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MUSIC : From Lead Player to Leader : Buddy Childers puts down the trumpet to take the helm of his own big band.

August 18, 1995|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times

SHERMAN OAKS — At the highest points of his career, the usually pale face of trumpeter Buddy Childers has turned beet red.

That's because Childers' specialty has been playing lead trumpet in big bands. That post requires a trumpeter not only to provide the main melodic line of a piece, but also to play higher and louder than anyone else in the ensemble.

Childers has done this for such luminaries as Stan Kenton, Benny Carter, Woody Herman, Tommy Dorsey and Toshiko Akiyoshi and behind singer Frank Sinatra.

These days, the dynamic Childers has pretty much had it with lead playing, though he takes the occasional job with Frank Sinatra Jr. or Chuck Flores. Now, he says, "I just want to play jazz and listen to other people play my music." That's just what he gets to do when he leads his big band, as he will Tuesday at the Moonlight Tango Cafe. There, he shares billing with singer/pianist Buddy Greco, who will be backed by Childers' band during the performance.

The trumpeter's first-rate ensemble band includes Wayne Bergeron and Ron Stout (trumpet), Ray Reed and Glen Garrett (saxophone), Andy Martin and Thurman Green (trombone) and Brian O'Rourke (piano).

At the Moonlight Tango, Childers will leave the lead work to Bergeron, who has also been spotlighted with many L.A. area big bands. "Wayne is just marvelous, one of the best players I've ever heard in that position," he says.

Instead of doing all that physically demanding playing, Childers will stand in front of the band and conduct, offer the occasional jazz solo, as on the ballad feature "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," and listen.

Hearing the band play something he's written has become one of his fondest activities, says Childers, who lives in North Hollywood with his wife, Carol. "To play a good solo is a joy, but to hear one of my arrangements played as well as these guys play is an indescribable thrill."


Though his acclaim is as a player, Childers, a spry 69, is no stranger to writing. A self-taught musician and arranger, he has contributed numbers to bands led by Lionel Hampton and Sinatra Jr.

He arranged his first piece when he was a teen-ager. "I was 14, living in my hometown of Belleville, Ill., near St. Louis, when I wrote 32 bars of background parts for me to play 'Stardust' on," he says. "I was playing with a band called King Saxon, which was led by a fine trombonist named Hook Lecher. All the other players were grown men. It was a great experience."

Kenton, with whom Childers performed and recorded between 1942 and 1954, was a major influence as a writer. "Some time back, when I wrote my first really good arrangement of a ballad, I heard it played and thought, 'My God, it sounds just like Stan Kenton,' and it was a really good chart," Childers recalls.

"So now if I write something that comes out sounding like Stan, I don't mind. It's just my way of doing it. You can't have those early life experiences, like playing with Stan at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, and not expect them to show up someplace."

Childers says that writing is a magical process of which he's not really in control. "When you write a really good arrangement, you don't feel like you're writing it," he says. "It's more like you're relaying something that's coming from somewhere else. The music is flowing through your mind, through your fingers, and you're just a spectator. The great writer Bob Brookmeyer said that you start an arrangement and then follow it where it needs to go. It will tell you where it needs to go. I try to let the music tell me where it needs to go."

Childers has many fans, among them Lenetta Kidd, who books bands at the Moonlight Tango. "His band sounds terrific," she says.

At the club, Childers will deliver such pieces as "Killer Joe," "Off Broadway" (a sly adaptation of the piece 'Broadway') and "Out of Nowhere." "As long as I'm making good music, I'm happy," he says.

Where and When

What: Buddy Childers Big Band, and singer/pianist Buddy Greco.

Location: Moonlight Tango Cafe, 13730 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks.

Hours: 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Price: $13 cover for 7:30 p.m. show, $9 cover for 9 p.m. show, $9.95 minimum at either show.

Call: (818) 788-2000.

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