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Buddy Collette Passes at age 89

Jazz has lost one of its greatest unsung heroes. William 'Buddy' Collette, Grammy-nominated woodwind master, bandleader, composer/arranger, political and cultural activist, educator and mentor to two generations of jazz artists died Sunday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He had just turned 89 in August.

It was my pleasure and privilege to meet Buddy on a number of occasions in the process of preparing a chapter about him in my book The Flute in Jazz: Window on World Music. The following is an extract from that chapter:

"William Marcel 'Buddy' Collette was born on August 6th, 1921 in the Watts district of Los Angeles. Beginning on the piano at a very early age, then taking up the saxophone, and later the clarinet, Collette formed his first group by the time he was twelve, having settled on the idea of a career in jazz after attending a Louis Armstrong concert with his parents. His motivation was reinforced by the company he kept as an adolescent as he met and befriended several future jazz luminaries, including saxophonist Dexter Gordon, drummer Chico Hamilton, trombonist Britt Woodman, and bassist Charles Mingus. Mingus was his classmate in high school and a member of that early ensemble, and Collette would remain a close friend of the bassist until Mingus' death in 1979, appearing on several of his recordings. But while Mingus' life and career in music was stormy and volatile, Collette was the model of courtesy and responsibility. He has not shied away from controversy, having been in the forefront of the battle for racial integration in the music business. But he has conducted this battle without rancor, and in the context of a long career characterized by professional excellence. Sadly, Buddy suffered a stroke in 1998 and since then has been unable to perform. Overall, however, he has made a very significant contribution to the flute in jazz."

Writing about the flute in jazz makes this the focus of the chapter, but Buddy's contributions extend well beyond his flute work. He was, for example, one of the few torchbearers for the clarinet in jazz during its leanest years. And his contribution to education has left an enduring legacy of great musicians from Eric Dolphy to James Newton. The chapter continues:

"Buddy's early development as a musician was fostered by several devoted teachers at Jordan High School, so that by 1942, at age 21, he was already working steadily in music, playing initially with Les Hite's band, a well-known Los Angeles based outfit that at one time or another had included Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, T-Bone Walker, Marshall Royal, Joe Wilder, Al Morgan, Woodman, and Lawrence Brown. Another alumnus of this band was Lloyd Reese who had built quite a reputation as a music teacher in Los Angeles. Seeing the results of Reese's teaching on some of his own students, Collette began to study with him, joining an elite group that was eventually to include Mingus, Ben Webster, tenor saxophonist and oboist Bob Cooper, and Eric Dolphy.

"Reese's training was very rigorous, grounded in theory and keyboard skills, and his students were exceptionally well prepared. It certainly paid off for Buddy, who quickly found himself in demand, working with popular bands and participating in radio broadcasts and movie soundtracks. He was beginning to make good money, but rather than letting this go to his head, Collette chose a direction that was to characterize the rest of his career. He bought a new suit and a new car, but decided against many of the other temptations that have led many young musicians astray: 'I knew I couldn't go the party route,' he recalls, 'because I wanted to be a good musician and take care of my health.'

"It is with this attitude that Collette went on to pursue his career, becoming a mentor to many younger musicians and a leader of the music community in the Los Angeles area."

It was a long and illustrious career, involving jazz performance, studio work and teaching. It could perhaps have brought Collette more recognition if he had succumbed to the temptation to move to New York, or to go on the road with more famous bandleaders; he turned down a request from Duke Ellington to join his orchestra because Buddy wanted to stay in L.A. and raise his family. He did achieve national prominence in his younger years, as he became a member of the original Chico Hamilton Quintet, a group that captured the public's imagination through its unique sound, combining Fred Katz's cello with Buddy's flute, clarinet, alto and tenor saxophone, while also launching the career of guitarist Jim Hall.

Eventually, however, Buddy quit the group when he had enough of being on the road. He returned to Los Angeles to build his career where he had already been making history. In 1949 Buddy had become the first African-American artist to be hired on a major network when he became a member of the studio band for Groucho Marx's You Bet Your Life radio and television shows, prompting him to refer to himself, in a chapter of his autobiography, as The Jackie Robinson of the Networks.

Following upon this Buddy was one of the activists instrumental in the 1953 merging of the then all-African American musicians union Local 767 and the all-white Local 47. "I knew that was something that had to be done," Collette told writer Bill Kohlhaase for an L.A. Times story in 2000. "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.We integrated the Academy Awards too," Collette said. "It was 1963, when Sidney Poitier won. We were going to picket that thing. But I was in the band, with saxophonist Bill Green and harpist Toni Robinson-Bogart." Along the way, Collette, not satisfied with having established his own career in the studios, continually laid the foundation for other African American players. "One of the things we jazz musicians are proud of is the fact that music to us has no color, no religious, no sexual, no other kinds of barriers," says composer/bandleader John Clayton, "but it wasn't that way in the studios of Los Angeles. And the thing about Buddy was that when he got his foot in the door, he kept opening it up for other musicians. That's the kind of person he was."

In 1996 Buddy Collette was honored by the Smithsonian Institution with a concert of his work at the Lincoln Theater Concert in Washington D.C. In 1998, Mayor Richard J. Riordan designated Collette "A Living Los Angeles Cultural Treasure." Collette's autobiography, Jazz Generations: A Life in American Music and Society, written with Steven Iosardi, was published in 2000.

Buddy Collette is survived by daughters Cheryl, Veda and Crystal, son Zan, eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

To end on a personal note, my brief contact with Buddy gave me a real sense of the kind of human being he was. One example: At one point during a visit to his Los Angeles home I reminded Buddy of one of his earlier compositions, Blue Sands. I had been playing the tune myself for years and asked him if I could play it for him. I ran out to my car, and got my flute, and he was gracious enough to listen to me play it and to give me a few suggestions. It was a special moment. I continue to play the piece to this day.

See: www.buddycollette.com

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Buddy Collette
  • Subtitle: Was Known as the Jackie Robinson of the Networks
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