So the Story Goes: Buddy Rich on Music and Magic

Buddy Rich

News | Mar, 31st 2017

If you get a group of jazz musicians in a room together, it’s only a matter of time until they start sharing stories from the road. In this original series, “So the Story Goes,” we will highlight some of those great stories. Seeother entries in this series.

Jazz drummer Buddy Rich is widely regarded as one of the greatest drummers of all time. In fact, fellow drummer Gene Krupa, who dueled against Rich in more than a few drum battles, said his competitor was “the greatest drummer to have ever drawn breath.” Known for his speed, precision, and virtuosic solos, Rich has influenced many drummers who play jazz (and quite a few who don’t).

Don't miss Buddy Rich Centennial: Celebrating the Jazz Drum this April 7-8 featuring the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis!Tickets are still available.

Rich claimed the spotlight at an outrageously early age. When he was only 18 months old, he played drums in vaudeville shows as “Baby Traps the Drum Wonder,” and he was already leading his own groups as an 11-year-old. (The New York Times reported that he was the second-best paid child entertainer in the world.) Perhaps all that early recognition played a part in developing Rich’s notoriously prickly demeanor. As Rich grew older, he developed a short temper with fellow musicians, often cussing them out if he felt they didn’t approach the music with the seriousness and respect that it deserved. In a 1979 interview at the Drum Summit, Rich shared his thoughts on the power of experiencing live music, providing some insight as to why he was so hard on his sidemen:

The whole idea of music is magic to me—that you can take all kinds of strange people that you’ve never seen before in your life, sitting in a theater, and in an hour’s time you can make them friends, responding to you with their applause and with their attitude. And that’s magic—to make three thousand friends in the span of an hour. Music is magic—if it’s played right, and if the people playing it are sincere.

I think it does more to cover problems; you get people away from themselves when they become involved in music. We said this at the IDA [International Drummers Association] party: if music could be the universal language, we wouldn’t have quite as many problems; if everybody were more dedicated to the arts, instead of politics, instead of all the uncertainty going on in the world.

But being told that the lady [Queen] was going to be there, and all of the dignitaries, all the protocol that goes with it, had me very tense before the show. How was I going to get around this?

The only time you see people really settle is when they go in and listen to some music. They sit down, and whether it’s the sentimental value of a ballad or the excitement of an up-tempo tune, it reaches everybody at the same time—and they walk out feeling great. Very few people that I know of in my career have ever left a concert where they were down; they may not have enjoyed it totally, but during the course of the concert something got to ’em. If you reach each person for even one piece of music—that’s magic... 

You can break down any barrier. Several years ago, I was very honored to be asked to play the Command Performance here [in England], before the Royal Family at the Palladium. As you know, I don’t get too tied up about things; I take everything: “Okay—it’s another night.” But being told that the lady [Queen] was going to be there, and all of the dignitaries, all the protocol that goes with it, had me very tense before the show. How was I going to get around this? In the final analysis, I went out and I played—you’re either going to dig it, or you’re going to have me deported. 

We did “West Side Story”, because it was requested that we should play it. At the end, we got a standing ovation from this audience—and that, again, is the total magic. Here’s an audience that I’m sure 50 percent of them, let’s say, did not know me, was not interested in jazz, or bands; or anything else—but that 50 percent found something in what we were doing, emotionally, to get them to stand up and applaud. If you can do that with that kind of audience, you’re saying that music is the common denominator for everything; people will respond to it. And if life could just be that way; we'd never have to worry about idiots like [Idi] Amin.


H/T The National Jazz Archive

All images courtesy of William P. Gottlieb / Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection

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