You never really talked to Buddy Collette, you listened. That's an octogenarian's right, saying your piece without being interrupted. He'd been wheelchair-bound for years now, ever since the stroke that took away his chops, but he had no intention of sitting in a corner and withering away. Not Buddy Collette.
This was a man who had been at the very birth of L.A. bebop, with Charles Mingus, Lucky Thompson, Britt Woodman, who'd broken the color barrier and gotten himself into a television-studio orchestra. A man who'd help integrate the musicians' union, one of this town's little-known civil rights achievements. He played with everybody, not just his old bebop running buddies, but with the big bands of Gerald Wilson and Benny Carter and so many others — as long as they rehearsed in L.A. and were integrated at all, Buddy was in.
He played flute in the legendary Chico Hamilton Quintet and that's his tune, “Blue Sands,” that Eric Dolphy plays on in the documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day. Buddy's flute-playing was so fine, so distinctive. It was his best ax. Many of his best students (Dolphy and James Newton among them) seemed to pick up on that, becoming glorious flute players themselves.
It's amazing the players he taught. Mingus is probably his most renowned student, though Collette was still a kid himself at the time. There's great stories of them on a streetcar, he with his alto sax, Mingus heaving into a double bass, making music for very tolerant riders. Buddy taught Frank Morgan, Sonny Criss, Charles Lloyd (who's in town this weekend, coincidentally) and who knows how many more.
Buddy stayed in L.A. when his contemporaries — Mingus and Dexter Gordon among them — headed to New York and fame. He had a family here. A house. Steady work. L.A. was home. He was born here, lived here, died here. He was an Angeleno to the core.
A stroke robbed us of his beautiful playing back in 1998. It hit the L.A. jazz scene hard, losing an institution like that. Thing was, he was still here. He did the hospital thing for a while, then the recovery thing. He was driving himself around before long — probably without doctors' permission, but no matter.
Buddy dove headfirst back into educating and organizing. And he kept talking. He still had that. Had his memory, too, a jazz musician's extraordinary memory, and he'd forgotten nothing. Steven Isoardi and the UCLA Oral History Project sat him down in front of a microphone and let him go. It poured out, into a dozen or so phone book–sized volumes, all of Buddy's past. Of Central Avenue, and the union battles. Tales of Mingus, of everybody, of L.A. back then in the '40s and '50s, and what had changed for the better, and what hadn't. You can read some of it in Central Avenue Sounds. But he had more to say. All you had to do was ask.
Buddy wished he could have had more time to tell his story. He had so much to tell. He could have gone on for hundreds or thousands of hours. Didn't take much to get him going. Ask a question and out poured jazz stories and civil rights stories and stories about all the people he'd ever worked with, had grown up with, partied with, made beautiful music with.
There was anger in there too: He once said the history just doesn't get across the anger. The pent-up rage of being a second-class citizen in Los Angeles back then, with the cops and the rip-offs and the gigs you simply could not get just because you were the wrong color.
Desegregation had been a rough battle. Watching his beloved Central Avenue go to rot and junk had been rough. There was plenty to be angry about — he'd make sure you understood that. But it's so hard to stay angry.
He'd never played angry, though. His music was anything but: It was sophisticated, swinging, bopping and beautiful. That's what he got across to the kids, too, taught them to play real jazz. Hearing those kids play, he knew just what he'd been struggling for all those years.
It was a good life, Buddy. We're going to miss you. —Brick Wahl