Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: The Buddy Rich Big Band

Buddy Rich, circa 1968
Buddy Rich, circa 1968

A confession: when it comes to jazz bands large and small, I generally dislike drum solos. My bad; color me a bore. But here’s the thing: if I buy a Keith Jarrett album, for example, I want to hear Keith Jarrett and not, with all due respect to the brilliant drummer Jack DeJohnette, extended drum solos. Speaking generally, I find most drum solos to be monochromatic, lacking – as they do – a melodic and harmonic profile, and formally incoherent, as the phrase structure of the piece under performance is almost always abandoned during a drum solo.

There are exceptions, of course, and for me those exceptions are Tony Williams and Buddy Rich. I’ve written recently about my friend and student Tony Williams, who played the drums as if his trap set was a full orchestra, so colorful and melodic and structurally coherent were his solos. And then there’s Buddy Rich: a skinny Jewish kid from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, New York who had a black belt in Judo (as a United States Marine he taught Judo until he was Dishonorably Discharged from the corps); someone whose virtuosic drumming had the drive and power of a Formula One race car, a dynamo whose playing could have lit up the Vegas Strip; someone whose rhythmic precision could etch the words and music of Hava Nagilah on the head of a pin. 

1921 Buddy Rich
Baby Traps the Drum Wonder”: Buddy Rich in 1921, age the age of four

Bernard “Buddy” Rich was born on September 30, 1917 and died – in Los Angeles – on April 2, 1987. Rich was a child prodigy as a drummer, and his parents – Bess Skolnik and Robert Rich, both of whom worked in vaudeville – new how to exploit his prodigious talent. By four, he was appearing on Broadway, billed as “Baby Traps the Drum Wonder.” By his early teens he was leading a touring band. By the age of 15 he was, according to his New York Times obituary, the second highest paid child entertainer in the country. (The highest paid was Jackie Coogan. We can only wonder where Shirley Temple was ranked.)

By the time he was 35, Rich had played with almost every top big band in the business, including those of Tommy Dorsey, Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw, Benny Carter, Harry James, Les Brown, Frank Sinatra, and Charlie Ventura.… continue reading, only on Patreon!

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