Buddy Rich - drums, leader; Bobby Shew - trumpet; Jay Corre - tenor sax; Ernie Watts - alto sax, flute; Chuck Findley - trumpet; James Tribble - trombone; Marty Flax - baritone sax; Jim Gannon - bass; Richie Resnicoff - guitar; Bob Keller - tenor sax, flute; Yoshito Murakami - trumpet; John Scottile - trumpet; Ray Starling - piano; Bill Wimberly - bass trombone; Special guest trumpeter - Dizzy Gillespie
Regarded by many as "The World's Greatest Drummer," Buddy Rich's career spanned seven decades - from his earliest gig on the vaudeville circuit and on Broadway as four-year-old "Traps the Drum Wonder" to collaborations in the '40s and '50s with jazz legends like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins to his own lengthy tenure as a big band leader through the '60s, '70s, and into the '80s. Rich's uncanny speed and precision, along with his phenomenal endurance, marked him as one of the great instrumental virtuosos of the 20th century. And his larger-than-life personality, both on and off the bandstand, helped elevate him to bona fide superstar status. Well known for his tough persona and caustic wit, Rich was a favorite on several television talk shows during the '60s and '70s, including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show, The Dick Cavett Show, and The Merv Griffin Show. During these appearances, audiences were entertained by Rich's sparring with the hosts and putdowns of various pop singers. One memorable anecdote that sums up Rich's incisive wit: Before undergoing surgery, he was asked by the attending nurse if he were allergic to anything. Buddy's answer was quick, concise and cutting: "Yeah, country & western music!"
Rich's appearance at the 1967 Newport Jazz Festival coincided with a fruitful association during the mid to late '60s with Blue Note Records, a period covering such classic big band releases as 1966's Swingin' New Big Band and 1967's Big Swing Face. The Rich aggregation opens this Saturday evening set with a rousing uptempo cooker, "The Rotten Kid". Buddy drives the band with an incessant shuffle-swing beat as each of the soloists steps forward (including tenor saxophonist Jay Corre, trombonist Jim Trimble and alto saxophonist Ernie Watts) to unleash a hot chorus or two on top of the brassy punctuations from the ensemble. The close harmony work by the saxophones on the head of this exuberant swinger is particularly tight and intense, stoking the fires for a patented scorching drum solo by the leader. The band hits a flag waving crescendo with the horns leading the way before settling back into the bluesy theme with trumpeter Shew heading to the stratosphere on a stream of high-notes.
Next up is a hip interpretation of "Norwegian Wood," rendered here as a briskly swinging jazz waltz. Bill Holman's sophisticated big band arrangement of this ethereal Beatles tune (from 1965's Rubber Soul) is distinguished by intricate counterpoint between the saxes and trumpets while pianist Ray Starling maintains a pedal tone throughout to create a kind of droning effect that perfectly suits the Indian leanings of this beautiful Lennon-McCartney composition. Watts' alto sax solo here is bracing and pungent in the tradition of such powerhouse players and direct influences as Sonny Stitt and Cannonball Adderley.
A ferocious solo barrage on the kit from Buddy signals the opening of the next piece, a frantic big band take on Eubie Blake's "Bugle Call Rag," originally written in 1916 and later covered by the Benny Goodman Orchestra in their hit 1934 version. Trumpeter Findley wails here with raucous abandon and tenor saxophonist Corre follows with a blazing solo that elevates the intensity level of this invigorating piece. The punchy horn section packs a wallop here, fueling the proceedings before the whole band drops out for another tremendous drumming showcase by "The World's Greatest."
During a casual interlude, Rich engages in some humorous between songs banter with the crowd while also nonchalantly demonstrating his unparalleled chops with a virtual clinic in the art of independence on the kit. By now, the rowdier factions of the audience have begun yelling for "West Side Story," Buddy's tour de force, which he premiered the previous year on Swingin' New Big Band. But the wise bandleader saves his best for last, launching instead into Oliver Nelson's jaunty midtempo blues tune, "Critic's Choice." This ebullient shuffle-swing number oozes swagger, another of Rich's personal characteristics. Trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie makes an unexpected appearance here as guest soloist, blowing in his inimitably audacious fashion.
The exhilarating set closes with the aforementioned "West Side Story Medley," a challenging, nearly 18-minute suite from the Leonard Bernstein-Steven Sondheim opus, West Side Story. From the opening cymbal crash to the dramatic conclusion, Rich's big band traverses a myriad of moods throughout this extended work. Following the bombastic "Overture," they segue to the exhilarating "Cool" before moving to the poignant "Somewhere" (a feature for trombonist James Tribble) before tackling the lively 3/4-time number "Something's Coming" (a breathtaking display of Rich's unparalleled virtuosity on the kit). As a flabbergasted George Wein says of the drummer at the conclusion of his dynamic set, "There's only one!"
Born in Brookyn on September 30, 1917, Rich's parents were vaudevillians who recognized his uncanny ability to keep a steady beat with spoons at the age of one. Buddy actually began playing drums when he was 18 months old and was later billed as "Traps the Drum Wonder" when he was all of four years old. At the peak of Rich's childhood career, he was reportedly the second-highest paid child entertainer in the world (after Jackie Coogan, who played opposite Charlie Chaplin in the 1921 silent film, The Kid, and later played Uncle Fester on TV's The Adams Family). At age 11, young Buddy was performing as a bandleader, though he had received no formal drum instruction. His earliest jazz drumming influences included Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Dave Tough and Count Basie's drummer, "Papa" Jo Jones.
Rich broke into the jazz scene in 1937 with Joe Marsala's group and subsequently worked with such prominent players as trumpeter Bunny Berigan (1938) and clarinetist-big band leader Artie Shaw (1939). From 1939 to 1945, he worked in Tommy Dorsey's big band, where he met the up-and-coming singer Frank Sinatra. Rich was a ubiquitous figure on Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts during the 1950s, performing with jazz royalty, including Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Lionel Hampton and Lester Young. He also worked in bands led by Harry James, Les Brown and Charlie Ventura as well as leading his own band. Rich finally put together his own big band in 1966 (the year before this Newport Jazz Festival appearance), and he continued to lead a large ensemble up until his death on April 2, 1987 following surgery for a malignant brain tumor. Longtime friend Frank Sinatra spoke a touching eulogy at Rich's funeral. Today, Buddy Rich is remembered as one of history's greatest musicians. According to jazz drumming legend Gene Krupa, Rich was "The greatest drummer ever to have drawn breath." (Milkowski)