemed to be the first year that they were on there, I endured it—not a change of tune; not a change of a melodic line, but the heavy organ, the heavy guitar and the drum. The finale was a drum solo—and he had maybe two million dollars' worth of drums up there; I think Carl Palmer's the only other guy I've ever seen with so many drums. He started playing, and during the course of his solo a cat came out in a loincloth, with a torch; he started dancing, and the drummer was playing the tom–toms, or whatever he was doing. Obviously he had asbestos in position, because this cat set fire around the set of drums. Now, I don't know what that does for a drum solo, but it scared the hell out. of me—I thought the joint was on fire! I'd no idea what was going on. But when you have to sort to that, you're saying in essence to the audience: "I don't really play that well, but look how brave I am."
Could you perhaps call it hot music?
B.R.: Not to me. It was a flaming bore!
L.B.: I must say, I went to hear Buddy twice since I've been over here. I heard the band at the Fiesta Club in Sheffield; that's a big club, and. the place was jammed. Also at the Palladium—and I just enjoyed watching a great band and a great player. That's where the magic is, really; you don't have to do anything else. I got all the vibes and the charisma that I would need to satisfy me visually, and also my inner feeling towards music.
B.R.: The whole idea of music is magic to me—that you can take all strange people, that you've never seen in your life before, sitting in a theatre, and in an hour's time you can make them friends, responding to you with their applause and with their attitude. And that's magic—to make three thousand friends in the span of an hour. Music is magic—if it's played right, and if the people playing it are sincere. I think it does more to cover problems; you get people away from themselves when they become involved in music. We said this at the IDA party: if music could be the universal language, we wouldn't have quite as many problems. If everybody were more dedicated to the arts, instead of politics, instead of all the uncertainty going on in the world. The only time you see people really settle is when they go in and listen to some music. They sit down, and whether it's the sentimental value of a ballad or the excitement of an uptempo tune, it reaches everybody at the same time—and they walk out feeling great. Very few people that I know of in my career have ever left a concert where they were down; they may not have enjoyed it totally. but during the course of the concert something got to 'em. If you reach each person for even one piece of music—that's magic.
L.B.: I was told that, on your Palladium opening, since it was a charity benefit night, there were many people there who had probably never heard Buddy Rich play, or who may not even be accustomed to listening to jazz including the Prime Minister. Apparently, after listening to Buddy, he looked very elated—he had obviously got the message.
B.R.: You can break down any barrier. Several years ago, I was very honoured to be asked to play the Command Performance here, before the Royal Family at the Palladium. As you know, I don't get too tied up about things; I take everything: "Okay—it's another night." But being told that the lady was going to be there, and all of the dignitaries, all the protocol that goes with it, had me very tense before the show. How was I going to get around this? In the final analysis, I went out and I played—you're either going to dig it, or you're going to have me deported. We did "West Side Story", because it was requested that we should play it. At the end, we got a standing ovation from this audience—and that, again; is the total magic. Here's an audience that I'm sure fifty per cent of them, let's say, did not know me, was not interested in jazz, or bands; or anything else—but that fifty per cent found something in what we were doing, emotionally, to get them to stand up and applaud If you can do that with that kind of audience, you're saying that music is the common denominator for everything; people will respond to it. And if Iife could just be that way; we'd never have to worry about idiots like Amin.
L.B.: I think Louis Armstrong did more with his trumpet than most of those cats do with their briefcases, didn't he?
B.R.: He did more than they do with cannons, machine–guns and everything else. When you listen to music, you don't get hostile. I don't mean to wax sentimental, or to be romanticising anything, but music is love. When you go out and show that you love what you're doing, the audience responds. They may not know what they're listening to, but they say: "Those guys are having so much fun up there—something is happening."
L.B.: You know, Buddy, Duke said something, and it gave me the name for a firm that I have, because it was such a heavy line. Duke said that the letters of the word music stand for Mass Unity Sounding In Concert. Only a phrase like that would come from him.
B.R.: He said it. Every musician that plays breaks down some kind of barrier, in some area. When you look at a guy like Count Basie, who's in his seventies—he's got his big band, he sits behind his piano, he plays, and he's having the greatest time of his life. He's been ill, but he goes on. We did a concert with him in Saratoga recently, and it was so lovely to see him still exuberant, still looking forward to getting out there in front of the audience. The man's been doing it all his life: You never grow old, and never feel as though there's no hope, because you can always go out and sit at the piano, at the drums, or play the trumpet, and know, even if you only make a few people happy, you're creating the happiness—and what's better than that? I'm asked silly things like: when am I going to retire? I never, want to retire, for the simple reason that I get the chance to see the world. What other business in the world is better than this? You get paid handsomely, you travel around the world; you get involved in different cultures, you meet different people; and you're doing the thing that you like to do best of anything in life. Why would you want to retire from a life like that? The only time that you retire is when you open a show one night; the curtain goes up, and you're the only guy there. Then it's time to think about retiring. But as long as you've got an audience—play on, my man.
The thing that beams out of you both is your sheer love of everything you do. But I think that both of you would say that, although you play with small groups at tines, the one thing you particularly love is the big band.
LOUIE BELLSON: Yeah, I would say that if I had my pick. . . it's like a guy saying: "Do you like a metal snare drum better than a wood shell? "—it comes down to that. Sure, Bud's worked with a trio, quartet, sextet; so have I, and I enjoy all of it, like he does. But, in the final analysis, for the drummer the big band is a good showcase—it's fun, you know. You've got your dynamic level there, and when you finish a performance, you feel like well, there it is.
BUDDY RICH: You've accomplished something. You've been a part of an overall sound with a lot of people, rather than one of the guys in a trio or a quartet or a sextet. In a big band, you've got charts to play, cues to catch, fills to make, things to catch with the brass—there's a reason for you to be up there. You're an important segment of a big band. I'll play with my own groups—sextets, quintets. whatever—and I feel that after about a half an hour up there playing the cymbal behind the saxophone player, who plays four hundred choruses, and the trumpet player, who plays a thousand. . . then all you're doing is hitting the cymbal; you're not really getting a chance to express everything that comes out in a big band. And I don't ever want to play in a small band—I will, of course, on a record date with some people, but my function in my life is to play and be a part of a big band. That's all 1 want to do.
And you'd say that over the years it's been your biggest kick as a player?
B.R.: It's been the only real kick as a player. I started, don't forget, with a seven–piece Dixieland band—with Joe Marsala, at the Hickory House in New York. So I've had my experiences with small bands; I've had my own quartets and quintets. But I worked so long . . . when I left the Marsala band, I went with Bunny Berigan's band—that was my first big band—it was a whole different world opened up to me "Oh, this is what music is all about." And I left that band to join Artie Shaw, and I said: "Oh—this is what it's all about"—because it was totally different. Then I went with Dorsey, and I found out that that was a total different experience. Here you were playing with a band that was not a hot band; it never professed to be—it was a dance band, with good music. Boring, most of the time, but good music. Then, when I first joined the band, he hired Sy Oliver, because he wanted to get away from the strict dance band concept, and he started getting some jazz arrangements in—that band could kick as well as any jazz band, for that time period.
"Well, Git It", "Swing High"—there were so many uptempo things. Which showed that Dorsey's ears had even opened up; I think, in the very beginning, Dorsey was strictly a melodic player, and wasn't too concerned about the jazz idiom—but his ears grew. And I remember having a conversation with him at the Palmer House in 1939, when I joined the band, about what direction the band was taking, because I didn't want to stay; I was unhappy. He told me that Sy Oliver was coming in, and he'd heard a young guy sing with Harry James' band at the Sherman Hotel, the College Inn. He said: "I think I'm going to get him with the band"—and it turned out to be Sinatra. So you had Sinatra coming with the band, you had Sy 0liver writing, you had the Pied Pipers joining the band, and he started to get young players—jazz players. For that one particular thing in his makeup, I respected him: he had ears enough to say: "Okay, that was good enough for then. Now we'll get half a dozen jazz charts for the first couple of months, and we'll go on from there."
Well, you have to progress.
B.R.: Absolutely. And it was a marvellous thing, because I don't think Tommy was the kind of a guy who was into too much progressive thinking. He was satisfied with the success he had. We never got along as well as I would have liked to have gotten along with him, but the respect that he had for me as a player, and the respect that I had for him as a player, overshadowed the personal difficulties. And I was with that band on and off for seven years. Then, when I went in the Marine Corps, Louie came on the band—and just followed right on.
L.B.: That was a great band. But, you know, I've been working a lot with Oscar recently, and I got to say: he's an exception. Because Oscar on piano is like Buddy is on drums; I mean, where are you going to find another guy like him? Oscar's like a whole band himself—really. Many nights, I'm playing just like I'd be playing with my big band, because he really wants to hear it. Buddy's worked with him, too, and he knows that, with his technical skill and his swinging skill, he's a phenomenal guy. So when you get into that kind of a thing, it's like playing in a big band.
B.R.: But how many Oscar Petersons are there? There's only one, and with his ability to play, you're not restricted like you are when you've got four nondescript people. If you're working with Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown, you're working with a full band—that's the difference, as opposed to working with four guys that step out of a closet and say: "Let's play some jazz."
L.B.: Exactly. But that Dorsey band, man. . . no, straight life now—I don't want you to laugh, but this is true. . . we're talking about age all the time; I'll tell you—I'm fifty-five, and you're what, sixty?
B.R.: I was sixty-one last September.
L.B.: Okay, we're close in age, but I remember when he came on the scene with Dorsey's band, that was one of my favourite bands, because there was Buddy, Sinatra, Ziggy Elman, Don Lodice. . .
B.R.: Milt Raskin, Joe Bushkin. He went out and got some players.
L.B.: Of course, what Buddy did with that band started shaking everybody up. Well, actually, I first heard Buddy when he was with Artie Shaw's band—and there was the innovation, man. It was the sound, you know; that's what we respected.
And it gave you a challenge yourself, no doubt.
L.B.: Oh, absolutely—I said: "Okay," ran for the woodshed with the sticks, and got down to it. And I'm still doing it; I do it more than ever today—because, like you say, there's got to be a love there. He wouldn't be out here if it wasn't for the fact that he loves that instrument; because it's not easy having a big band—it's hard work, really. I don't like to use the word hard, but it is hard work. You got to take care of yourself; you got to be up and be there; you can't slack on your performance, because you've got a lot of people watching and listening. Like Buddy says, the next performance is the important one.
B.R.: I don't consider it hard work, but the running of the band is harder than the playing—to keep everybody together, keeping 'em in line, and you're constantly thinking about next year. You got to book a year in advance, because you're paying people about forty–eight weeks a year. The band gets paid every week, and we allow ourselves about six weeks a year to vacation—but that's the only time that the people don't get paid; so you better be working every night, every week, just about a year. That's the hard part—but once you get the contracts signed, once you know where you're going, all you have to do is show up, be clean, and swing. And that's all I try to do; I try not to be involved with outside problems. I try to keep my problems to myself, my own hands, my own feet, and make sure that I'm okay to go to work at night. Even if I'm not really okay, by the time I get seated behind my drums, I'm okay. It's the greatest fixer in the world—better than doctors, better than pills, better than anything—you sit down and know you're going to do it okay. The challenge is there; so you better do it okay—because, if you've got the kind of ego that I have, you don't want to embarrass yourself in front of an audience. You better play your ass off. If you're supposed to be that good—be that good.
Do you feel the same way, Louie, about living up to your considerable reputation?
L.B.: Every great drummer has to have a certain amount of ego. If you don't have it, you're defeating yourself; you're walking out there, saying: "I wonder if I can make it." You've got to go out and say: "Yeah—I'm going to make it." When you're assured of your instrument, like Buddy is, you go out and you do it. You have to be in command, especially in that seat—we call it 'the hot seat'. When you're a drummer, you're in the driver's seat. If you're a very low–key kind of guy off the bandstand, you better be a gorilla when you get up there—otherwise, you're not in business.
Admittedly, you're having a great time with Oscar—but I'm sure you like to get back to your own band.
L.B.: I think it's that way with every player. With all the experience that Buddy's had, I'm sure he's the happiest now, which he deserves, for it to be Buddy Rich and his Band. Which he's had a long time, but should have had a long time before that. Like, if you put Oscar in another capacity right now, he could do it, but he wouldn't be happy. He's got his own thing going—he deserves it, he's worked hard for it.
B.R.: That's right. If you work for what you get, I think you get what you deserve.
Copyright © 1979, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved