Describing Buddy Collette as a musician, is almost an understatement. Buddy was much more than that. Apart from being a multi-instrumentalist, he was an educator, civil rights activist and politician. He formed his first band when he was just twelve and made his professional debut aged just seventeen. After serving in the U.S. Army, where he was a member of the Stars Of Swing, he spent the first half of the fifties working as a session musician. Then in 1955, he was one of the founding members of Chico Hamilton’s Quintet. A year later, Buddy decided to form his own band, The Buddy Collette Quintet. They released their critically acclaimed debut album Man Of Many Parts in 1956. Man Of Many Parts, which showcased Buddy’s versatility, was the start of Buddy’s career as a bandleader. The next year, 1957, The Buddy Collette Quintet released Buddy’s Beat, for Dootsie Williams’ Dootone label. Buddy’s Beat which was recently released by Boplicity, an imprint of Ace Records, is something of hidden gem in Buddy’s back-catalogue, which I’ll tell you about.

Buddy Collette was born in the Watts district of Los Angeles in August 1921. When his parents took him to see Louis Armstrong in concert, he realized that he wanted to be a jazz musician. This was no idle daydream. From an early age, it became obvious Buddy was a gifted musician. He was learning to play the piano when he saw Louis. After that, he switched to the alto saxophone. Eventually, he was equally at home playing flute, clarinet or tenor saxophone. By the age of twelve, Buddy formed his first band.

What a lineup his first band had. Britt Woodman played trombone and Charlie Mingus played bass. Indeed, it was Buddy who convinced Charlie to switch from the cello. This was the start of a lifelong friendship between the two musicians, whose paths would continue to cross throughout their career.

Aged seventeen, Buddy fulfilled his first dream. He became a professional musician. That was interrupted when he’d to join the US Navy. Buddy became a member of the prestigious Stars Of Swing, where he joined forces with Britt Woodman, Charlie Mingus and Lucky Thompson. Then having served their country, Buddy, Charlie and Britt headed home.

On their return home to Los Angeles, Buddy, Charlie and Britt found that bebop was thriving. So they joined forces with Dexter Gordon and drummer Chico Hamilton and played together in Central Avenue, which was bebop central. Meanwhile, he worked as a session musician. A versatile multi-instrumentalist, Buddy’s services were always in demand. Whenever musicians played in L.A. Buddy’s band were the go-to-guys. Among them, were Louis Jordan and Benny Carter. Then as the forties gave way to the fifties, Buddy became a civil rights activist.

Segregation blighted America in 1949. Inadvertently, Buddy became a civil rights activist. He joined the band who played on Groucho Marx’s radio show, You Bet Your Life. Buddy was the only black musician in the band. Realizing the injustice of the situation, he started campaigning for an end to segregation. Soon, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Benny Carter were supporting Buddy’s campaign. Success didn’t come overnight though. It took four long years, before the American Federation Of Musicians merged their black and white divisions. This wasn’t the end of Buddy’s activism.

In 1950, actor Paul Robeson had been blacklisted. Originally, he trained as a lawyer, but disheartened with the racism that he believed blighted American law in the twenties, became an award winning actor. He also had a strong sense of justice. A political activist, his views were at odds with the American government. This lead to him being blacklisted. Paul was another victim of McCarthyism. Buddy Collette wasn’t willing to standby and watch a man persecuted. So Buddy started campaigning against what was essentially a politically motivated campaign to repress Paul. As part of his campaign, Buddy organized a concert. Now this was risky, as Buddy could’ve become another victim of McCarthyism. Thankfully he wasn’t, and his efforts partly, lead to the end of McCarthyism in 1956. By then, Buddy would release his debut album.

From 1950 until 1955, Buddy worked as a session musician. His versatility meant he was always in demand. He could play bebop, West Coast jazz, blues and cool jazz. Then in 1955, Buddy joined Chico Hamilton’s Quintet. Chico put together a multiracial group who played West Coast jazz. Buddy who played flute, is credited with adding a sense of serenity to the Quintet. Proof of this are The Chico Hamilton Quintet and The Chico Hamilton Quintet In Hi-Fi. Both albums were successful and soon, Buddy was being offered the chance to lead his own band. Rather than head out on tour with the Quintet, Buddy formed his own group, The Buddy Collette Quintet.

1956 saw The Buddy Collette Quintet release their debut album Man Of Many Parts. Critically acclaimed, it featured trumpeter Gerald Wilson, guitarist Al Viola, drummer Earl Palmer and bassist Wilfred Middlebrook. Buddy played flute, clarinet, tenor and alto saxophone. Man Of Many Parts was Buddy’s first album as bandleader. Buddy’s Beat was his second.

Buddy’s Beat saw Buddy pen seven of the eight tracks. The other was Rogers and Hart’s My Funny Valentine. A fusion of laid-back tracks and blistering bebop, Buddy’s Beat is something of a hidden gem. Although recorded by a quintet, Buddy’s versatility fools the listener into thinking they’re listening to a much bigger band. On its release, Buddy’s Beat, which I’ll tell you about, failed commercially. 

Soft Touch opens Buddy’s Best, The Buddy Collette Quintet. Bells chime before Buddy’s wistful flute joins a rasping horn and Al Viola’s pensive guitar. Soon, drummer Earl Palmer ensures the song swings. He plays with his brushes and with bassist Wilfred Middlebrook, provides the heartbeat. Later, trumpeter Gerald Wilson unleashes a blistering solo, before Al’s guitar solo is sparse, subtle and effective. Mostly, the Quintet play within themselves on a track that’s languid, nonchalant and quite beautiful example of West Coast jazz.

As Walkin’ Willie unfolds, it has a moodier sound. That’s thanks to the prowling bass. Nimbly, Wilfred’s fingers flit up and down the fretboard. Soon, horns blaze and drums add rolls of drama. By now the band are in a groove. They encourage each other to greater heights. Then Wilfred’s solo takes centre-stage. He’s joined by braying horns, while guitars chime. Veering between melancholy and melodic, right through to dramatic and uplifting, it’s a compelling musical journey full of contrasts, subtleties and surprises.

Changes is best described as a blistering slice of bebop. At breakneck speed, the horns bray and blaze. Their gnarled sound flit across the arrangement. Speed, accuracy and power are combined. Earl Palmer matches the horn every step of the way. So does the bass, as the band become a tight, fluid unit. Later, dueling horns trade licks. Not to be outdone, guitarist Al Viola lays down one of his finest solos, as we hear another side of the Quintet, one I’d like to hear much more of. 

My Funny Valentine is instantly recognizable. A true classic a poignant bass accompanies a tender, heartfelt flute solo from Buddy. Space is left within the arrangement. It proves effective, adding to the emotion and sadness. Wistful and melancholy, the band play with care. Drums are played with brushes, while Al’s guitar is spacious and crystalline. Later, the horn solo tugs at your heartstrings, painting pictures, its cinematic quality conjuring images of heartbreak and heartache and love lost.

The Cute Monster is a breezy, spacious track. The understated arrangement sees Buddy’s clarinet take centre-stage. It’s accompanied by the rhythm section and guitar. They’re content to take a back seat, allowing Buddy to demonstrate that whether it’s flute, saxophone or clarinet, he’s equally at home. He passes the baton to trumpeter Gerald Wilson, who spurred on, delivers an impressive solo. So does guitarist Al Viola, then briefly, drummer Earl and bassist Wilfred. It soon becomes apparent that each member of the Quintet is a hugely talented musician. There’s no passengers here, just top class musicians.

Orlando Blues is a bass driven track which features the wonderfully wistful, bluesy sound of the clarinet. Here, Buddy delivers a carefree performance. It’s as if he decides to kick loose and explore the song’s nuances. The rest of the band play around him, before taking turns to shine. First up is trumpeter Gerald Wilson. After unleashing a rasping solo, he and Buddy join forces, trading licks. Then guitarist Al Viola delivers what’s easily, one of his best solos. Finally, bassist Wilfred Middlebrook gets his chance to shine, before Buddy takes Orlando Blues to its bluesy close.

Blue Sands sees Buddy shift from clarinet to flute. His playing is tender, thoughtful and evocative. Mesmeric drums and subtle, chiming guitars conjur up pictures of distant, mysterious lands. Short, sharp bursts of flute join the moody, broody drums and gentle, pensive sounds of the guitar. Gradually, the drama grows. The arrangement becomes louder and moodier. There’s a sense of danger, warning you that something’s not right among the Blue Sands.

It’s You closes Buddy’s Beat. A five-minute track, the Quintet kick loose. Grizzled horns are at the heart of the arrangement. They’re fast, accurate and played with power and passion. The bass and drums provide the heartbeat, driving the arrangement along. Buddy on saxophone, delivers a stunning solo. He never misses a beat. Neither does Al on guitar. Nimbly, his fingers fly up and down the fretboard. He gives a virtuoso performance. Not to be outdone, bassist Wilfred and drummer Earl take turns to showcase their skills. Soon it’s like a competition, everyone raising their game, and in doing so, closing Buddy’s Beat on a glorious high.

Featuring eight songs and lasting just forty-four minutes long, Buddy’s Beat was just the second album from the multitalented Buddy Collette Quintet. Buddy chose his band well. Each of the musicians were more than capable of taking centre-stage, then enjoying their moment in the spotlight. They weren’t shrinking violets. Instead, Buddy surrounded himself with top class musicians. Not every musician would do this. After all, any one of the band could’ve been bandleaders. For lesser musicians than Buddy Collette, they’d have been scared of being overshadowed by such a talented band. This wasn’t the case here. Buddy wasn’t scared that one of his sidemen would overshadow him. No. What he wanted and needed, were the best musicians possible. There could be no weak links, and there weren’t. This meant that everything was in place for The Buddy Collette Quintet’s sophomore album Buddy’s Beat, which was recently released by Boplicity, an imprint of Ace Records, to be a commercial success.

Sadly, that wasn’t the case. The Buddy Collette Quintet’s sophomore album Buddy’s Beat failed commercially. Maybe the problem was, Buddy’s Beat was released on a small label, Dootone, which had been founded by Dootsie Williams. If Buddy’s Beat had been released by a bigger label with a bigger budget, it might have been a been a commercial success? Sadly that wasn’t the case. That proved to be story of Buddy’s career.

Buddy Collette’s music never enjoyed the commercial success and critical acclaim his talent deserved. Whether it was with his Trio, Quintet or as a solo artist, he never enjoyed the commercial success and critical acclaim his old friends Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon enjoyed. Despite that, Buddy released over a dozen albums and was constantly in demand as a session musician. He never headed out on tour, preferring to stay in his native Los Angeles, where he was busy working as a session musician. It was also in Los Angeles, Buddy left his musical legacy.

Realizing the importance of education, Buddy Collette worked tirelessly in education. Always on the side of the underdog, he was determined young people would’ve the opportunity to make a living as a professional musician. Buddy setup several education programs within the Los Angeles area. Among the musicians to benefit from his largesse are Eric Dolphy, James Newton and Charles Lloyd. Hopefully, these musicians will follow in Buddy’s footsteps, and give something back to music.

Educator, civil rights activist, politician, musician and bandleader, Buddy Collette may not have enjoyed the commercial success that some of his contemporaries did, but just as importantly, he made a difference. He was a man with a social conscience, who despised injustice and inequality. Through music, including The Buddy Collette Quintet’s 1957 album Buddy’s Beat, a true hidden gem, Buddy was able to make a difference. In many ways, that’s as rewarding as the riches and plaudits that came the way of Buddy Collette’s contemporaries. Standout Tracks: Soft Touch, Changes, Orlando Blues and Blue Sands.


Buddy's Best

Buddy's BestBuddy's Best

Buddy's Best

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