The Legacy of Buddy Rich

In Buddy Rich’s centennial year, Andrew Gilbert considers the brilliant drummer’s contentious legacy

Photo of Buddy Rich in New York in 1946

Whether or not Buddy Rich is the greatest drummer in jazz history might be the least interesting question surrounding this singular artist. Born in Brooklyn on Sept. 30, 1917, Rich died three decades ago at the age of 69, his status as a household name undiminished until the end. And what’s striking today is that while the sturm und drang surrounding other era-defining jazz controversies has largely faded away—try raising a ruckus with a denunciation of Miles’ fusion—Rich has lost none of his argument-starting mojo.

Part of what makes the drummer a lightning rod is that his legacy extends far beyond the world of jazz. Rich wasn’t just a preternaturally gifted musician who started working in vaudeville as a toddler and took on the primary provider role for his family in his early teens. He was also a fine singer, a skilled tap dancer and a supremely self-confident raconteur who became a ubiquitous fixture on talk shows in the 1960s and ’70s, when network TV blithely reigned as the most pervasive and powerful cultural force in the United States. Many of rock’s most famous drummers cited Rich as a primary influence, which is why he’s often the only jazz cat included on clickbait listicles purporting to reveal the trap set’s greatest practitioners.

What is it about the drums that inspires the need for superlatives? In jazz we talk about our favorite bassists, saxophonists and guitarists, embracing the wondrous individuality of a multigenerational array of masters. We don’t say Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young or Trane was the Best Tenor Saxophonist Ever. Maybe it’s the athletic quality of the instrument that leads to the kind of categorical claims delineated by Steve Smith, who spearheaded the excellent Rich-alumni project Buddy’s Buddies.

Drummer Steve Smith
Steve Smith (photo by Giovanni Daniotti)

“When I was coming up in the ’60s, Buddy was regarded as the greatest living drummer of the time,” Smith says. “He has this perpetual place as the greatest drum-set virtuoso who ever lived, and that still stands up today, though there are drummers who have developed incredible abilities through practice. Still, there’s something about Buddy’s visceral energy and natural technique, his swing, his feel, his musicianship, his high intensity and the way he could drive a band, the way he would play the music and raise the level of musicians around him. The biggest change was the arrival of Mahavishnu Orchestra, when Billy Cobham became the king of the hill for a good long time, as far as being influential.”

Smith makes a compelling case, and few take issue with Rich’s enduring influence. What raises hackles is how his long shadow can obscure the vast contributions of his fellow drummers. And the fact that Rich’s visibility was inextricably linked to his race amplifies the emotions around his contested claim as the Greatest of All Time. Analogies between sports and jazz are often more entertaining than elucidating, but discussions about Rich often echo the endless G.O.A.T. debates over Lebron James and Michael Jordan (with the ancillary dispute about whether you can meaningfully compare figures from different eras). More telling than the G.O.A.T. fight is the enduring disagreement over who should receive the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award, with some arguing that the honor should go to the most dominant figure and others maintaining that the trophy belongs to the player who contributes the most to his team.

Rich seems to inspire the same kinds of discussions. When we talk about Buddy, we’re talking about the nature of genius and what we value most in a jazz artist. However you feel about the way he played time, Rich tends to stand alone, and I don’t mean as the G.O.A.T. Just about every other major drum innovator made their definitive contributions within the context of specific rhythm sections and bands, as part of a larger gestalt. Think of his rough contemporary Papa Jo Jones in Basie’s All-American Rhythm Section, Elvin Jones with Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner, or Tony Williams with Ron Carter and Herbie Hancock.

Yet a drummer from another definitive Miles Davis rhythm section, Philly Joe Jones, “loved Buddy Rich,” says drummer Mike Clark, who sought out his drum heroes as a young player in the 1960s, sussing out whether they were in the mood for conversation. “He wanted to be able to play what Buddy played and was frustrated that he couldn’t. Buddy made up combinations of things between hands and feet that nobody was doing in the 1940s. But in a small group, Philly would be my guy; I like Philly Joe’s poetry more than Buddy Rich’s poetry.”

Simply attempting to start a conversation about Rich can create tension. In reaching out to an array of drummers for this story, I contacted E.J. Strickland, who politely declined to talk about Rich. He made it clear he recognizes Rich’s outsized talent, but he expressed frustration that writers ask him about Buddy more than they ask about any other drummer. He took to Facebook to lament that Rich continues to overshadow so many other supremely talented players. “I have nothing to say,” he wrote. “He’s AMAZING!! We all know this. But to tell you the truth, I was much more interested in many, many other drummers. Why? Because I just felt they made much more ‘music’ as opposed to ‘drumming.’ … What I am saying is that many others made the music ‘feel’ so great, and had such a personal ‘feel’ that it is the precise thing that distinguished them from one another and the precise thing that stood out. If you just mention Al Foster’s name, I start dancing a certain way. His ride-cymbal beat is funky as hell. And how melodic is his drum soloing? How lyrical? Certain things just stand out to me.”

Strickland’s post quickly garnered more than 100 comments (mostly from drummers), with some passionate partisans rushing to Rich’s defense, even though Strickland had merely expressed a preference for other players. And really, he’s got a point. As a faithful, tithing member of the Church of Billy Higgins, I get this.

It’s particularly galling that so much of Rich’s notoriety outside of jazz stems from the infamous bus tapes that captured the drummer berating his band. Made by pianist Lee Musiker between January of 1983 and January of 1985, the tapes circulated for years like samizdat before the Internet made them widely available, complete with transcripts. Long before they surfaced online the rants became fodder for comedians, including Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, who worked several Rich-isms into Seinfeld scripts. But in the widely watched clip of Seinfeld detailing how he repurposed three quotes from Rich rants as lines of dialogue, the joke is on Jerry. He seems to misunderstand the motive for Rich’s rage, saying the drummer is mad because the band is playing too loudly, when of course he’s irate because he thinks the musicians were playing badly, loud.

As Mel Tormé captured so vividly in his affectionate biography Traps: The Drum Wonder, Rich could be irrepressibly immature. Tormé doesn’t defend Rich’s conduct, but he does make it clear that he was generous to a fault, and carried a burden from a childhood laden with adult responsibilities. Indeed, looking at the life trajectory of so many child stars, Rich comes out looking pretty darn good. And it’s easy to forget the timeline when it comes to Rich, as he was such an unprecedented prodigy. He was headlining in vaudeville in 1921, when Louis Armstrong was still playing on riverboats with Fate Marable.

Though he had little experience playing jazz, he turned his attention to the music in the mid-1930s and quickly became an innovative force, expanding on the trap-set vocabulary honed by Chick Webb. If he heard a young drummer with promise, he often made a point of taking an interest. Billy Hart recalls Rich coming by to hear him play several times when he was working with Stan Getz. Hart doesn’t count Buddy among his foundational influences, but he absorbed his playing on the essential 1946 Lester Young session with Nat Cole and Charlie Parker With Strings, “the first Bird record I owned,” Hart says. “I memorized that record.”

Drummer Billy Hart
Billy Hart (photo by Vincent Soyez)

“I remember hanging out with Tony Bennett in Japan, and he kept with him a tape that he played for me with Buddy Rich sitting in with the Count Basie Orchestra, and that was impressive,” he continues. “Buddy’s in one of the only videos where you can see Bird live [a short clip from 1950], and I was impressed with that. Then, when I was playing at the Newport Jazz Festival with my first big-name band, Jimmy Smith, we followed the Brubeck Quartet with Joe Morello. Buddy was going to follow me, and they wanted to hang out, so instead of going somewhere else they just stayed backstage and talked and watched me play. When I finished, Buddy gave me some advice about how I was sitting on the drums, about my posture. I followed his advice.”

One reason why some players who came of age after Rich’s death might find the claims of Buddy devotees so annoying is that his influence doesn’t always serve aspiring drummers well. But just as Betty Carter shouldn’t be blamed for the countless singers who imitate her full-throttle scatting without her sense of form and rhythmic prowess, Rich can’t be held responsible for a certain chops-or-bust mentality taken up by his disciples. (That approach was illustrated so disturbingly in Damien Chazelle’s 2014 film Whiplash, in which the Rich-revering protagonist seeks musical greatness without evidencing much interest in actually making music with his fellow human beings.)

Tommy Igoe, the son of the late great studio drummer, teacher, jazz player and close Rich colleague Sonny Igoe, knew Buddy well growing up and speaks avidly about Rich’s brilliance. He’s put together several concerts this year celebrating Rich’s centennial, including a bravura show at Yoshi’s in July. Fronting a talent-packed orchestra, Igoe played charts from Rich’s big band, including fierce versions of Don Menza’s “Groovin’ Hard” and “Time Check,” a dynamically rhythmic, tidal-force take on Mike Abene’s “Birdland,” and a huge, walloping finale of Bill Reddie’s West Side Story medley. Catching up with Igoe after the gig, he talked about how Rich’s music doesn’t always translate well in less accomplished hands.

Tommy Igoe
Tommy Igoe (photo by Trisha Leeper)

“You either hit a grand slam playing Buddy’s charts or flail like a kid,” he says. “They’re very athletic, and not just the drum chair. The whole band needs thoroughbreds; you need studs or it’s going to sound like a high school band. I was raised on a steady diet of that, of Art Blakey and Buddy Rich. Talk about two polar opposites coming at you! But Buddy and Art were the same way—old-school, no excuses. When somebody was complaining about the quality of drums, it was ‘Shut the fuck up. You should be able to play on the boxes they came in.’”

Drummer Ulysses Owens
Ulysses Owens (photo by Rayon Richards)

Ulysses Owens Jr. wasn’t yet 5 years old when Rich died, and he’s swimming against the millennial current in his devotion to Rich’s legacy. As a kid he cajoled his parents into getting him Rich’s instructional video, which planted in him a deep love of the drumming tradition. It’s a critique made by many veteran players who say young tenor saxophonists start with Michael Brecker, or Chris Potter, or Mark Turner. “Most drummers of my generation are only dealing with Tony, Jack, Elvin and the guys that came up in the ’60s, and move forward [from] there,” Owens says. “Buddy is almost an entertainer to them. But that’s one thing I loved about Buddy Rich and Max Roach and Art Blakey: They transcended jazz culture. Buddy could sing and tap dance. You’ve got to be a bad cat to play the crap out of the drums and end up as a guest on the Tonight Show. I’m very influenced by all those guys—Papa Jo, Ray Bauduc, Sid Catlett. And no one from that era was more inventive than Buddy Rich.”

For young musicians put off by Rich’s fireworks, Steve Smith recommends checking out the sessions “where he’s not in the heroic mode, the albums that Buddy Rich played on in such a sympathetic role that you may not recognize it’s Buddy playing,” he says. “For instance, listen to the albums Charlie Parker With StringsElla and Louis and one of my favorites, Lester Young Trio featuring Young with Nat Cole and Buddy. Sublime accompaniment. For a lesser-known album featuring explosive accompaniment, check out Sammy Davis Jr./Buddy Rich: The Sounds of ’66. The album was recorded live in Las Vegas when Buddy was starting his ‘Swingin’ New Big Band.’ The performance of ‘Come Back to Me’ is amazing!”

Frankly, the debate about Buddy Rich reveals more about our taste than his. At 100, Rich’s legacy is inextricably woven into jazz’s lustrous rhythmic fabric, and one needn’t parse his particular position in the firmament to marvel at his astonishing gift.