Explaining Buddy Rich to Middle School Musicians


I teach a jazz band of mostly sixth graders with a sprinkling of a couple of seventh graders and a fifth grader. Each week, they are assigned a "YouTube Artist of the Week". This week we explored Buddy Rich.

It is so important to introduce him early to aspiring jazz musicians. He is tasteful and virtuosic, and has brilliant touch, but he is also exciting, and "plays like his hair is on fire", as he has been described. He is a prime example of jazz drumming. There is no shortage of examples of his brilliance on the internet, and the Muppet Show clips are a wonderful bridge to his legacy for young kids.

There also is no shortage of examples of his personality. His temperament, his "bus tantrums", his demons and struggles: they are all out there too. I was becoming serious about music as he began his decline. We all had those fourteenth generation cassette dubs of his rants on the bus after concerts, and giggled at his irrational eruptions.

I feel a responsibility to address that. If I am going to encourage them to Google the man, I need to be prepared to talk about this side of him.

Buddy's mind, body, and psyche had clearly shown the mileage put on them by years on the road and behind the drums. In my opinion, this doesn't tell the whole story.

I don't think I have ever read anything to this effect, but Buddy wasn't just trying to keep a music career going. He, likely against his will, became responsible for the life of an art form and genre of music. When he first took a big band out in the 1940's, he was one of many successful such groups. He was a brilliant talent, and deserved to thrive. Ultimately, he did. There were not many bands being driven from the drums, but he was doing it.

Little by little, the sheer economics of big bands drove the music business to put their resources behind their smaller and easier to manage alternatives, both in and out of the world of jazz. By the 1980's, the aging Buddy Rich found himself to be the last of the big bands. There were others out there, even some fiscally solvent ones. He was the only one from the old days still leading his group. He was the last survivor. Basie, Ellington, Goodman, Herman, Shaw, all out making a living as nostalgic recreations of their predecessors. Buddy was trying to keep it fresh, new, and alive. I'm sure it appeared to be a losing battle.

Add to this that there was a time that to play with the Buddy Rich band was the peak of one's career. It was easy to find the best of the best, and staff the band with the best players around, all appreciative of the opportunity to play with greatness. By the time the 1980's rolled around, things had shifted. Buddy was still attracting brilliant talent, but the aging legend was less likely to be the career objective of a young cat out of North Texas or Berklee. He was a resume builder. Play with Buddy, and you can catapult yourself to greatness on your own. Was it now that Buddy was pulling a throne up along side a powerful collection of egos that were all ready to use his gravity to slingshot themselves into their own orbits?

So, there he is, aging, failing health, exhaustion, and a band full of smartass kids who all think they know better than he does. It isn't hard to explain how he flew off the handle so often. It was the last gasp at an era that was ending with him. The weight of all of that, his physical deterioration, the erosion of his art form, the aggravation of dealing with amazing young players and their proportionate egos, makes it easy to imagine that he felt backed into a corner, and needed to lash out.

It's been twenty-eight years since his passing. Nobody deserves to be belittled and abused, as was the Buddy Rich admirer in "Whiplash", which certainly appears to be a direct reference to the same. I have never felt as though this sort of treatment was a good road to helping someone find music. It might win trophies and scholarships, but it doesn't create musicians. I find myself hoping that this explanation of him allows us a clearer path to enjoying his music and that part of his legacy, and not the angry ill-tempered man in decline.