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Medley of a Lifetime

Jazz veteran Buddy Collette writes an L.A. story for the ages in his new memoir

October 15, 2000|EMORY HOLMES II | Emory Holmes II is an occasional contributor to Calendar

It's a few minutes after 8 on a Sunday, and the starry Culver City night sky is panoramic, clear and black as an eggplant.

It's closing night at the Jazz Bakery for the great percussionist, Chico Hamilton. In the lobby, a few steps inside the big glass doors, sits musician and teacher Buddy Collette, who has been Hamilton's friend and associate for more than 60 years.

Perched in his wheelchair (resulting from a 1998 stroke), half hidden in the crowd, Collette is attended by his girlfriend, Vicki King. He is dressed for fall in a light sport cap, windbreaker and sneakers, and he looks happy and at home in the milling crowd. Rich-voiced, self-effacing and handsome, the 6-foot-2-inch Collette, 79, has slowed considerably since his days as a young saxophonist and bandleader on Central Avenue in the '40s and '50s.

The heroism of the homebody could be the title and central parable of Collette's life. And the idea of home is basic to his identity in music: home as the crucible of the personality, tradition and spirit of a people, with the trade-offs, good timing and good work required for its maintenance. When most of his friends--Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Chico Hamilton, et al--went to New York and got famous, Collette opted to tough it out, stay home and raise his family. All the while, his generosity opened the way for more than a few colleagues to get out. He's one of the few of his circle who was able to build a solid professional career in Los Angeles. Things our city is known for--movies, television, the recording studios--are where he made his name. From his adolescence to now, he has been a sometimes pivotal, yet almost always invisible, figure in our city's social, political and cultural life.

Along the way, he has achieved pioneering status in the hometown businesses. Throughout, he maintained a principled life whose governing theme is that artistic virtue is never the product of individual talent alone, but depends on one's relations within a broad spectrum of dedicated associates, mentors, family and friends. Ever the attentive master, he looks you in the eye when you speak and still projects the showman's aura of a big man standing, even in a wheelchair.

The Rev. O.C. Smith, the singing pastor, and Bernie and Don, two of Hamilton's brothers, are among the old friends leaning down to greet Collette and wish him well.

Collette has been a generous friend to musicians, a committed professional and a dedicated activist. The general facts of his life are these: He was a bandleader in Watts at the age of 12, a cameo musician in "Citizen Kane" when he was 19. In the early '50s, he made history as the "Jackie Robinson of the networks" (coined by jazz writer Steven Isoardi) when he joined Groucho Marx's TV game show "You Bet Your Life"--becoming the first African American musician to be hired as a regular in a network band.

In 1953, when he was 32, he was a leader in the fight to unite L.A.'s segregated musicians union locals and was one of the new, integrated union's first officers. In 1964, he was one of three journeyman musicians who made Hollywood history by integrating the Oscar telecast band.

He is a co-founder (with Valerie Fields and Michael O'Daniel) of JazzAmerica, an organization that has grown into one of L.A.'s most important music mentorship programs. He is also executive director of the California Institute for the Preservation of Jazz on the campus of Cal State Long Beach. Following 40 years of distinguished public and professional life, the Cultural Affairs Department and Mayor Richard J. Riordan awarded him official status as a Los Angeles Living Cultural Treasure in 1998.

He recounts all this, and more, in "Jazz Generations: A Life in American Music and Society," his just-released autobiography, written with the assistance of Isoardi.

Indeed, if one has to choose a local hero whose story is emblematic of the West Coast musical heritage with all its underrated brilliance, originality and traditions, one could hardly do better than the amazing true life of William Marcel "Buddy" Collette.


At the Jazz Bakery, Chico Hamilton and his backing quartet take the stage almost as soon as the audience is seated. Focused and intent, the band quickly hunkers down in the music. The stage sits at the rear of a big square room whose high walls are tinted with pink and blue floodlights. Hamilton is a mountain of a man and, riffing low over his drums in his flowing white shirt, he resembles a snowcapped volcano. The audience is small but enthusiastic--some folks are jumping out of their seats. Collette, half-visible in the semi-darkness, seems to be digging it too.

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