Few musicians in jazz history have been as revered—and reviled—as Buddy Rich (1917-1987). Two recent remembrances chronicle those extremes. Pelle Berglund’s biography, One of a Kind: The Making of the World’s Greatest Drummer, reveals the self-taught musician’s natural brilliance and infamous temperament, from joining his parents’ vaudeville act as an 18-month-old to leading his final self-named big band at age 69. And Just in Time: The Final Recording, captured live at Ronnie Scott’s in London less than five months before his death from complications of brain cancer, displays Rich in top form to the end as both drummer and bandleader.
Rich was notorious for being overly demanding of other musicians, a mindset that stemmed in part from his quest for perfection within his own playing. The Stockholm-based Berglund, a fellow drummer, witnessed that quest firsthand.
“My first experience seeing Buddy was here in Sweden,” Berglund says, “in a town called Vaxjo in 1977. I was only 20 years old, and it was like seeing a drummer with turbo feet and hands. Buddy had serious back problems. They had to lead him to the drums, but when he started playing, he was magic.”
That magic is charted by Berglund in One of a Kind through interviews with friends, family, and fans. The Brooklyn-born Rich first emerges as “Traps, the Drum Wonder” in parents Robert and Bess Rich’s stage show, displaying an uncanny ability to follow the rhythms of their accompanying band. The stock exchange crash of 1929, as well as the young drummer’s adolescence, help hasten the end of both child-star status and his parents’ act. But jazz is emerging everywhere in New York City, and Rich becomes influenced by the drumming showmanship of Gene Krupa and the drive of Chick Webb.
As the swing era begins, Berglund paints a vivid picture of Rich’s initial troubles getting steady employment. Two reasons are his volume (later tempered), and inability to read music (counteracted by the fact that he could memorize charts on first listen). Rich is also typecast as a Dixieland drummer via his early work with clarinetist Joe Marsala and trumpeter Bunny Berigan, initially leading famed big-band clarinetist Artie Shaw to decline his services.
Finally hired by Shaw, Rich primarily learns a disdain for the business side of music from the bandleader. Trombonist Tommy Dorsey employs Rich afterward, and the drummer eventually incorporates some of his iron-fist techniques in leading his own ensembles. Both jazz orchestras appear in motion pictures, an important component of fame that helps boost the young drummer’s name recognition. From the mid-’40s through the next four decades, Rich increases that recognition with big bands whenever possible and affordable.
“I saw Buddy two more times,” Berglund says. “In 1979, he was a guest player with a Swedish big band at the amusement park Grona Lund in Stockholm, and I saw the rehearsal two days before. Two of Buddy’s best friends also joined the band, [trumpeter] Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison and [saxophonist] Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis. Both performances were absolutely great.”
Berglund is a fan who never met Rich, making his book the counterpoint to Traps: The Drum Wonder, a personal, chronological 1991 recollection by singer and friend Mel Tormé. The famed drum battles with Krupa and Max Roach are portrayed, fueling the title claim of Rich as “The World’s Greatest Drummer”: an athletic, nonmusical term based purely on speed and technique. Rich didn’t like bebop, popularized in the 1940s, although he recorded and performed with titans like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Ditto fusion, which emerged in the 1960s via Miles Davis. So stylistically, he wasn’t a better bop drummer than Roach or a better fusion drummer than Tony Williams.
“The world’s greatest big-band swing drummer” is a more plausible claim; “the greatest drum soloist” more ironclad. Like other virtuosos—Parker and bassist Jaco Pastorius come to mind—Rich had the rare, innate ability to translate whatever he heard in his head through his instrument with zero lag time, truly making him one of a kind.
Just in Time provides compelling audio evidence of Rich’s greatness. As daughter Cathy Rich writes in the liner notes, his young 15-piece band had been together for two years, and it plays with the power, confidence, even swagger of its leader. Favorites like Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” and Mike Barone’s “Shawnee” get burning treatments, longtime elder saxophone statesman Steve Marcus shines, and the Rolling Stones mobile recording studio captures the performances exquisitely.
Rich sounds relaxed and restrained on Matt Harris’ “Harco Shuffle” and Bill Holman’s “Loose,” and brings down the house late with signature flurries on a medley of tunes from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. It’s a final reminder of the drummer who helped bring his instrument to the forefront of jazz, with all the inherent reverence and admiration, jealousy and disdain.
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