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.