Rockin' with Milt

My three years with legendary organist Milt Buckner

The Germantown area of Philadelphia represents the essence of this city. It was and is a place where any number of ethnic groups have come together to live, work and play. That is what “The City of Brotherly Love” is supposed to be about. In terms of jazz, Germantown was one of the places to go to hear it, though one had to know where to go. Plenty did. I know. I lived there for almost 10 years, and played jazz for three of those years with one of the certifiable legends of improvisational music.

The corner of Wissahickon and Chelten Avenue is still home to, count ‘em, no less than three, luxury, high-rise apartment buildings: Alden Park Manor, what was once called The Stafford House, and The Hampton House. Just up the block, bordering the neighborhood known as East Falls and Philadelphia Univeristy (formerly named Textile University) is School Lane House, a sprawling property complete with restaurant, swim club, market and dry cleaners. Just up the block on Chelten Avenue stood a property which, when I came upon it, was no longer a luxury one, but one that had its share of history.

The Delmar-Morris Hotel was built in 1904, and according to the record, was the first apartment house ever built in the Germantown section of the city. Presumably, it was probably what was then called an “apartment-hotel” or “residential hotel.” My late uncle, Albert Nelson, used to tell me about The Delmar, saying that “it was one of the grandest structures in the city” and spoke of the gala parties that were held in its ballroom.

By the early 1970s, the facility was filled mostly with transients, and, I suspect more than a few college students on the waiting list to get a dorm room at Textile or another of the nearby colleges. Though way past its heyday, it was reasonably well-kept. On the mezzanine, there was a ballroom and a restaurant, both long out of operation, that gave visitors a sense of what the place used to be.

However, the bar was operating and lively. Little did I know that the bar within The Delmar would play a crucial part in my career as a jazz drummer.

In 1973, when jazz gigs dried up for me and almost everyone else after a few good years, I became an official musical member of “the outside.” The term, “the outside,” only used in Philadelphia, refers to work the on private party circuit, whether Bar Mitzvahs, weddings, charitable galas, etc. In most areas of the country, those gigs are called “club dates” or “G.B.,” which stands for “general business.” No one seems to know where the term “the outside” came from, because there is, in fact, no such thing musically in Philadelphia as “the inside.”

No matter. I was quite busy drumming on weekends with a number of orchestra leaders, including such long-forgotten names as Harold Ruben, Marty Portnoy, Guido Lenzi, Bobby Roberts, Jackie Gold and various others. Though unknown today unless one is of a certain age, these “outside” leaders were treated as stars in Philadelphia. Musically? Forget it, though I did get a reprieve when pianist Andy Kahn formed his own society group and pegged me as the drummer. Despite what we had to play, it was at least well-played by darn good players, and we managed to slip in some jazz from time to time.

Those “outside” bands had to be incredibly versatile. They played everything from Jewish music and polkas, to every type of Latin music there was at the time. There was more and more rock that had to be played as well. Drummers had to know all the beats and ethic tunes. In those days, there were dozens of them that had to be played. Maybe the music played on “the outside” in years gone by would be described today as World Music!

One night, after gigging at a catering hall in New Jersey—we were semi-regulars at this gigantic venue, called “Merion Caterers”—I decided to stop somewhere for a nightcap, in that it was still relatively early on a Saturday night. I thought I’d stop in the bar at The Delmar, in that it was a block away from where I lived.

Upon entering, I couldn’t believe what I saw and heard. The room was packed and it was clear there was a real party going on. What made it a party was the entertainment: The legendary organist and pianist, Milt Buckner, long a favorite of mine. I could not believe my luck.

Given Milt’s incredible history, I thought playing a venue like the Delmar was a bit of a come-down for him. But hey, in jazz—especially in the early 1970s—a gig was a gig. He spent almost half of each year performing there, lived in an apartment upstairs, and didn’t have to worry about hauling the Hammond B-3 around. In retrospect, the set-up wasn’t bad at all.

Born in St. Louis in 1915, Milton Brent Buckner was already working professional jobs as a pianist and arranger with territory bands like the Harlem Aristocrats and the Dixie Whangdoodles. According to Ira Gitler in The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, “While with drummer Don Cox’s band in 1932 to 1934, to give the five-piece orchestra some depth, Buckner developed a technique of parallel chord patterns, later dubbed the ‘locked hands style’ when he employed it in Lionel Hampton’s orchestra.”

It's hard to believe that he invented this innovative, pianistic technique when he was 17 years old.

He became a major name as pianist and arranger with Hampton. Buckner was with Hamp from 1941 to 1948, and after a brief stint leading a big band and recording for MGM Records, he rejoined the vibist in 1950 and stayed for two more years. Buckner was responsible for arranging some of Lionel Hampton’s biggest hits, including “Hey-Ba-Ba-Re-Bop” and countless versions of “Flyin’ Home.” Milt also wrote “Hamp’s Boogie Woogie.”

Buckner started doubling on organ around 1952 while with Hamp, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Hamp himself suggested that Milt play the electronic instrument. Ever interested in more and more volume, Hampton at one time had two drummers in his band, and also introduced the electric bass to the music industry.

After leaving the band, Buckner toured and recorded prolifically, almost solely on organ, for companies like Capital and Argo, usually in a trio setting with a drummer and saxophonist. He never abandoned jazz, but the 1950s saw him emphasizing rhythm and blues. Whatever the style of music he played, it was powerful as hell.

The idea behind the invention of the organ was to design one musical instrument that could sound like a full orchestra. The Buckner “locked hands” method of playing, when applied to the organ, also sounded like an orchestra. When he played, solo or as part of a group, it sounded like two orchestras! A drummer had to play like he was in a big band. It’s not for nothing that Duke Ellington found one of his greatest drummers in Sam Woodyard, who played with Buckner—often at Grace’s Little Belmont in Atlantic City, New Jersey, one of the great “organ rooms” in history—from 1953 to 1955.

The concept of the jazz organ did not begin and end with Jimmy Smith, as ground-breaking as he was. Smith didn’t reach national prominence until 1956, and then the Smith sound became “the” organ sound, imitated by countless others. There were, however, others before Smith, in addition to Milt Buckner. Bill Doggett switched to organ around 1951. Doug Duke, Wild Bill Davis and Marlowe Morris, Lionel Hampton alumni, started playing organ at the same time. These players elicited an “orchestral” sound from the B-3 in an effort to sound like a big band. It’s interesting to note that Davis, Doggett and Buckner were also renowned big band arrangers.

Buckner’s sound was unlike any other, and he was equally adept at single-note lines as he was playing block chords. When he wanted to, he could be darn funky, and he wasn’t afraid to use any and all stops on the organ to get the sound he wanted for a particular song or chorus. And if he wanted to use that infamous “ice skating rink” sound from time to time, God bless him. It worked. His bass pedal work was unparalleled.

The recently departed George Shearing popularized Buckner’s locked hands method of chording. Much of the “Shearing sound” was based upon it. In a conversation I had with him some seasons back, he was proud to credit Buckner as the originator of the style. “Of course I picked up on what Milt was doing chord-wise,” Shearing told me. “The difference was that I applied the technique to popular songs, like ‘September in the Rain’ with The Quintet, while Milt applied it to rhythm and blues. I guess that’s why I appealed to a wider audience than Milt. But make no mistake. He invented the style.”

Milt Buckner spent a good deal of the 1960s in Europe, often playing and recording with Jo Jones, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Tate, Arnett Cobb , in reunion settings with Hampton, and with any number of superior European players.

The 1970s found him splitting his time between Europe, The Delmar-Morris and the occasional out-of-town nightclub date, such as the one that yielded the fabulous LP called “Go Power,” with Alan Dawson and Jacquet, recorded live at Lennie’s on the Turnpike outside of Boston in 1968.

The Milt Buckner I encountered in 1973 was quite the jovial entertainer, with a seemingly endless supply of limericks, jokes, funny vocals, and asides to his many fans and friends in the bar. But when the joviality was over and he got down to really playing, his power, the joy he brought to music, and his sense of swing was incomparable.
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I had been listening to him for years on record, but in person, this was overwhelming experience. I had to get to know this man. And, filled with a lot of guts, I had to work out a way to play with him.

I introduced myself t on one of his few breaks, told him what a big fan I was and began reciting things about his history and recording career that even he had forgotten. Perhaps he realized I was no mere fan or crank. I told him I was a drummer and had just come off working a Bar Mitzvah in Jersey.

“Why don’t you bring in your drums?” he asked.

I was floored. Having never heard me or heard of me, that’s trust.

The drums, a rudimentary four-piece set with a cymbal and hi-hat, were, of course, in my trunk. I set them up as quickly as I could and then it was time to hit. I started gingerly at first, but gradually opened up when I was given several drum breaks. Lucky for me that I knew many of his tunes and that I had big band experience.

Though we were a duo, this was a big band.

Any percussionist who has ever played in a setting with the Hammond B-3 or a similar instrument knows that “the feel” is entirely different than playing in an acoustic set-up. The organ is an electronic device, and at least back then, there was always a millisecond delay in line with what was actually played, and what was ultimately heard via the organ’s Leslie speakers. All the would-be Buddy Rich’s out there who loved playing “on top” of the beat—myself included—had to rethink their style and time feel, if hired to play with a good organist.

He never told me how to play, but he had a way of indicating what was working and what might work better. I started to “get it” and I didn’t get in his way. At the end of the night, he gave me an open invite to play with him anytime I wanted. “You can really play,” he said. “I knew it.”

I brought in a second set of drums, if you want to call it that—this ways the era of “cheap Japanese”equipment—and left it at The Delmar. If I didn’t have another gig, I’d play all night. If I was working on “the outside,” I’d run over to The Delmar right after the job.

Over a period of time, when he heard that I had become more comfortable with my role (no pun intended), he started playing more difficult things. Two that stand out were an adaptation of the Max Roach/Clifford Brown chart of “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and a virtual suite based on four versions of the venerable “Tea for Two.” Certainly, in the course of an evening, he had to play “Flyin’ Home,” “Hamp’s Boogie Woogie,” “Hey-Ba-Ba-Re-Bop” and all the rest.

I was with Milt Buckner, on and off, from 1973 to 1977. I never asked to be paid. Truth be told, I would have paid Milt, the club owner and any one else in charge, for he privilege. During our stint together in 1975, he began to introduce me as “his son,” ala Count Basie’s introduction of Joe Williams. What a touching, touching honor for me.

We worked well as a duo. My time improved—his ballads were slow and always heartfelt—and I learned when to support, when to shine, when to use brushes, when to concentrate on the hi-hat (remember, he worked often in a duo setting with hi-hat master Jo Jones), and when to shout.

In 1975, he was getting ready for the annual European sojourn. He asked me to be the drummer on the tour, which would feature him in both a duo setting and backing Illinois Jacquet and maybe Arnett Cobb. I was astounded, and could only reply, “What time do we leave?” Unfortunately, the promoter found out that another drummer was available. His name happened to be “Papa” Jo Jones. I was never bumped by a better man!

Milt never said so, but he felt badly about the situation. Upon his departure, he fixed it so I would be playing with his replacement at The Delmar, the legendary trumpeter Charlie “Devil” Gaines and his group. (Gaines was Louis Armstrong’s musical director at Victor in the early 1930s.) On top of it, I was actually going to get paid. Musically, the job with Gaines was marvelous. In other ways, it wasn’t so great. Milt Bucker, like the majority of those in jazz, was color-blind. The members of Gaines’ band, who had been with Steve Gibson and the Red Caps, were not. Charlie’s wife was very positive and encouraging to me throughout, and continually said that the behavior of these guys was “corny,” and that I should just hang in there.

Milt’s return to The Delmar from Europe was most welcome. What a surprise it was when he gifted me with an autographed copy of the very rare LP, “The Drums By Jo Jones.”

To cite another example of Milt’s grace, the owner of The Delmar decided to bring in some other, “name” players to concertize with Buckner. On one occasion, a “set” group was booked to play with Milt. This was the Al Grey/Jimmy Forrest band, featuring the great Duffy Jackson on drums. As wonderful as Duffy was and is, Milt believed I might have felt slighted about another drummer playing on the date (I didn’t). He insisted that I play in the duo setting with him during every lull, and he brought out his most swinging and difficult charts. He wanted to show the “name” visitors, I guess, that I was as good as anyone. That was something he didn’t have to do, and because of his generosity, he never got a break all night!

Yes, he offered as much entertainment as he did music, but that’s what the job was and that’s why he was invited back year after year. He believed in what Flip Phillips used to say: “If you wanna make a dollar, you gotta make ‘em holler.”

Though he came out of an earlier musical era, there was nothing “un-hip” about his playing, musical knowledge or skill at arranging. A listen to those late 1940s big band sides on MGM is ample evidence that, unlike some others, he moved along very well with the times.

One evening, a young hipster ambled into The Delmar, carrying a book of solo piano transcriptions recorded by pianist Bill Evans. This fellow, I think, was a jazz major at the Philadelphia Musical Academy, now University of the Arts. He may have heard Buckner or heard of him, but knew little about his background or innovations. He walked up to Milt and showed him the Bill Evans book. “Hey, man, did you ever play these? It’s Bill Evans, man.” Milt turned serious and said he never did play them, but asked if he could see the book for a moment.

He took the book over to the organ, arbitrarily opened it to a tune that could have Evans’ solo version of “Some Other Time.” Solo transcriptions are incredibly difficult to read, even after a good deal of practice. Milt Buckner read it down perfectly, at sight. He walked over to the youngster, who was astounded. Milt’s only statement was, “Bill Evans still doesn’t swing.”

The kid left the building with his tail between his legs. But he learned something that night.

Closing nights for Milt Buckner were always special. In 1977, the final night at The Delmar just about every Philadelphia musician and celebrity in the audience, including drummer Charlie Rice, pianists Ward Marsten and Ray Bryant, trombonist Bob McKinney, legendary politician Cecil B. Moore, television personality Edie Huggins, and a host of others. He ended with, naturally, “Flyin’ Home,” before going into his theme, “Somewhere in the Night.” He thanked everyone profusely and introduced one and all. He saved my introduction for last. He called me “His Son.”

Plans were to do several dates stateside with Jacquet before the inevitable trek overseas. His fans and friends in Europe were legion and he always did a lot of recording, for labels like Black and Blue. He was so worshipped over there, that a couple of pianists/organists virtually made their living imitating Milt’s playing.

In July of 1977, Milt Buckner was setting up the organ in a Chicago club, I believe, when he collapsed and died of a heart attack. Like everyone else who knew and loved him, I was devastated. The purity of this man’s art—to say nothing of his purity as a human being—was unequaled. . Musically and personally, he personified the words “sheer joy.”

There are a good amount of CDs available by the master. I would suggest the aforementioned “Go Power,” as well as the “Midnight Slows” series he did with a number of tenor saxophonists for the European Black and Blue label. If you can find the MGM big band recordings, which also demonstrate his talent on vibraphone, ala his old boss, consider yourself lucky. Perhaps the finest example of what he was all about was a late 1960s opus he recorded for the MPS label, called “Play Chords.” Buckner, for the first time in years, recorded solely on piano, and every track is unique. Standouts are “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Yours is my Heart Alone.”

Seeing Milt Bucker was an experience. There are a couple of good videos out there on YouTube and its clones, but I would recommend two that are available from JazzLegends.com: His Hampton association is amply represented on film in the DVD, “Lionel Hampton: King of the Vibes.” Milt’s overseas work in the 1970s with Jo Jones and Illinois Jacquet can be seen via a French film, also available via JazzLegends.com, titled “Jo Jones in Europe.”

What I learned from this man about music, about entertainment, showmanship, about business and about life was better than graduate school. These were times when the older players took the younger ones under their wing. Yes, it was teaching, in a sense. Today I guess this would be called “mentoring.” I don’t know if we’ll see days like that again. What I do know is that we will not again see the likes of Milt Buckner.

Contact me on the web at JazzLegends.com

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Bruce Klauber