Without question, Bernard “Buddy” Rich is one of the most influential drummers in history. That influence has been felt across musical styles, not just in jazz. He was held in very high regard by such legendary British drummers as John Bonham, Keith Moon, and Ginger Baker, who once allegedly stood down rather than battle Rich for the title of “World’s Greatest Drummer.” He held fast to his ideals during years where they may have been seen as antiquated, or even anachronistic.
The Lost Tapes DVD is the second of two sessions recorded in 1985, and represents the final performance of a man who, more than most jazzmen of his generation, thrived in the spotlight. (The other session is available as Channel One Suite.) Rich’s showbiz career began when he was a toddler. Born in 1917 into a Vaudeville couple, he made a name as “Traps, the Drum Wonder” before moving along to play in the jazz bands of Joe Marsala, Artie Shaw, and Tommy Dorsey. The latter group featured a young Frank Sinatra, whose cash helped Rich start his own big-band after serving as a Marine in World War II.
His first excursion as a bandleader did not take, so Rich spent the next 20 years as a sideman of choice for shows and sessions facilitated by Norman Granz, the owner of Verve, Norgran, Clef, and Mercury. The LP format was just taking off in the early 1950s; the new technology had the effect of liberating many established stars from the time limitations entailed by the old 78rpm format. Rich’s mature style thus developed in this period. He performed alongside Hall of Famers Ray Brown, Benny Carter, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and Ben Webster. He also recorded a number of times with his own groups; these sessions (which include epochal drum battles with Gene Krupa and Max Roach) have been collected on a new box set from Mosaic Records. After a record-breaking run with the Harry James Orchestra, Rich formed his second big band in 1966. It went over in a big way, and lasted 20 years before Rich’s death in 1987.
Many of the great jazz musicians were shy or introverted people, often plagued by issues of self-doubt or self-esteem. Rich, however, was a typical type-A personality: bold, gregarious, quick to express pleasure or disgust. These traits, and his astounding technique, helped make him one of the most-adored musical guests in Tonight Show history, but also the key figure in “The Buddy Tapes”, the infamous bootleg recording of Rich verbally lashing some employees whose performance did not meet his standard. It is worth noting, in his defense, that the band he brought to these sessions executed their parts with the utmost precision.
The band is tight, anchored by the tenor sax of Steve Marcus, but the meat of a Rich set is the drum solo. Twelve of the DVD’s 60 minutes are solos, and they demonstrate that Rich did not suffer any long, slow attrition of his chops as age took hold. Most impressive is the fantasia of cymbalism he unleashes on the “West Side Story” medley. The basic line Rich took in his solos did not change as he got older—it merely evolved, but his methods remain fascinating. Anyone who’s seen the two-part documentary Buddy Rich: Jazz Legend knows what the man could do, and he could do everything in 1986 that he could in 1956. That is a whole lot!