Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Rich, Buddy (Bernard)

Drummer Buddy Rich's combined his dexterous use of difficult rhythmic devices with an ability to accompany any melody with great precision. A child prodigy and product of the Swing Era, Rich continued to evolve in his approach to the drums and incorporated influences from bebop and rock and roll.

While Rich was known to his peers for his difficult personality, many top performers sought out his services for recordings and performances. Buddy’s work with tenor saxophonist Lester Young, bandleader Artie Shaw and trombonist Tommy Dorsey built upon the past achievements of jazz and created a modern sound for the big band.

The story of Buddy Rich begins on September 30, 1917 in Brooklyn, New York. He was born Bernard Rich to Robert and Bess Rich, vaudeville performers who incorporated the young boy into their act before his second birthday. His father soon realized the boy's natural talent, when he saw that he could keep a steady beat with a pair of spoons. The title of his part of the act was “Traps the Drum Wonder” where he would often perform “Stars and Stripes Forever” on a drum. By the age of four, he was playing drums and tap dancing on Broadway.

While still young, Rich received the nickname “Buddy” from his parents, which developed from the name “Pal.” Throughout the 1920s, Rich steadily performed with his parents and became popular element of their act. By the age of six, Rich was traveling throughout the United States and on international tours.

During his early teenage years, Buddy was one of the most popular child stars in the country, often earning upwards of one thousand dollars a week. In 1929, he was the subject of director Murray Roth’s short film “Buddy Traps in Sound Effects,” which featured Buddy in a music store tapping on several objects throughout the store.

During this time, Rich’s focus began to turn towards jazz and for a short time in 1932 he led his own group, “Buddy Traps Rich and His Orchestra.” An early influence of Buddy’s was drummer Tony Briglia, the drummer for the Casa Loma Orchestra, which he saw perform at the Crystal Club in Brooklyn.

In 1937, bassist Artie Shapiro saw the young drummer at the Crystal Club during an engagement. Shapiro informed Rich to go to the Hickory House club to sit in with bandleader Joe Marsala during their Sunday jam sessions. Buddy returned for the next three Sundays and eventually was able to sit in with the band on the fourth Sunday.

His performance made an impression on Marsala, and he asked him to join the group. Soon after, he left the group, citing Marsala’s style as not to his liking or style. On November 24, 1937, Rich recorded his first commercial recording with bandleader Vic Schoen and his Orchestra in New York.

In 1938, Rich joined trumpeter Bunny Berrigans’ ensemble before leaving in December of that year to accept an offer to perform with bandleader Artie Shaw’s orchestra. Buddy’s performances with the orchestra captured the modern big band style and enhanced the approach to big bands. The orchestra’s performances were also featured on “Melody and Madness,” a weekly radio show hosted by Robert Benchley and in director S. Sylvan Simon’s 1939 movie “Dancing Co-Ed” starring Lana Turner.

The same year, Rich was hired by trombonist Tommy Dorsey to join his orchestra. Upon joining the orchestra, Buddy met the band’s singer Frank Sinatra. During tours, Rich and Sinatra would often share hotel rooms together, which proved to be a volatile mix due to their strong personalities. It has been suggested that Rich was bitter by the amount of ballads he had to perform with the ensemble that featured Sinatra. Never the less, the two men had a deep respect for one another and became life-long friends.

In 1942, Rich and drum instructor Henry Adler cowrote the book Buddy Rich’s Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments,which has since become an important instruction book for drummers. The same year, Buddy left the Dorsey band and joined the United States Marine Corps during the nation’s fight in World War II. Buddy was discharged from the Marine Corps two years later for medical reasons and never saw any active combat situations. Upon his discharge, he rejoined the Dorsey group and became a highly sought after sideman.

In 1946, Rich performed with tenor saxophonist Lester Young on his album Lester Young Trio. The group featured Young, Rich and pianist Nat “King” Cole on several standards including “I’ve Found A New Baby.” The song begins with Young, Cole and Rich briefly exchanging four bar phrases before going into the verse. During his solo from 2:53-3:19, Rich and Cole cleverly play off of each other when Cole would introduce a rhythmic figure that Rich would respond to on the drums.

The same year, Rich formed his own band after receiving forty thousand dollars from Sinatra. After two years, the band went broke and he soon found himself performing in producer Norman Granz’s “Jazz at the Philharmonic” tours. A highlight of the tours was when other drummers would join Rich on stage where they would “battle” each other.

On November 30, 1949, Rich recorded with alto saxophonist Charlie Parker for his album Charlie Parker with Strings. One of the songs included on the album was songwriter John Klenner and Sam Lewis’ song “Just Friends.” The arrangement begins with the string section playing a brief melodic phrase before Parker enters the verse. What is most striking about the song is how Rich accompanies the string section. By playing with brushes, he easily navigates between the lush sound of the orchestra and Parker’s legato phrasing.

Though his first professional ensemble was unsuccessful, he continued to lead groups on and off until 1951 while performing with bandleader Les Brown and tenor saxophonist a href="/music/2007/11/1/charlie-ventura-i-m-forever-blowing-bubbles"> Charlie Ventura.

In 1952, Rich married dancer and showgirl Marie Allison and the couple welcomed the birth of their daughter Cathy in 1954. Beginning in 1953, Buddy began to perform with trumpeter Harry James, an association which lasted until 1966. Between performing with James, he rejoined Dorsey on several occasions between 1954 and 1955.

In 1955, Rich recorded the album Buddy And Sweets with trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison. The same year, Buddy recorded the album Krupa and Rich with his drumming contemporary Gene Krupa. The album featured an all-star band including bassist Ray Brown, guitarist Herb Ellis, pianist Oscar Peterson, tenor saxophonists Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips, and trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge.

In addition to his strengths as a drummer, Rich was also a skillful singer. In 1956, he released the album Buddy Rich Sings Johnny Mercer, an album dedicated to the songbook of composer Johnny Mercer. The following year he released the album Buddy Rich Just Sings, which features several renditions of popular standards such as “Cheek to Cheek” by Irving Berlin and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” by Duke Ellington.

In 1959, Rich and drummer Max Roach teamed up to record the album Rich Versus Roach. Recorded for the Mercury label, the album features both of the drummer’s bands at the time and included alto saxophonist Phil Woods, pianist John Bunch, trumpeter Tommy Turrentine and tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine.

In 1966, Rich left the James group in order to develop a new big band. From this point on, he strictly led his own groups to international acclaim. Buddy featured many young players and performed mainly at universities, which enabled him to reach a new generation of jazz fans. The same year, Rich released the album Swingin’ New Big Band, which featured a medley songs from the musical West Side Story. The medley became a staple of his repertoire and he would perform it at various lengths throughout the years.

The following year, Rich released the live album Big Swing Face. The album was recorded at the Chez Club in Hollywood and features songs arranged by Bob Florence, Bill Potts and Shorty Rogers. The album also features contributions from members of the ensemble at this time including tenor saxophonist Jay Corre and alto saxophonist Ernie Watts.

A highlight of the record is the group’s rendition of “Norwegian Wood,” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Rich begins the arrangement with a light vamp with the lower brass before the trumpet section enters playing the melody with the woodwind providing a strong counterpoint behind them. The arrangement perfectly showcases Buddy’s use of dynamic interplay by allowing subtle shifts in the dynamics of the drums to match the timbre and sound of the soloist and ensemble.

Rich also reached new fans when he began to make frequent appearances on popular talk shows including the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, the Dick Cavett Show, the Mike Douglas Show, the Merv Griffin Show as well as the children’s program Sesame Street. His appearances on these talk shows showed him to be an amusing and appealing figure as he often argued with the hosts and guests to the delight of the audience.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rich opened two clubs in his name; Buddy’s Place and Buddy’s Place II. In 1974, Buddy was inducted into the Down Beat Hall of Fame. Throughout the 1970s, Rich and his big band recorded for several labels including RCA, Groove Merchant and Quintessence Jazz.

Rich began the 1980s by receiving an honorary doctorate from the Berklee School of Music. Throughout the later portion of his career, Buddy continued to record and tour, releasing the album Live at Ronnie Scott’s in 1980, and his final album Mr. Drums: Live on King Street, San Francisco in 1985.

Unfortunately, Rich died of heart failure in Los Angeles on April 2, 1987 while undergoing surgery for a malignant brain tumor. At his funeral, Sinatra gave the eulogy and attendees included Carson, Shaw, and actors Jerry Lewis and Robert Blake. Rich was laid to rest at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.

Select Discography

As a leader

Buddy Rich Swinging (1953)

The Swingin’ Buddy Rich (1953)

This One’s For Basie (1956)

Buddy Rich Sings Johnny Mercer (1956)

Buddy Rich Just Sings (1957)

Richcraft (1959)

Swingin’ New Big Band (1966)

Big Swing Face (1967)

Super Rich (1969)

The Roar of ’74 (1973)

Speak No Evil (1976)

Mr. Drums (1978)

Live at Ronnie Scott’s (1980)

Mr. Drums: Live on King Street, San Francisco (1985)

With Tommy Dorsey

Tommy Dorsey Plays Sweet and Hot (1940)

With Sweets Edison

Buddy And Sweets (1955)

With Gene Krupa

Krupa And Rich (1959)

With Charlie Parker

Bird With Strings (1949)

With Max Roach

Rich Versus Roach (1959)

With Lester Young

Lester Young Trio (1946)

Contributor: Eric Wendell