Hall of Fame: 1980
Big Band: 1979,’80, ’81, ’82, ’83, ’84, ’85
Jazz: 1981, ’82, ’83, ’84
You’ve got to love the guy. Let’s face it: He doesn’t have to be out there on the road all the time. He could be taking it easy, because the contribution he has made to drumming has ensured his place in history. Even if he did want to keep playing, he wouldn’t have to worry about having such a great band or about keeping his music current. He could just play the old arrangements, and as long as he did a big drum solo every night, no one would care what the band sounded like.
But Buddy Rich does care what the band sounds like, and he doesn’t take it easy. As a result, whenever you hear him, you hear why he has earned his reputation. You don’t have to settle for listening to the old records or take the word of someone who heard Rich “back when. “He’s still doing it —still setting an example.
Although Rich has been criticized for being abrasive at times, the fact is that the man is totally honest. He plays the music that he wants to play, without regard for commercial pressures. If that means that he doesn’t always have a record contract, then so be it. By the same token, he says what he feels, and if it hurts someone’s ego, well, that’s the breaks. He has definite opinions about things, and he’ll tell you what they are. But if he seems to come on strong, it’s because he cares about it so much.
Because of his constant touring schedule, it’s sometimes hard to arrange an interview with Rich, so I am grateful to Mel Lewis for his help in arranging this one. Mel took me up to Rich’s New York apartment on the afternoon following the Buddy Rich Band’s appearance at the Bottom Line. When we entered the room, a TV was on but the sound was turned down, and big band music was blasting from the stereo. Mel immediately headed for the music, and after listening for a moment, asked Rich, “What is that?” “It’s a record, ” Rich replied, straight-faced. Mel and Buddy then compared notes on various aspects of the Musicians Union that they were displeased with, while I looked for an outlet to plug my tape recorder into. Rich then turned to me, pointed to his most recent plaque representing his win in the Big Band category in MD’s Readers Poll, and told me that he wanted to thank the readers for continuing to give him that honor. Then, settling on the sofa, he gestured towards my tape recorder and said, “So—what do you want to know?”
RM: If you were just starting out today, what kind of music do you think you’d be playing?
BR: If I were starting out today, I’d probably wind up being a thief—maybe a Brinks robber. There would be nothing to inspire me to get into music today, unless I were totally involved in bowing to the whims of the “business people”—what to wear, how silly to be. There’s certainly nothing that would say, “Music is a wonderful business to get into.” My first inspiration was Glen Gray and the original Casa Loma Band. I graduated to Benny Goodman. Then, of course, I heard Basie and Ellington. There are four inspirations that would make any young person want to get into music: not the business—into music. To be involved with Lester Young, Bird, Harry Edison, Roy Eldridge, and Hot Lips Page, and to hear drummers like Gene Krupa, Shadow Wilson, Gus Johnson—I could sit here and name every drummer that I ever listened to, from Chick Webb to Tony Briglia to my friend Mel Lewis.
Every one of those people was a separate inspiration, so that if you wanted to play drums it wasn’t really who you wanted to play like. You just wanted to get involved with it. That, I think, is the thing that’s lacking most today. There’s no truly inspirational thing going on in jazz or in music. What it is now is to learn three chord changes on a guitar, get a 25-piece set of drums and an out-of-tune singer, and go out and make a million. That might inspire you to want to go out and make a million, but certainly not to be in the music game for 50 or 60 years, because every day is another experience and every day is another way to play. You hear the people that you’re surrounded with. You take a little bit from them and they take a little bit from you.
I’m a very lucky guy. I lived through the greatest time. Let me run it down. Every hotel in this city had a name band, plus every theater in this city at the same time had a name band. You had the Paramount, Loews State, Capital, The Strand, The Roxy, and Radio City in Midtown. Then you had the Astor Hotel roof with a name band. You had the New Yorker with a name band. You had the Statler Downtown, the Pennsylvania, the Edison, and the Taft, where Vincent Lopez used to play. There were a couple of hundred different musicians working in the City. It was really nice. And every band was different. That was 52 weeks a year. New York was New York. It was the Apple. Then you could go out at night, and walk up and down 52nd Street. You could go from the Hickory House to Kelly’s Stables to the Famous Door. I mean, everybody was playing—name jazz musicians with small groups like Hot Lips Page and Roy Eldridge. There was music to be heard.
RM: Was this when Billy Gladstone was at Radio City Music Hall?
BR: Yeah, he was at Radio City. He was a very good friend of mine. Whenever I was in New York City and I knew that they were doing Bolero, I used to love to go to Radio City, sit in the last row right next to the projection booth, and listen to him—amazing hands. Zutty Singleton was another guy I loved to hear. George Wettling was good, too, and Cliff Leeman. They were good players, and they were interesting. When Mel Lewis was with the Terry Gibbs band, he did some of the best drumming I ever heard with that band. I’m not just saying that because he’s sitting here. I’m not that free with compliments, but the band was so hot. It was the most perfect way of playing drums with that band. Mel’s a marvelous drummer and totally individualistic. He doesn’t sound like anybody else. That’s the best thing you can say about anybody, and I said it.
RM: Perhaps that’s why people still look up to drummers like you and Mel. Our magazine gets letters from a lot of people who want to read about the older players.
BR: I read your magazine every now and then. I’ve noticed in the past few issues that there are pages and pages of people that, perhaps I’m ashamed to say, I’ve never heard of and probably never will hear of in the general sense of what drums mean. Most people neglect the idea that the drum is a musical instrument. If it’s hit and banged, it’s just a drum. If it’s played, it’s a musical instrument, but by today’s standard, it’s hitting as hard as you possibly can, as many times as you possibly can, on as many drums as you possibly can. I think I have a pretty good ear, but it’s almost impossible for me to pick out one player from another player. There’s only one style, and that’s whatever that thing is that makes a hit record.
I’m not into nostalgia. What I’m saying is that, if Babe Ruth were alive today, he’d still be the greatest hitter. So if Krupa and Chick Webb were alive today, they’d be like Babe Ruth because they had inventiveness, they were individualistic, they were creative, and they were serious. Players are not serious today in the true sense. When you read about a guy who says, “Man, we’ve been on the road three weeks. We’re off for a year now,” it’s a little ludicrous. When you get the kind of acclaim that this business gives you, and the money that it affords you, and the places that it takes you, you’re supposed to give something back. You can’t just take. You’re supposed to give something back, and by giving back I mean that you’re supposed to be out there doing what you do to all audiences, all your life, all over the place—not just major cities. Wherever there’s an audience, you’re supposed to play. Otherwise you’ve taken a whole lifetime to perfect whatever it is that you’re doing and then you neglect it, which is a criminal act to yourself. So when I read in your magazine that some band is taking nine months off because they worked three nights in a row, it’s a little hard for me to comprehend. The road is not a bad place, and there’s a lot to be done by people who are serious about it. Maynard Ferguson is serious about it. Woody Herman is serious about it. People like that made it, and they’re giving back. They don’t bitch about it, and they don’t cry about it. “Oh God, we’ve been in the studio for nine months.” People who record correctly are in the studio for three days, and then they get the hell out. It doesn’t take a pound of coke to make you play good, and the engineers don’t have to be ripped. Instead of 24 tracks, why not two tracks? If you go in and just do it, you’re pretty good. But if you need all of that electronic help and you need nine months to get it on tape, maybe you’re really not that good. These days, it’s all based on: “Let’s have a hit record. Let’s get the 40 million dollar royalty and take a couple of years off.” That’s what I mean by taking and not giving.
RM: You use a lot of young players in your band. What are they aiming for? Do you ever talk to them about their ultimate goals? Are they prepared to spend their lives on the road?
BR: I would hope so, but that’s another thing. If you asked me when I was 20 how long I wanted to stay on the road, I would have said a month, because I had been working at the Hickory House. I was making exactly $66 a week working from 10:00 at night to 4:00 every morning, plus a Sunday matinee. When I got my first gig with a big band, I said, “Oh, that’s what it is.” And when I went with Artie Shaw, I said, “Oh, that’s really what it is.” And with each band, it became clearer to me that this is really where I belong. Each band that I went into, I grew into the chair and I grew into the band. I felt, “Yeah, this is exactly what I want to do. Maybe one day, I’ll get a band of my own, but I always want to be in a big band.” When I had to play with little groups, I played with them. But all the time I was playing with little bands, I kept hearing nine brass. Now I have nine brass and I’m happy.
So to ask if my guys look forward to a long career—it’s a different world. There’s the studio thing. I’ll go back again to the people I admire most—the greats like Diz, Miles, and all the true greats. I don’t think that at any time they ever seriously thought about going into the studio. They were creators. They were givers to the world of art and music. They provided something for generations to come to listen to. I worry about good players today who immediately upon a little bit of success think that they should be in the studios. They get out their golf clubs, and they play their tennis, and they have business accounts and everything, but they don’t play. I worry about that, because who’s going to take Bird’s place? I keep trying, but if nobody tries hard and continues to try, then the only legacy that’s left is the record. There’s nobody to make you say, “I wanted to play because of . . . .” The minute you go into a studio, you’re out of music. You’re into playing for acts. You’re into doing commercial breaks. So the whole concept of what’s going on is wrong. Players decide, “Well, I think I’ll go into the studio now. I’m 24 years old, and I’ve seen it all.” There are lots of talented players in my band, but they have to have the incentive and the knowledge to be able to continue.
RM: You may find this theory interesting. Some people think that there’s a good possibility that, because of the drum machines, there won’t be too much studio work for drummers anymore. As a result, a career in the studio won’t be a goal. If you want to be a drummer, you’re going to have to start thinking in terms of being in a band, which is the way it used to be.
BR: I think probably the worst thing that ever happened in the world of drums is the invention of the electronic drum. When you go out and spend $30,000 for a Simmons, by making that investment, you are immediately thinking of not being a drummer or percussionist. You are thinking about learning electronics. And the drum machines throw us guys out of work. This is something that I’m down on the union for. They allow that to take the place of a human being. They want to collect dues from working musicians, and yet they allow something like that to take place. If you’re going to use an electric drum machine, then at least use a live drummer on half the date and give somebody a chance to make a couple of bucks. The electric drum will never take the place of a drummer, any more than a robot will ever take the place of a human being on a job. It’s stupid. It’s beyond anything that I can think of. I just worry that sometime a guy’s going to step in some water while he’s playing. That will be the end of electric drums and drums will come back.
RM: I’ve been wondering if the controversy about electronic drums is typical of the reaction to any new instrument. Maybe you can give me a perspective on something. When the electric bass came out in the early ’50s, what was the general reaction to that? Did people look at it and say, “What a great idea,” or did people say, “That’s not a bass”?
BR: I think most musicians in bands said, “That’s not a bass.” In my early band, I had a guy who played upright, and he came in one night with an electric job. I had some pseudo-rock things in the book at the time. I said, “If you want to play that during these charts, play it, but when we’re playing, use the upright.” I think the art of playing the upright was lost, because now everybody plays the electric bass. I’ve had one in my band now for five or six years, but every now and then, he’ll whip out an upright and it’s all different. It sounds like a band. So it functions and has a service, and if it’s played right it sounds good, but it doesn’t sound like a real bass.
RM: As for your own drums, you’ve gone back to classic Radio Kings.
BR: No, I’ve gone ahead. Using something that sounds as good as the drums I’m using now is certainly not going back. It’s going ahead. It’s a totally basic set of drums. There’s not one thing on my set that is not used. I don’t need iron pipes to hold tom-toms. I don’t need Buck Rogers equipment to look like a space cadet back there. Four cymbals, a couple of tom-toms, a bass drum, and a snare drum—they just sound marvelous. I’ve always played the same setup, but this particular set is about 45 years old and it sounds perfect for me. You don’t need more than that. It’s great for the drum companies to sell four bass drums and 80 tom-toms, but what the hell do you do with them? The poor roadie who has to carry them and set them up—I feel bad for him. I went to see Carl Palmer one time. He had more drums on stage than they have at Manny’s. And gongs—big gongs, little gongs, medium gongs, timpani. Come on. Sonny Greer didn’t have that many drums, [laughs] It’s truly comical, man. To make a movie of what’s going on would be hysterical, and the opinions and the ideas—I’ll never understand the matched grip. I don’t know how you articulate—how you roll. It’s awkward. But it’s simple, so that’s why it’s so popular.
RM: I want to check a quote that’s attributed to you. “Nobody’s played a better drum break than Shadow Wilson on ’Queer Street ’ by Count Basie.”
BR: Nobody ever has. It’s the best four-bar drum break ever created.
RM: Can you explain why?
BR: It isn’t an impossible thing to play. It isn’t intricate. But it was the perfect thing to play at that time. Those four bars were meant to be played in that particular break. That was the perfect drum break—absolutely. Just like Bobby Colomby’s drum break on Blood, Sweat, & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel”—that four-bar break was perfect for that tune.
RM: A lot of people think that you’re very critical of other drummers. But you keep naming drummers that you admire.
BR: I love drummers, but it disappoints me because they have not elevated the art of drumming. They’ve set it back quite a few years. I think the only guy who made a dent in the changeover, if you want to call it that, was Gadd. Steve Gadd was, and probably still is, the best at that particular kind of drumming. I think that’s because he has a jazz background, so he’s able to incorporate it when he plays. He was very interesting in the beginning. I think that, out of all the drummers I’ve heard, Gadd would have to be the one who has the most class behind the drums. Harvey Mason is good, too. I like Harvey Mason. He plays nice.
When somebody tells me about somebody who plays and I do go to hear the person, I usually go with an open mind and usually walk out with the same idea. What did he do? I’ll make this statement: I don’t think there are half a dozen rock drummers today who could sit in with a jazz band. Now I’m talking about any jazz bands, from Basie’s band to Woody’s band to my band to Mel’s band. I’ll venture to say that any jazz drummer can sit in with any rock band and play correctly. Now we’ll talk about drummers. I’m so tired of hearing about specialized drummers. This one is a great trio drummer. This one is a big band drummer. That one is a small band drummer. In 1936 and ’37—again we harp back—when Gene Krupa was with Benny’s band, he played with the Benny Goodman Trio, he played with the Benny Goodman Quartet, he played with the Benny Goodman Sextet, and he played with the big band. He played absolutely correct with the trio, absolutely correct with the small group, and absolutely correct with the big band. He didn’t have special cymbals for the small band. He didn’t have special sticks. He played. A drummer plays what the music calls for, and there’s no such thing on this earth as a big band drummer or a small band drummer. You either play or you don’t play. I’m getting bored with, “This drummer is great with a small band.” Yeah, come on and play with my band. I’ll let you know if you’re great or not. Pick a chart—anything you want—but play it and play it with the right feeling, the right time, play behind the band, play behind the soloists, let me hear the shout chorus. Let me see what you can really do up there. Mel Lewis can do it. Bellson can do it.
We were once on a double bill with a rock group, and on the last night, the drummer finally came over and asked if he could talk to me. He wanted to know about the intricacies of playing. Here’s a drummer who’s supposed to be playing in a successful rock band. I asked him, “What drummers have you listened to?” So he named a few drummers. I said, “Let me ask you one question. Did you ever listen to Jo Jones?” He said, “Who?” I said, “Jo Jones from the original Count Basie Band.” He said, “No, never.” It was an unbelievable moment for me to have a drummer say that he never, ever heard Jo Jones play drums. If you’re a drummer, you must have heard Jo Jones. It’s a prime requisite, man. If you don’t hear Jo Jones, you don’t know what swinging is all about. That’s saying something for the art as it stands. If you’ve never heard of Jo Jones, then you’ve never heard of Philly Joe Jones and all the guys that we’ve been talking about. You can’t take from drummers your own age and say these are the people you admire, because those drummers haven’t found out who they admire yet. You have to go back to go forward. By listening to somebody today, you’re going to play exactly what this drummer just played. You have nothing to fall back on. Anybody can take a four-bar break, lift it, and play it, but what can you do in there to make that you ? That’s the basic thing. Everybody’s played everything. Interpret it now. Let me hear you play it. First of all, let me hear your drums. I don’t want to hear your cases. I want to hear your drums. How come your snare drum sounds like your tom-tom? How come your tom-tom sounds like your bass drum? When do you differentiate the sound? Why do the studios insist that every drum must sound the same? When you allow that, you’re saying, “It’s okay. I’ll do whatever you want, man. Just give me the scale.’’ So why even bother to learn to play the drums? Play the instrument. Love the instrument. It’s an instrument. Play it. Don’t sock it. Don’t smash it. Play it.
There’s no mystery behind playing drums. You’ve got to love to play drums, and you’ll play them. If you don’t like them, you won’t play them. It’s just like boxers. They must like it, because there’s not enough money in the world to make them go into a ring knowing that they’re going to be knocked koo-koo. They’ve got to love to go in there, and that’s why they do it. Football players get the shit kicked out of them every Sunday. They’re dead. Seven days later they’re back out having other guys step on their faces. They’ve got to love it. What makes an O.J. Simpson love to do what he did? What made DiMaggio DiMaggio? He loved doing what he did. Pete Rose—he’s an incredible man. For baseball, he’s in his middle 40’s and he went after a 4,000 record. You’ve got to love him. He’s doing what 19-year-old kids are supposed to be doing, and he’s doing it better, because he can go back and know how to do it—marvelous. I watched an interview with Horowitz—another giant in his 80’s. He was carrying on. He quit for 12 years, and he’s back playing because he loves it—80 years old, and witty, funny, and doing it. You’ve got to love it, man. That’s what I’m talking about—give. Don’t take it all. Take a lot, but don’t take it all. Give something back.
RM: You’ve seen a lot of things come and go. When you see something new, is there any way you can predict, based on all your experience, whether or not it’s going to stay around?
BR: I would never be that presumptuous, particularly in today’s market of music. Every day it’s another fad. Every day it’s another style. Every day it’s another hero. It’s become business. They should differentiate between the music business and music. The music business has turned into a billion-dollar industry, and it has very little to do with music. And all you have to do to prove a statement like that is watch MTV. It’s all gimmicks, flames, dancing, running, cars—but very little music. So to sit here and try to predict . . . The only prediction I would make is that maybe music will come back someday.