Traps, the Drum Wonder (by Mark Stryker)

(EI: If my essay about Whiplash is the prosecution, this is the defense. Very special thanks to Mark Stryker.)  

Wow, Buddy Rich. Complicated. To do him justice would demand a sprawling essay that would wind its way through jazz, celebrity, race,  the sweep of 20th Century popular culture, child prodigies and child stars, the swing era, cultism, post-war big bands, jazz education, musical virtuosity, professionalism, craft and art and psychological analysis. What I offer here are just a few reflections.

What a life: Buddy was literally born into show business, joining his parents’ vaudeville act before the age of 2; he’d cap the show with a snare drum solo. By age 4 he was being billed as “Traps, the Drum Wonder.” Buddy eventually became the second highest paid child star of his era after Jackie Coogan (who most folks today only know as Uncle Fester on The Addams Family). Buddy worked briefly with Artie Shaw but became a household name with Tommy Dorsey from 1939-42 and ’45-46. (In between he was in the Marines.) He appeared in films and recorded with Prez, Bud, Bird and Jazz at the Philharmonic. Count Basie, with whom he also worked and recorded, was one of his closest friends, a father figure. Sammy Davis Jr. was another close friend. So was Sinatra – well, when Frank and Buddy weren’t trying to kill each other. Buddy was a product of show business, a product of jazz, a product of big bands and a product of an age when there was a lot of overlap between them all and the borders were porous. Buddy could really tap dance, really sing and, oh yeah, he played a little drums.

I think it’s important to remember that “Buddy Rich” and “The Cult of Buddy Rich” are different things, and it’s not fair to blame the former for the latter, even if the latter couldn’t exist without the former. I hate the cult. It grew up around Buddy because his charisma was undeniable, because his chops were truly spellbinding, because your average American (and rock drummer) has always mistaken virtuoso instrumental technique for artistry and expression, because Buddy was a media animal, and because he was a white star who came with the imprimatur of his black colleagues. Buddy was always on TV – Carson, Merv, Mike Douglas, guest spots on the Muppets, the Lucy show, etc. He was seriously funny, with great comic timing that surely came from studying all those comedians in vaudeville. He even co-starred with George Carlin and Buddy Greco in a summer replacement TV show in 1967. But he also didn’t have sustained success as a leader of his own band until launching the 20-year final act of his career in 1966. He was 48. Think about that for a minute: 48. That’s late to fulfill your ultimate destiny when you’ve already been in the business for 46 years.  Nothing was given to Buddy Rich; he earned everything, and he lived as if it could all go away tomorrow, because he had gone through enough false starts and failed ventures to know that it could.

Buddy was an incredibly gifted and natural musician. He did what he did better than anyone, though I’d be the first to admit that what he did is not something I need a lot of in my life – or maybe any at all. Power, speed, precision, intensity, excitement, grandstanding, bombast. They’re all indivisible with Buddy. But there’s more to it than that. There’s swing and groove and personality (for better or worse) and a pocket – not a bebop pocket, not a relaxed pocket, not a Basie pocket, not a Mel Lewis pocket. It’s a Buddy Rich pocket. Right on the damn beat and as consistent as an atomic clock. Don’t dig it? That’s cool. Buddy doesn’t give a shit what you think. Taste and patience? Well, those lines were kinda long when Buddy came around so, to paraphrase sportswriter Frank Deford on Bob Knight, Buddy went back to take extras on bile and ego. But Buddy had high standards and expected nothing from anyone else that he didn’t demand from himself. Respect.

Buddy’s early playing grew out of Jo Jones, Sid Catlett and Chick Webb, and he once said that he learned how to play brushes by seeing O’Neil Spencer with the John Kirby Sextet. Buddy admired Gene Krupa for elevating the profile of drummers, and surely some of Krupa’s showmanship rubbed off – though it’s worth remembering that Buddy was already a showman before he was out of diapers. “I was quite clear about what my job was by the time I went with Shaw,” he once told Burt Korall. “I knew I had to embellish each arrangement, tie it together, keep the time thing going, and inspire the players to be better. My way was to keep the energy level up and push hard. This concept was strictly from Harlem. I learned from black drummers like Chick Webb, Jo Jones and Sid Catlett. In those days, the only reason you were hired was to keep the band together. It was up to you to swing the band, add impetus and drive. And it certainly helped if you had a feeling for what the arranger wanted. The function of the drummer was to play for the band, and if you were good enough, you’d be noticed.”

Buddy never lost his swing era roots, but he heard Max Roach and his contemporaries and modernized his cymbal beat and left-hand accents along the way. By the ‘70s he was playing his own brand of rock and funk convincingly. Has any drummer in jazz traveled so far, from “Hawaiian War Chant” to “Birdland”?  Of course, the 1950 studio session with Bird, Dizzy and Monk is not his finest hour. What was Norman Granz thinking?! But Buddy was still trying to figure it out. Maybe it would have been better a decade later. Probably not. But I tell you what: He plays beautifully on those mid ‘40s sides with Lester Young and Nat Cole: sparkling and subtle brush work, playing for the group and not himself – just one of the cats.

I hear a lot of shuffling parade drumming in Buddy’s playing: The rudiments recombined at supersonic speed. Know who else made magic with rudiments? Philly Joe Jones – who loved Buddy (and vice versa). Speaking to Down Beat in 1976, Philly Joe said: “My favorite drummers are – and always have been – Max Roach, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Buddy Rich. I always get looked at funny when I mention Buddy Rich. Shit! If any drummer looks another way when Bernard is doing his thing, he’s not only crazy but I’ll bet you’ll never hear his name get any size in music. Max don’t want to play like Buddy and I’m sure it’s the same with Art, Kenny and the others; but, really, who do you know can upstage Buddy Rich? Or get the same ovation from the audience? If you listen and watch Buddy and have hands and mind, you’ll cop something.”

Buddy drove a big band the way Sandra Bullock drove that bus in Speed, except Buddy goes faster – 100 miles an hour and in complete control, setting up figures, filling in the gaps, zooming around the drum set, having a ball just being Buddy Rich, because being Buddy Rich WAS a fucking ball. He could purr rather than roar when he wanted. He could keep his ego in check when he wanted, especially when working with his elders or distinguished contemporaries. But, shit, it was just so much more fun being Buddy Rich. It was also a big responsibility. After all, his name was on the marquee, just like it was when he was 4.

For me the best of Buddy’s own records are the early World Pacific LPs from 1966-68:  Swingin’ New Big Band, Big Swing Face, The New One and perhaps Mercy, Mercy (mostly for Art Pepper’s gripping alto ballad feature, “Alfie,” and some high-energy tenor solos from Don Menza). While there were certainly young players on those bands (Ernie Watts, Chuck Findley) there were also midcareer pros with real big band experience like the very musical tenor saxophone soloist Jay Corre, alto saxophonist Gene Quill, pianist Ray Starling and others. Even a guy like trumpeter Bobby Shew, who was just 25 when he joined the first band, had already been around the block. The result is that those bands phrase, blend and swing with a naturalism and shaded dynamics that Buddy’s later bands, stocked mostly with kids just out of college jazz programs, never do. Most of Buddy’s post-1970 recordings give me the willies – the beat is too thin, the band too loud, the electric bass too dorky, the time feel too driven. The ensemble too often sounds like a halftime marching band playing “jazz.” Many Buddy enthusiasts will protest and point to the 1976-78 band that Buddy dubbed his “Killer Force” after a Hollywood shoot ‘em up starring Peter Fonda and Telly Savalas. Some fine players came through the ranks, among them Steve Marcus (the tenor saxophonist who stayed on the band for 12 years as its major soloist and straw boss, until Buddy’s death), Bob Mintzer, Barry Keiner, Dave Stahl, John Marshall and Jon Burr. Buddy himself said it was his best band. I’m not convinced. I do like parts of the 1977 LP Buddy Rich Plays and Plays and Plays (RCA) – nuclear energy, inventive Mintzer charts, good solos and a real unity of spirit – but the vibe for me is still too much jazz-as-athletic-competition.

Buddy’s own playing was more nuanced and tasteful in the early days of his band. The initial book came from the pens of Bill Holman, Bill Potts, Bill Reddie, Oliver Nelson, Phil Wilson, Bob Florence, Shorty Rogers, Don Sebesky and others. Yeah, the book doesn’t come close to Thad Jones (or Gerald Wilson), and many of those writing for Rich would do their best work in other contexts. But Buddy is such an animating spirit that he elevates the less inspired charts, and the good ones take off like rockets. The material is an interesting mix of originals, standards, flag wavers, virtuoso drum concertos (“West Side Story,” “Channel One Suite”) and covers of au courant pop tunes (“Norwegian Wood,” “Wack Wack,” “Uptight”) that attracted a younger audience without alienating the parents who remembered Buddy from the Dorsey days. This was not an easy tightrope to walk while carrying a 16-man payroll. Buddy saw it as a necessity to keep the band on the road and recording, and he pulled it off with panache and integrity. Respect.

The band at its best? Try the Basie-oriented “Basically Blues” (Wilson). Dig how Buddy guides the ensemble, swinging easy, setting up the brass perfectly and building to an honest climax in the shout. There’s real depth here. A lot of people forget that Buddy could play like this.

“Love for Sale,” arranged by Pete Meyers, who I don’t know anything about, but this is a rollicking chart. The band is tearing it up, and the thrilling speed-of-light snare drum break that Buddy unleashes at 3:53 is from another planet. I’ve heard it a zillion times and it still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Every time. Elvin and Trane make the hair stand up on the back of my neck too, for completely different and more profound reasons. But how much in life honestly makes the hair stand on the back of your neck for ANY reason? So when it happens, you gotta celebrate. Fuck yeah!

“Love for Sale” stayed in the book for the next 20 years, and it’s interesting to compare the original 1967 recording with the many later versions on YouTube. The tempo is always brighter in subsequent performances, and the bands invariably sound on edge and nervous. Is it the electric bass? The young players in the band? Buddy pushing and overcompensating because he subconsciously knows that the cats aren’t really swinging? All of the above? I don’t know. But it ain’t the same.

“Big Swing Face” (Potts). The blues in F. Nothing complicated but a really well-structured arrangement with a compelling narrative arc. Ernie Watts plays his ass off, the saxophone section soli is a beaut, the band plays with expressive dynamics and Buddy’s balance of suppleness and strength is rewarding in a way that his later work rarely is. No, it’s not Mel. Yeah, I like Mel better too. There’s NOBODY like Mel. But there’s nobody like Buddy either, and Mel would tell you that too.

“Big Swing Face” – the chart and the 1967 LP – holds a special place in my personal journey into jazz. It was the first jazz record I ever owned. (Kind of Blue was second.) I was 10 years old when my older brother played saxophone in the high school jazz band, and I can still remember hearing them play this chart in concert. The way the brass instruments and saxophones flashed under the lights, the volume of the band, the drums, the fun everybody seemed to be having and the irresistible “lift” of swing all made a huge impression on me. More than anything else, that experience and Buddy’s record compelled me to want to play the saxophone and jazz. So if I have a soft spot for Buddy Rich, well, there’s history there. Still, every time I go back to those early World Pacific LPs, they sound as good as ever to me, and I trust my ears enough to know it’s not just “first kiss” nostalgia.  I got hip pretty quick, and by the time I was in high school I was telling my friends that Philly Joe, Elvin and Art were hipper than Buddy. Now that I’m older I understand that hipness isn’t everything. Buddy Rich is nothing but Buddy Rich. That’s enough for one man. There’s only one of those – thank God! You don’t have to love him, and only a sycophant or a fool would love him unconditionally. I certainly don’t, but I love how Big Swing Face makes me feel. Respect.


There’s a lot of video of Buddy and those who are interested can dive down the rabbit hole. I do want to point out some interesting odds and ends and things I tripped over while mulling this piece.

A movie short of Buddy of doing his vaudeville act was filmed in 1929. He’s either 11 or 12 here. While the video has apparently not survived the audio has. Here are two tastes:

Sinatra may not have had to worry about vocal competition from Buddy, and his pitch is, um, slippery. But, still, this is game.

A little hoofing: Buddy tap dancing with Louis DaPron, 1948

The sound isn’t great on this clip from the Merv Griffin show in 1967, but I love how clueless Merv is concerning the title of Herbie Phillips’ “A Little Trane.” The chart starts with an “Equinox” vibe and later quotes “Pursuance.”  The vintage graphics during Buddy’s solo at 4:27 have a “Spinal Tap” quality.

Buddy broke up his big band in 1974 and organized a small group that was in residence frequently at a club he opened in Manhattan called “Buddy’s Place.” He recorded an LP for the Groove Merchant label called Very Live at Buddy’s Place with – wait for it – Sonny Fortune on alto and flute, Sal Nistico on tenor, Kenny Barron or Mike Abene on piano & electric piano, Jack Wilkins on guitar, a very young Anthony Jackson on electric bass and Jimmy Maeulen on percussion. It’s a great blindfold test (especially Herbie’s “Chameleon” and the Latin-rock tune “Sierra Lonely”). It’s a pretty looney record – sometimes exhilarating, sometimes bizarre, sometimes both at once. The cover is a hoot: everybody in matching uniforms – white Pierre Cardin leisure suits with yellow turtle necks, except for Buddy, who wears a dark suit. Something weird happens on “Nica’s Dream.” They don’t play the bridge during the opening melody chorus, and after the head there’s a splice at the start of Fortune’s solo that cuts a chorus in half. He plays a 16-bar A, then what sounds like an 8-bar bridge, before the form gets back to normal. I think there may be a second splice that accounts for the truncated form, but it’s hard to tell exactly. “Billie’s Bounce” is trio with Barron leading the way. He double times like crazy, plays some McCoy-like fourths AND some barrelhouse blues. I hope I get a chance one day to ask Barron about working with Buddy and this track in particular. The tempo drops considerably. This must be the only example on record where Buddy slows down (or allows the band to slow down). I’d be surprised if he actually heard this track or approved it before it was released. Here’s a youtube playlist for the whole LP.

Somebody captured on tape about an hour of Buddy’s stage announcements while he was playing his club in ’74. It’s a great window into the era and the World of Buddy Rich – his humor, stage presence, celebrity. He announces the band, points out the guests in the room – Alan King, John Newcombe (the tennis star), Joni Mitchell, among them – previews coming attractions (including trying to sign Miles for the club, which leads to a fascinating anecdote), and basically just raps to the people. Best of all is a moment a little less than halfway through the tape when Redd Foxx and Scatman Crothers – Buddy was friends with both – come up on stage to sing and jive around. (Click on the “Buddy and Special Guests” link.)

Finally, I assume that anyone reading this has already heard Buddy’s legendary tirades screaming at the band on the bus. But if you’ve somehow missed this jazz rite of passage, here it is:

I mentioned Bob Knight earlier, so here’s an interesting companion recording: Knight chewing out his Indiana team during the 1990-91 season. Both Buddy and Knight used fear as a motivational tactic – Old School.

Did you know that Buddy’s tirades were especially popular among comedians? Jerry Seinfeld explains, noting that three of Buddy’s lines made into Seinfeld.

Mark Stryker has been an arts reporter and critic at the Detroit Free Press since 1995 covering classical music, jazz and the visual arts. He is close to completing his book on modern and contemporary jazz musicians from Detroit for the University of Michigan Press.