Musicians pay tribute Tuesday night to LA jazz maestro Buddy Collette

Jazz musician Buddy Collette's funeral
Jazz musician Buddy Collette's funeral Shirley Jahad/KPCC

Musicians throughout Southern California will pay tribute tonight to one of L.A.’s jazz masters – Buddy Collette. He died in Los Angeles last month at age 89.

The concert at Hollywood’s Catalina Bar and Grill is more proof that in the L.A. jazz scene, Buddy Collette was a maestro.

Whether or not you realize it, you have likely heard Buddy Collette perform. He played sax, clarinet or flute with the giants of jazz and popular music, including Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, john Denver, James Brown, Carole King and Frank Sinatra, to name a few.

Collette was a versatile virtuoso – and that made him a great studio musician in Hollywood, even when the studios didn’t welcome musicians of color. Renowned reed man Bennie Maupin explains Buddy Collette was the Jackie Robinson of jazz.

“He was the one who broke the color line," says Maupin. "Jackie Robinson did it in baseball. Collette did it in Hollywood. He was the first African-American musician to play on national television. And that was with the great comedian, Groucho Marx.”

Maupin describes how Collette first joined the studio band for the live national television show "You Bet Your Life." "He met a white musician and they became friends, which was already a stretch. White and black musicians kept to themselves. But the guy realized Buddy was a superior musician.

"He decided he wanted Buddy on the show. He knew he could have been fired for doing it. He didn’t tell anyone. He just told Buddy what time to be there. He made him feel welcome introduced him to the guys, who were quite shocked. Then Groucho came in introduced himself and said welcome.”

At the time, the musicians union was segregated. The union for white players got its members the higher-paying studio jobs. Black players mostly got the nickel-and-dime Central Avenue gigs.

Benny Maupin says Collette led the fight to bring the unions together. How did he do it? “Through being a gentleman and through being a superior musician," Maupin says. "He got the reputation for being excellent.”

Buddy Collette was born in Watts in 1921. He started his first band when he was 12, and then he recruited a 13-year-old classmate – Charles Mingus – to play bass. That started a lifelong friendship. Mingus, Collette and Dexter Gordon were among the young talent that grew up learning from jazz masters playing in clubs along Central Avenue.

In the 1940s and '50s, Buddy Collette played in some of the biggest name orchestras, like Louis Jordan, Benny Carter, Gerald Wilson. And he was a founding member of the Chico Hamilton quintet.

Over the decades, Colloette taught at several Southland universities, and he helped establish the non-profit JazzAmerica to bring jazz to middle and high school students. And even after a stroke 12 years ago kept him from playing and confined him to a wheelchair, he kept on contributing.

“Right on up to the last breath,” Maupin says, “After he had the stroke, he had to go through rehab. And he came back and he would be in his wheelchair at 8 o’clock in the morning at some school talking to kids about jazz. And he had a cadre of musicians, and they would demonstrate and play some of his songs. Just amazing. Right up to the end.”

At his funeral, a tribute band played a Collette composition named for his daughter, Veda.

Bobby Rodriguez was one of scores of musicians there.

“I am a music professor, Grammy-nominated trumpeter, another disciple of Buddy Collette.”

Rodriguez says Collette helped him both as a student and a teacher.

“He was very kind, so you would let your defenses down, so you could learn. And Buddy was sweet. I want to be like Buddy Collette. I am going to practice that every day. “

John Stephens played at the funeral and walked out with his hands full, carrying saxophones, a clarinet and flute. “Had to bring them all out today for Buddy, you know? This alto is a gift from Buddy. His smile says it all. Love, love, love and more love. When you’ve got that, then love in the music is going to come out. “

Stephens says Collette’s music was a metaphor for the life he lived. “You got to be serious about it. The way he taught me: practice. You’ve got to put it into practice.

"And you can’t be afraid. Just let it all come out. ‘Blow the bell off the horn man. Just blow.’ Those are some of the last words he said to me. ‘Blow the bell off the horn, man.’ What else can I say? Blow the bell off the horn, man.”

Musicians will do just that Tuesday night in tribute to Buddy Collette. The show starts at 7:30 at Catalina Bar and Grill on Sunset in Hollywood.

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