Buddy Col­lette’s love af­fair with L.A.

The late jazzman re­flects on his youth, Cen­tral Av­enue and the fu­sion of the seg­re­gated unions.

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar -

Buddy Col­lette, the le­gendary jazz mu­si­cian who died in Los An­ge­les on Sun­day, at 89, both prof­ited from and con­trib­uted to the rich mid­cen­tury jazz scene along Los An­ge­les’ Cen­tral Av­enue. Play­ing the sax­o­phone be­fore he en­tered his teens, Col­lette started his first band at 12, later per­form­ing with the Chico Hamil­ton Quin­tet as well as for Lili St. Cyr, Frank Si­na­tra and Ella Fitzger­ald. The ver­sa­tile wind player founded a ground­break­ing in­ter­ra­cial sym­phony and was in­stru­men­tal in pro­mot­ing the amal­ga­ma­tion of then-seg­re­gated Mu­si­cians Lo­cal 47 and Lo­cal 767, the African Amer­i­can mu­si­cians’ union.

Much has been writ­ten over the years about Col­lette’s ex­ten­sive con­tri­bu­tions to jazz and Los An­ge­les’ mu­si­cal life. But when Los An­ge­les-born Col­lette and writer Bar­bara Isen­berg spoke at his mid-Wil­shire home in July 1999, they wound up talk­ing as much about what Los An­ge­les had done for him. Here are some of Col­lette’s own words about his Los An­ge­les.

The melt­ing pot

I grew up in Watts. There was plenty of land at a rea­son­able price, and many peo­ple went out and bought land. Peo­ple kind of helped each other build their homes, and my fa­ther built our house with a bunch of friends.

The great­est thing was the dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple — Mex­i­can, Chi­nese, Ja­panese, black, Ital­ian, what have you. We all went to the same school, and ev­ery­body got along quite well.

It wasn’t like you hear about now, where some­body gets beat up be­cause of his race. We didn’t know what that was about. It was a great way to grow up be­cause your fa­vorite friend could be just any­body that you chose. Ev­ery­body was ac­cept­ing, and ev­ery­body was re­spected.

I went to Jor­dan High School. Joseph Lippi, who was a mu­sic teacher there,

was re­ally en­thu­si­as­tic about be­ing a mu­si­cian and play­ing ev­ery­thing right. He in­flu­enced a lot of us.

There were pianos prob­a­bly in ev­ery home. Walk­ing down the street, you’d hear sax­o­phones and trum­pets. Maybe a sax­o­phone player would stand on one corner, and then if I heard him, I’d get my horn and stand out in front of the house, like talk­ing on the horn. There wasn’t much traf­fic, and sound trav­els.

My mother and dad loved mu­sic. There was a lot of jazz on the ra­dio, and the big bands were very pop­u­lar too. Count Basie or Duke Elling­ton would come to town, maybe play the Elks Hall.

I for­get what club it was, but my sis­ter and I went along with our par­ents to hear Louis Arm­strong. I was taken with how they seemed to en­joy them­selves so much and how peo­ple were re­act­ing to them.

About the time I got my band started, I met up with Charles Min­gus. We had never had a string bass in any of our orches­tras then. Charles ac­tu­ally was play­ing cello with a trio I think he had with his sis­ters, and when I met him I said, “Well, if you had a bass, I could hire you in my band.” That ex­cited him, and he said maybe his fa­ther could trade the cello in for a bass. He did, and I hired him for the band.

My ear­li­est me­mory of Cen­tral Av­enue would be when I was about 15 or 16 years old. Charles and I used to go there and hang out and try to meet peo­ple who were in the busi­ness, and a lot of them would go to the af­ter-hours spots. There was a place called the 54th Street Drug­store, and if a big group was in town, the mu­si­cians would come in and hang out. Celebri­ties like Jack John­son, the fighter, and bands like Cee Pee John­son’s were the lo­cal hot­shots. Cee Pee John­son’s was the first pro­fes­sional band I joined that paid money.

Peo­ple would dress up and walk Cen­tral Av­enue from spot to spot, show­ing off. If you had a new car, you’d bring it over and park it on the av­enue. Ev­ery­one was out there. You’d go on over to see what was go­ing on. It was like your news­pa­per.

A unity plea

We started a sym­phony or­ches­tra in the late ’40s. Min­gus and I met guys who played in the sym­phony, and they’d heard about the amal­ga­ma­tion of the white and black unions that we were try­ing to get to­gether.

I thought it was a good idea for us to have that sym­phony train­ing, so I got peo­ple to­gether, mostly mi­nori­ties, to play Brahms and other lit­er­a­ture.

Once we in­vited Josephine Baker, and she came by be­tween shows. The word got out that she was go­ing to be there, and the place was packed. She got up and spoke. She said she saw no rea­son why there were two mu­si­cians’ unions and asked why we couldn’t all get to­gether like we were that day.

Be­fore she fin­ished, she looked down at a cou­ple of lit­tle girls in the au­di­ence, a white girl and a black girl, and had them come up on­stage. She whis­pered in their ears, and they be­gan to hug each other. She said, “I think you can learn a lot from these young­sters.” Col­lette’s re­marks are ex­cerpted from Bar­bara Isen­berg’s book “State of the Arts: Cal­i­for­nia Artists Talk About Their Work” (Ivan R. Dee).

NA­TIVE SON: “It was a great way to grow up,” Col­lette (in a 1992 photo) said of his Watts up­bring­ing.

Ju­liane Back­mann

AT HOME: Buddy Col­lette was strongly in­flu­enced by his mu­sic teacher at Jor­dan High School.

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