Every pioneering party needs a scout: someone who braves inclement weather, hunger and fatigue and forges ahead into the wilderness to determine whether or not it is safe for the rest of the party to follow. To do this alone, guided only by instinct and an inner voice, is a rare thing in today’s world of GPS devices. Buddy Collette, who was born and died in Los Angeles, was not only the spiritual father of Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, James Newton, myself and others, he was also was our scout and GPS. We wanted to be explorers, but could never have traversed the territories that we did and do, had he not gone before us.
I met Master Collette on the L.A. scene when I was a student at the University of Southern California. He was a thorough and important musician in Los Angeles, a man who rose above the condition of his time. The world opened its arms to him and he flourished there. In turn, he was always looking out for young musicians and took note of who was doing what and where. Eventually he began to call me to sub for him when he had studio sessions or gigs he couldn’t make. He was always very positive and always encouraged me to pursue my dream.
When I graduated from USC, I took a teaching job to save enough money to move to NYC. One day I got a call from Buddy. “I know you’re teaching now,” he said. “And I know you want to play. Eric has left Chico [Hamilton] to join Mingus, and Chico asked me to help him out. I can’t go, so I told him to take you. Can you pack your bags?” The rest is history. Master Collette was my GPS, insisting I turn left and step on the accelerator when my motor was idling at a yellow light.
A few years later, Buddy needed to spend a couple of months in NYC to work on arrangements for Ella Fitzgerald, and help Mingus with the music for his Town Hall concert. I was so happy to offer him my apartment at 1 Sheridan Square in the Village to live in while he was there. He and Eric played flute duets there every day. For years after his stay, musicians would come up to me and tell me about all the great parties they had been to at my place.
Buddy and I stayed close in spirit over the years and spoke often on the phone. He was a profound reservoir of information, and his deep, calm voice was a balm to the soul. Whenever I was performing in L.A., he would come out to see me. We last spoke just before I started a tour last fall. He was planning to bring his family to my L.A. concert on Sept. 25. Buddy was a great sage and saint: The doors he opened for us are innumerable and monumental.
A man walks up to the wall, looks over and sees paradise. Without hesitation he jumps to the other side. A second man walks up and does the same thing. A third man walks up to the wall, looks over and sees paradise, but realizes there are drowning souls and that he must go back to teach them how to swim. That was Master Buddy Collette.