Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,522

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,522

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This is the grave of Buddy Rich.

Born in Brooklyn in 1917, Bernard Rich began drumming at a young age. He was one of the second wave of Jewish musicians to be entranced by jazz and create their own version of it. He was a bit young to be part of the very first wave of Jewish jazz musicians, but he was shortly after them. His parents were immigrants and vaudeville performers, so they weren’t too outraged with the idea of their son becoming a musician. He started hitting things as if he was playing the drums when he was two years old and he never stopped. You have to love a profession where your entire career is hitting something.

Rich started performing professionally in 1937, working with the clarinetist Joe Marsala. It did not take him long to get gigs with the big bands of the day, including under the leadership of Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and Tommy Dorsey. But Rich had a huge ego. He thought bandleaders were a total waste of time. His belief was that the only musician who really counted in music was the drums, since all the other musicians had to follow the rhythm. He was not real quiet about hiding his feelings on this either, which did not endear him to his bosses. Artie Shaw basically fired him when Rich said he was playing for himself first and foremost, the audience second, and the band third at best. But Rich did find a home with Dorsey in 1939 and stayed with it until 1942, when World War II came calling. Interestingly, he was not used as a soldier in the war and he wasn’t used as a musician either. He was a judo instructor. I guess he knew it. He also got hurt, I think with the judo, and was discharged in 1944.

Even at this time though, Rich was pretty impressed with himself and wanted to cement his legacy. In 1942, he wrote Buddy Rich’s Modern Interpretation of Snare Drum Rudiments, with his friend Henry Adler. Supposedly, it was a key book in the history of teaching drumming and I imagine has plenty to say to the novice drummer today. There was an irony here, which is that Rich had complete contempt for practicing much. I know there is a difference here between a master spending all his time practicing and an novice trying to figure it out. But he probably had a point when he said that if you cant’ figure something out with an hour of practice, you aren’t going to figure it out with four hours of practice. I assume this is another way of saying that most people aren’t going to be good drummers anyway so you will know pretty quickly whether you should just give up or move on. A man of very strong opinions on pretty much everything, Rich also eschewed playing drums with his hands, saying it hurt too much and why wouldn’t you just use drumsticks? I’m not sure that Rich had thought much about traditions of African drumming here, but it probably does hurt!

Rich was a great drummer, but as he entered the prime of his career, things would not be so easy for him. That’s because the big bands of his youth were going out of style, increasingly replaced with smaller groups around singular figures such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He formed the Buddy Rich Big Band upon return from the military. It had some success. Frank Sinatra was a friend of Rich and Blue Eyes himself funded the Rich Band. But things were kind of tough for Rich. His band floated in and out of existence for years. Sometimes he would have to go work for other people again to make money.

What helped Rich was having a lot of show business friends. One was Johnny Carson and given that Carson was very much a man of the Big Band era (Doc Severinsen (still alive!) was his bandleader after all), Rich had frequent appearances on The Tonight Show over the years. Moreover, Carson was a huge fan of jazz drumming, so they really connected. He was frequently on the Steve Allen Show as well. This helped keep his career alive.

Rich had something of a renaissance in the late 60s, when the big bands could roll on the nostalgia circuit for older people. After about 1966, he led his band full-time and was frequently on the road. He made some key recordings through this period as well. His 1955 album with Gene Krupa, Krupa and Rich, is one of the most important drum albums ever made in jazz, maybe the most important. When the older generation of jazz legends wanted to make a recording, they might well hire Rich to play. That was true of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong and Sammy Davis, Jr. and Oscar Peterson. Plus Sinatra of course. He wasn’t above experimentation either. I’ve never heard the album, but in 1968, he made a record with Ustad Alla Rakha, a master of the tabla, at the moment when Indian instruments were entering the mainstream of western music (however briefly) thanks to the Beatles.

Rich was also, to be frank, a horrible human being. He was known for berating people and had an uncontrollable temper. He was often awful to the people working with him. We can see it as cute when he was telling his bosses that he mattered more than they did in the bands they led. But when he was the leader, he could take that arrogance and turn it nasty. Dusty Springfield once slapped his face. When Billy Cobham asked Rich to sign his bass drum, Rich threw it down a flight of stairs. Mel Tormé had a whole archive of recordings of Rich yelling at people that he kept for some reason. One recording has Rich screaming at his trumpeter in the 80s for growing a beard and threatening to fire him over it. He also had complete contempt for other types of music than jazz, both rock and country he thought was savage, primitive music that showed that people were stupid. So yeah, quite a piece of work here. He was however married to the same woman for 33 years, until his death, so it’s hard to know whether he was actually a good husband or was a tyrant in the home like he was on the road.

Rich was pretty much on the road his entire life. In 1987, he was on tour in New York when he suffered a stroke. He got back to his home in California after some treatment for further testing and it was discovered that he had brain cancer. It was seen as curable. He had the surgery, went home for recovery, and was engaged in chemotherapy when his body just had enough and his heart gave out. He was 69 years old.

Let’s listen to some Buddy Rich.

Ok, we aren’t doing better than Buddy Rich on The Muppets.

Buddy Rich is buried in Westwood Memorial Park, Los Angeles, California.

If you would like this series to visit other great jazz drummers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. I think Max Roach is the only drummer I’ve visited before this. Tony Williams is in Calverton, New York and Gene Krupa is in Chicago. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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