Buddy Childers



Big Band lead trumpet playing

The reason I’m doing these seminars I’m doing now is that this business has been so wonderful to me all my life—it’s time I paid back something it gave me. I’ve seen some things that are maybe getting lost; so if I can come out here and kind of remind some people of pertinent things in music that shouldn’t be lost. I’m talking about basic phrasing; if you get into eighth notes, the phrasing of them determines what kind of music you’re playing. 

If it’s rock, you’ve got a certain way of straight eight/eight playing; certain kinds of jazz are twelve/eight; your shuffle goes along at a real twelve/eight. But then there are other things that just sort of fall in between. Like, the Benny Goodman phrasing—three eights would be straight, and then there would be the twelve/eight on the fourth one. Boo-dedoo -bah—that little delay. Where you put that last note determines what style of music you’re playing. That’s one of the things that have been lost—another is the use of dynamics.

At any rate, I’m doing what I can; if I can hit one person in each school I go to—my goodness, we’ll have a whole bunch of people who will have learned something new. And so far, I’ve been pretty lucky. I

The point is, there are so many types of good phrasing. Now, Lawrence Welk has a very, very commercial band, but it’s a very good one—he has musicians in that band who are very capable people. No matter how corny what you’re doing may be, or how current and hip it may be, there are ways to play them well. Whatever kind of music you put your face to, you should play it well, and do everything you can towards achieving that.

As many as there are styles of music, there are ways to play well. Everyone should adapt themselves to that as they play, and no matter where they are, look at the piece of music, say: “Well, I think this is this style”, and play it in that style—and really enjoy it. Instead of playing everything in one style, and being locked into it. It’s from studio playing I got like this, I guess, but it’s also from listening. You listen to other things, and then you try to imitate them—that’s how I learned to play, and so did most of the great players I know. They took lessons also, of course.

I started playing at twelve; when I was fourteen I joined a band, and I learned things with them. I don’t remember how much they told me—I had figured out a lot by that time. It was like the great awakening for me when I went to my first big band rehearsal outside of school. We started off with “In The Mood”, and in the middle of the introduction I’m looking at these notes and then I’m listening to what we start playing. . . suddenly there was this great big light-bulb above my head—on  “In The Mood”, of all things! I said: “Wait a minute—I’ve been listening to this record, and they don’t do ‘Tata-ta-taa-taa’; they go ‘Boo-a-doo -doodoo-doo’. My God! That’s what those notes mean!” And that opened a whole world for me.

So when I joined this band. . . it was all men; I was the kid—I was at least an eleven-year-old fourteen . . . those guys were all so nice to me, and they helped me so much, that a couple of years later I joined the Kenton band. The Kenton job only happened because of the good band that I’d got to play with, the training I got—and listening, and playing with records. I was banished to the basement for most of the time I was home—down there with a record-player and my horn.

When my chops would get tired, I had an old snare drum and a pair of beat-up sticks, and I’d play on that. The Kenton music was a bitter trauma for me at first. I wouldn’t recommend any young fellow of sixteen to go on the road with a band like that. But that was one of the goals that I’d set myself when I was fourteen or fifteen. I’d read that Harry James had been with Ben Pollack, Benny Goodman or somebody when he was sixteen, and that Goodman and Krupa had been with some band when they were sixteen. I saw this sixteen as a magic age—if I got past that without joining an important band, I would be a failure.

You know how kids can be. Kenton was the band I chose that I wanted to be with, and I made it—I was about a month away from my seventeenth birthday. The band was about a year-and-a-half old when I joined it, and it was going through lots of changes. I went through many, many changes and different styles with that band before it finally settled into the thing that I liked best—the Bill Holman band of the early ‘fifties. There was one other: an orchestra—the first one that he had in 1950 was marvellous—just magnificent.

It was a grand musical experiment—unfortunately, it wasn’t heard by enough people, because there was a coal miners’ strike going in the United States, and just before we started out on tour they banned all public gatherings. Stan went ahead with it anyway—we had a lot of days off each week, but when the orchestra played, it was superb. Chico O’Farrill, Johnny Richards, Franklyn Marks wrote some things for it.

 Bob Graettinger didn’t write anything for that orchestra. For the next orchestra, the year later, he re-scored the “City Of Glass”, that he originally wrote for us in 1946. We performed it only once at that time—at the Chicago Opera House for two or three days in a row. That was a very difficult, cohesive piece of music. But the thing that I heard with all the strings and everything didn’t sound anything like the original  “City Of Glass”. That was a different composition, and the orchestra wasn’t as good either; the strings weren’t nearly as good as we had had the year before. Stan lost a fortune on that first “Innovations In Modern Music” tour.

It was a four-month tour, and for the last half of it places were allowed to open again. Paying salaries out for two months, and working only maybe two or three days a week instead of six was pretty tough—but he did it, and we had a great orchestra. Stan set his goals, and he certainly achieved them. I wouldn’t say he achieved them beyond his wildest dreams, or anything like that—he went to the direction he wanted to go. Knowing and not agreeing with his politics, I was very glad he didn’t decide he wanted to be President—because he would have been.

Sure, he always had good players. He loved discovering people—every now and then, though, he seemed to take a perverse joy in discovering somebody who really couldn’t play very well, and trying to mould them into a star—and I don’t know of any of ‘em who made it! He had a wonderful thing for the underdog—“ Hey, give everybody a chance, and then if they don’t do it—well, at least they had a chance.” And he did that very much. Of course, any time you have a thing like a big band, it winds up that it isn’t completely yours—even though you have to be responsible for the payroll, the bookings, getting the bus. Everybody’s crying on your shoulder; you have to be their banker, their father confessor.

You’ve got to be just about everything to all these people, and yet it’s not fully your band at any point, because the guys in the band feel like it belongs to them. I think the most successful leaders are the ones who have allowed the ideas of the guys to have free rein. They must keep a check on that rein—or there wouldn’t be any cheques at the end of the week! Did we feel that some of the music we were playing was pretentious? Yeah, we did—but that was his thing, and it was working for him. We didn’t have to like everything—we were getting paid to play.

Musicians can get awfully spoiled—I know I’ve been guilty of this. You go on a band, and on your first day you say: “Boy,  this is it!” You’re there three months, and this is wrong, that’s wrong and: “Why is he playing this?” We want everything—but the real world isn’t quite like that. We are so lucky to be able to do what we want to do for a living for all of our lives; we’re amongst such a small minority in the world—what is it, one per cent? A half a per cent? Just that tiny percentage really get to choose what they want to do—we kinda forget that once in a while. It’s true that many people were initiated into jazz listening by the “Artistry” band—and for that we should all be eternally grateful to him.

Stan wasn’t perfect, any more than anyone else—all in all, though, he did a lot. He did what he set out to do. I really do believe that the reason he chose that was that somebody along the way wouldn’t let him play with their jazz band—they didn’t like the way he played. Well, neither did we, really—if you listen to his records, you’d understand it. The ten flying thumbs of Stan Kenton were ever present, you know! And when he was playing with the rhythm section. . . it was a problem.

But you know, you surmount those problems; we had guys like Shelly Manne, Laurindo Almeida in there—there are no problems when you’ve got players like that. Besides—it was Stan’s band; he could do what he wanted to do. It was wild to have been there through that whole period—to watch the changing of the band from the heavy “Rat-ta-ta ta-ta” of the Balboa band heard on those very first Decca records into just sort of a nondescript that could have belonged to Louis Prima, Sam Donahue—all those bands that were around at the time. It could have been anybody; whoever brought arrangements along we played. But Stan was looking for a sound—he had been searching all these years, and he’d decided that “Ra-ta-ta-ta” wasn’t it—and somewhere around 1944, Gene Howard, a singer with the band, who could also write arrangements, came up with something Stan went for.

I guess it was a modified Glenn Miller sound—if you can picture voicing the melody of a song with five trumpets real close together, and then sticking five clarinets on the same notes, only an octave above them. . . now sometimes the trumpets went up to C’s, D’s and E’s—which meant that  the clarinets had to be squawking way up there, and the fourth clarinet would be on a high A. I mean, it was the most horrendous sound you ever heard in your life!

We stuck with that for about a year or so—but dogs were coming from three counties away when we played some of those things. I wish I had one of those to play for somebody, and to hear myself, because when I think back on that, it was hysterical. Stan, in fact, detested clarinets—he wouldn’t have anything to do with them, all the time he had a band, except that one period. You know, clarinet is a very difficult instrument—more so than any of the single-reed instruments, I believe, and to play it correctly is certainly the most difficult. And when you stick clarinets in the hands of five saxophone players, some of whom haven’t even touched one for seven or eight years. . . Bob Gioga hadn’t used a clarinet in God knows how long; Vido Musso couldn’t play clarinet.

None of ‘em were good clarinet players—and here are these guys with clarinets in their hands, trying to play written close harmony up high. It was funny. but that went by; it was a phase the band had to go through. Finally, I think what he would have said was: “This commercial crap doesn’t work”—that’s about what he must have said to himself, because he didn’t say much to us. Anyway, it was right after that when he came up with “Artistry In Rhythm”, and everything was going to be “Artistry In Rhythm” from then on. About that time Pete Rugolo started writing a lot of things for the band; Pete got out of the Army, and joined us on a full-time basis.

 And at that point things really did change, and we got a whole bunch of real great blood into the band. Shelly Manne, Eddie Safranski, Kai Winding, Eddie Bert and all these New York guys came into the band—and it was really a shot in the arm for everybody. Suddenly it was a hit band, just like that—an overnight success. He only struggled along for about five years before it was called the Number One band—which isn’t too long, really.

The band was with Capitol Records from 1943 on—all the records I made with the band were on that label, which was everything from 1943 to 1954. The first releases you had over here were “Painted Rhythm” and “Eager Beaver”? Now, that’s funny, because “Eager Beaver” was recorded in 1943, and “Painted Rhythm” was recorded in 1946 or ‘47—probably ‘46.

“Intermission Riff ‘ was just something that Ray Wetzel was fooling around with; we’d just gotten the fifth trombone. We were at a rehearsal at the Hollywood Palladium, all standing around, and he says: “Hey, guys, will you play these notes?” He gave everybody some notes and a little rhythm pattern. Stan heard it, and he said: “Ray—what is it? Write it.” Ray didn’t want to say it was “Yard-Dog Mazurka”—I think he finally did tell him. But Stan said: “Well, just write another melody to it, and we’ll call that the melody, because I like that.”

You know what a big bit it became for him—but it was just a head arrangement. “Peanut Vendor” was another head thing. Pete Rugolo came around, and he handed out one concert copy to each section of the melody of the song. To the trombones he gave that riff-type counter-theme, and to the trumpets he gave the melody. I don’t know what the saxophones did throughout all of it, because it was mostly a brass piece. Well, on things like that, it’s up to the guys to think of a lick, play it, and make it happen. In those early days, they were just all head arrangements—all the big things that they had. Basie, of course—and the Woody Herman band: not only that first Flaming Herd, but the Second and Third Herds.

I played with that. band for about six months in 1949; Stan Kenton didn’t always have a band during those years—so I wasn’t with him all the time. And when I was with Woody’s band. . . like, they had things where you’d start off in the middle of one chart, and that’s the introduction; then you go to the beginning of another one, and to the out-chorus of something else. It was a terrible road-map for somebody when they first came in. Then you’d have one by Shorty Rogers to play; he was very near-sighted at the time, and your sixteen bars would all be in about a half a line—all these notes real close.

He’d say: “This is what you play. . .” and show you, because he would be the one who would know back there. Fortunately, he writes bigger now! What you had to do is learn it, that’s all; none of those riffs or things were all that difficult. They’d give you a clue on your part; after a few days, you usually had it pretty well figured out. Yes, you kept it all in your head. I did with the Kenton band, certainly—I wouldn’t open my book for weeks or months at a time. You get to know everything when you’re playing it every night for years. Then when new arrangements came in—after we played ‘em three or four times, what I didn’t know I could always glance over at the guy’s part next to me while he was looking at it, see what his notes were, to remind me of the fingering, then go ahead and play.

It made it nice when we played theatres, where we would be playing the same show all day—then I could just keep a mystery novel on my stand and read that! Didn’t have to have music in the way! I was with Kenton eleven-and-a-half years all told—really, that covers the whole thing. My favourite band was the swinging one that came to Europe in 1953; that was the best band of that sort—you know, that size band. Yeah, with people like Zoot Sims and Lee Konitz. I thought that was the best band he ever had anywhere along, in fact. The large orchestra of 1950 was the only other thing he had to compare with it; that was just marvellous—magic, you know. That was the one that recorded “Maynard Ferguson”, “Art Pepper”, “Shelly Manne” and all of those big feature things.

If you recall those—that’s the band. Or rather, the orchestra. Stan had three or four guys try to write the “Shelly Manne” side, and none of them worked. Finally, after we’d been trying to record one of ‘em, he went home that night and he wrote one. The next day we recorded it, and it was fantastic—but he said: “Oh, that’s just a piece of crap. It was nothing.” He would dismiss his own work like that—but Stan was a marvellous writer, when he stayed within his natural idiom. What he wanted to write, and to be accepted as a writer of, was jazz. Unfortunately, he was not a wonderful jazz writer. As a motion picture writer, he was very successful—he was really tremendous at that. His orchestration technique was great. He wrote some things for the strings, when we had that orchestra, that were just gorgeous; yet he just cast ‘em aside: “A piece of crap.”

Earlier in his life he’d been an avid devotee of Ravel and Debussy; he knew them very well, and he understood how they worked. I was always impressed with his abilities. But his biggest ability was people—his handling of them. And he had an incredible gift of remembering names. If he saw a person once and didn’t see them again for fourteen years, he’d say: “Hello, Les—how’re you doing?”—just like that. Until he had the accident; from then on, that part of his mind was shut off—he remembered everybody, but he couldn’t connect the face.

I saw him about three months before he died; they had a special tribute concert for him at Cal State, Northridge, out in the San Fernando Valley—one of the earliest colleges in California to have a real jazz programme. They tried to get as many of us there as possible; I think only five of us made it, but it was good to see Stan. He was in pretty bad shape then—we knew he wouldn’t be around too long. So I’m very glad I got to see him; we talked a bit, but he was awfully weak. But when he went out to talk to the people, he pulled his voice together and it was still Stan. At the time I left the Kenton band, I had this burning desire to be a bandleader. I was twenty-eight years old then, I had four kids; I said: “Okay—if I’m going to do it, now’s the time to make the move.” And for the first time in my life, I was saying: “Do I really want that?”

I started looking around at some of the guys that I knew, who were trying to make it; they’d had albums out and everything else, while I didn’t have much of that going for me at all. They were marvellous players, they had great bands—and they couldn’t get arrested with them. And they were so frustrated by the whole thing; I said: “Boy, what a drag.” Then I looked around at the ones who were a success, like Stan, Woody, Basie, Ellington, and I said: “My God—if I do make it, that’s even worse. I’ll be on the road the rest of my life, trying to support a bunch of gypsies.”

 Well, if not making it is a big pain, and making it is worse, I ought to change my goals.” So I did—and I decided to become a studio player. Leading a band could have been a good livelihood; I probably would have made a lot more money at it, but I’m really not crazy about doing one-nighters. You don’t mind it if they’re your own, but you can’t keep a band together if you only go out for a week or so. The only people I know who do that are Lew and Toshiko—I’m speaking of the Toshiko Akiyoshi/ Lew Tabackin big band—and they have a marvellous thing worked out. They each have their own career, separately with their own trios, they have things that they do together at festivals and so forth, as either a duo or with other people, and then they have the big band—so they each have three separate ways to go. And they’ve done a wonderful job—that’s the only band that I would play with these days.

I just left the band because I have too many conflicting assignments coming up, and it’s not fair to them for me to stick around. I do hope, though, that if whoever they get needs a sub at some time in the future, they’ll call me, because I enjoy doing it. But it hasn’t been non-stop studio work.

At one point, I got so fed up with what I was doing musically in Los Angeles. . . the studio scene was so tied up and there was very little studio work in the ‘fifties; you had to rely on other things—a few record dates here and there, but they weren’t enough to make a living. You needed to be on one of the staffs—in one of the movie studios, or at NBC, ABC or CBS—and those jobs were locked up for life. And so much of the music I was playing was so rotten that I said: “Hey—I got into this because I love music, and what I’m doing now has nothing to do with music. I love flying, I’m a licensed pilot—maybe I’ll get a job there.” And I did—I went to work flying for a living for three-and-a-half years.

Now, as soon as I started that, I started getting more calls than I’d gotten before. So as I’d get them I’d say: “Do I want to do this—okay. I don’t want to do that one—no, sorry, can’t make it.” And I had more darned fun. I had a place where I worked once a week with my own group; it was just so relaxed and so nice—I could just pick and choose. I had a deal with the people I worked for: if I had any record dates or any studio calls of any sort, I could take off—there was no hassle there. That was really a pretty pleasant situation—except that after three-and-a-half years working for these people, I still couldn’t get enough money to support my family, and I had to keep working at night. So I said: “Folks, if you don’t give me some more money, I have to leave.”

They said: “Well—goodbye”—and it took them three-and-a-half years to replace me, because there were so many things that I had built into the job. I don’t regret a bit of it; I had a wonderful time—I flew all over the United States in a Beechcraft Bonanza. More recently, just for fun, I flew charter for an outfit for about four years, in my spare time. But that got to taking up too much of my time, and so I just gave that up. I’m still an active pilot. That was my first love, before I even knew what music was. When I was about two, I knew then I wanted to be a pilot. So I’ve managed to combine the things that I love the most—I’m a reasonably competent photographer, a trumpet player and a pilot. I’m lucky.

As for people who do nothing but play an instrument, that’s great—there’s nothing wrong with that. I might have been a better trumpet player if I’d done nothing but that—I might have out-Doced Severinsen, had I put my efforts in that direction. But I never wanted to be married to a trumpet; I love it, I don’t want to be without it, but I wanted to have other options in my life. The music business is a very small portion of the world, really, and yet we within it begin to feel like it’s the world. It isn’t, and I try to keep my head open to that fact. What I’m trying to do now. . . I have become a Baha’i; I don’t know if you’re familiar with that—Dizzy’s a Baha’i. . . as a Baha’i, I’m just trying to do as much as I can to be of service. And the best way I know is getting out, meeting these kids and doing concerts for them. I’m leaving here Saturday and going to Berlin to do a television show, and then Wednesday I have to get back home, because I have a concert in Fresno on Thursday—at Fresno State University. And on Friday and Saturday I’m working a jazz club in Bakersfield, with their rhythm section. If you could only appreciate thatBakersfield has been known as the Nashville of the West for years; so a jazz club in Bakersfield? I can’t wait.

In doing the concerts, I send the music out a couple of months in advance, so they can get acquainted with it. Then when I go there I usually have just one rehearsal with them; that’s what I’ll have in Fresno—a rehearsal at noon and a concert at eight. They play the first half, I play the second half. Usually a clinic also comes into it, but not in this case—and clinics are done separately there. They’re not like the workshops that we’re doing here now. We’re doing ‘em as workshops because, unfortunately, although I sent the music, there were some delays, and they didn’t get it here in time to get it out to the different bands. So we’ve been having rehearsals with audiences, as a kind of a workshop. In places like Leeds and Southampton, we’ve had marvellous luck. They’ve all played very well.

As all musicians do, I have a positive reason for playing my instrument. My cousin Charles found this trumpet in my father’s closet, and he said he wanted it. I said: “No, you can’t have it—it’s mine, because it belongs to my father.” That was my reason for choosing it. My father played Solomon for a few minutes, and then he said: “Well, I’ll tell you—if you can learn to play it well enough by the time school starts in September,”—this was June—“ then you can have it. Otherwise Charles gets it.” So, naturally, I really applied myself to playing it. We were taught music in school; so I knew what the notes were, and there was a book that was very explicit, with fingerings and everything. And it wasn’t too hard to figure out. Pretty soon I was playing anything I wanted to play. My grandmother was instrumental in it too, because my grandfather was a cornet player—and she was in love with cornet players. So she wanted my dad to be one, but he never was, and then when I became one she was thrilled.

From the time I started, jazz-type playing was the direction I went in. That’s what I wanted to do. I was listening to Bunny Berigan, Roy Eldridge, Buck Clayton and those others who were around at the time. Cootie Williams I didn’t hear too much of; Duke Ellington wasn’t heard that much around there. In fact, it was very hard to hear any good music around St. Louis; they tended more to go to the real Chicago tenor band style—only the rural version of that. They’re still that way there. It was amusing to me eighteen years ago when I took my family on a vacation; we drove from Las Vegas back to St. Louis to see my folks, and we went on a Mississippi riverboat. Now, 1 expected the band to at least be up to Dixieland or something by then—but I saw all these young kids sitting in there, with an older bandleader, and they were still playing the same trashiness that I had left that town because of some twenty years earlier. It sounded like 1922, and I’m sure it hasn’t changed much between then and now, except now there would be more rock.

At least rock changed that part by now, I’m sure. But there will be bands around St. Louis that will still have that tenor band sound—that real commercial hotel sound. Or at least they feel it’s commercial; I don’t think it is. I think people will gladly listen to good music—they would just as soon hear good music as bad. And I think it should be offered more. Most of the time during my career I’ve played in the first chair position. So that in itself is why it’s so much fun for me to do these seminar/ band sessions. It’s like starting a whole new career, because now I’m going out and playing the solos that I put aside all those years. I’ve always loved to play—but I always got stuck in the lead chair.

I didn’t mind it, because I love to play lead; that’s a lot of fun—to take a whole band and mould it to the way you want it to sound. But this is fun too. I look forward to coming back to Europe, hopefully by Summer, with my own quintet—that’s what I want to do. As soon as I get home, we start working on that. As for recording—I set all that aside in the ‘fifties. I made a couple of albums on my own, and I didn’t like them very well. Although I was told by a couple of gentlemen in Paris that in the last big auction. . . I don’t know the name of the man who runs the auction, but several times a year there’s a big rare jazz records auction. . . they told me that my records fetched the highest price. Which surprised the heck out of me, because the last time I saw any of them available they were in the “three for seventy-nine cents” rack in a drug store in Las Vegas.

What happened was: when Liberty Records recorded me, they also recorded Jimmie Rowles, Dominic Frontiere, Pete Jolly—a whole bunch of us—and apparently all they did it for was a tax write-off. They had no intention of ever releasing or doing anything with our records, other than printing up a bunch of ‘em and letting it go at that. It seems they’ve now become collectors’ items. I said: “I should start trying to get hold of some of those and sell ‘em in Europe.”

He told me they were bringing around seventy dollars each—that was mind-boggling to me. Are the charts we have to play today more demanding? Well. . . no, there were charts that were written in the ‘forties and ‘fifties that were pretty demanding. I mean, my second parts under Maynard for some of the things that Shorty Rogers wrote for us never got below high C—and that was a second part. There’s one thing that he wrote, “Solo For Coop”—there’s a string of high G’s along there on the second part, that are just incredible. In fact, for a while Maynard worked at Paramount Studios, and whenever he had a call coming up where they would tell him ahead of time that they were going to have some hard work for him, he would ask them to call me to play second under him—because we worked together very well. We’re very good friends.

His playing made it easy for me to play those high notes, and my playing them with ease made it easier for him on top. And you do need that kind of support when you’re playing out there—you can’t pull it off alone. Sure, I’m impressed by some of the young players. A young fellow named Al Vizzuti—good grief! You heard him with Woody six years ago? You should hear him today—he’s fantastic. But the kids are supposed to be better—they’ve got all of us to learn from: me, the guys who came after me, and so on. If I tried to compare what I do with what they do, for instance—you can’t compare apples and oranges.

When I came along, I probably scared a lot of people to death, too, that had been around since the ‘twenties—but they certainly didn’t stop. What I have to say is valid at this point—I just can’t say it quite as spectacularly as they do, and I shouldn’t. I should say it the way I am and be me. Certainly, I still have to work on the trumpet. It’s not like a plumber—you can’t go on a vacation and leave your plunger at home; I can leave my plunger at home, but I better take along a horn and a mute, so that I can do some practising. Buzzing on the mouthpiece helps, sure—but nothing takes the place of playing the horn. Playing at home in your room doesn’t quite do it; playing with people is what does. But anything is better than nothing, and you must do a minimum of an hour or two a day, if you are serious about it.

There’s some maintenance things you can do, where in a fairly short period of time you can pack a lot of work—and I try to do that when I can. I have range and endurance exercises, but I haven’t been working on those; I’ve just been working on playing—I’ve got all these tunes that I’m playing now. I do some exercises, like scales and things, and some long tones, but then I mainly just have fun with it—just get my fingers working, get my head working, and do what I’m doing now, playing jazz.

There is certainly advance in the instrument. Because what’s going on today is much more demanding in general. Now, being with the Kenton band when I was, that music was very demanding, but most of the other bands weren’t nearly as demanding. The bottom level of the demands that are made today is far higher than it was then. The Bach trumpets that were so great then I don’t think would work that much now—although a lot of guys are using the Bachs that they’re making now. I’m lucky enough to have become affiliated with Yamaha, who have just been great; they’re responsible for my trip to England—for that I’m eternally grateful to them. And they’ve been making some marvellous products; I’ve been through their factories, and I can’t tell you how impressed I am. It’s incredible, what they’re doing. When they get a good product, they don’t just sit back and say: “Well, that’s good; we’ve got the tools to this—we’ll just go with this model.”

No, they’re still trying to improve; they know that it can always get better, and so they’re out there trying to do that. The horn I have is perfect for me; it’s a combination of the entire design—the metal that’s in it, the bore. My Bach is a combination of bore sizes, and it wasn’t quite right for what I’m having to do now; I had played a Conn for quite a few years, and that wasn’t right for it. So I was in the process of trying to find a horn that I liked, and about four years ago I went to Japan with Julie Andrews—that was when I first went to the Yamaha plant and bought an instrument from them.

Two years later, when I went back, I told the guy who runs the operation in Tokyo at the Ginza store for professional musicians: “This one didn’t quite work.” He said: “Okay—try one of these.” I tried several horns, and I took one to work with me that night, and it didn’t work out either. But the next day, I said: “This isn’t it. I’ll be back in September for three weeks with Toshiko; maybe then, when we have some time, you can get together on making me a horn like I was telling you about.” And he just smiled, folded his hands, and said: “They’re already making it upstairs.” It was just like that—you say something to them and they do it. This is the horn they made for me—and they made exactly what I needed.

Now, Vincent Bach—you told him what you knew you needed, and he would tell you why what you knew you needed wasn’t right, and why what he had was what you really needed. He made a great product, but he wasn’t always right about individuals’ needs; he didn’t much care about that—he knew that the Vincent Bach trumpet was the best in the world, and so that was it. If you thought you needed something different, then you were nuts—or at least you were on the wrong track. But Vince was great—I love him.

The quintet I have is a young one. It’s the way to go—you get young people, and you keep the young enthusiasm going. I’m not going to try to get a group’ and say: “Let’s relive the good old days.” Although one thing that I’ve been doing at home for the last couple of years: Tommy Newsom and I get together and play with just a bass and drums in a small club, and that’s a lot of fun. Tommy is a marvellous tenor saxophone player, an incredible arranger, and he is Doc Severinsen’s sub for the Tonight show. when Doc is away or if he’s doing the announcing, he’s the bandleader.

Other than that—there’s a young fellow who’s been writing for me, by the name of Brad Dechter; he’ll be with me, and I’m not sure who the rhythm section will be at a given time. It depends on the availability; we have to use different guys, but with a pool like we have to draw from in Los Angeles, that’s not too bad. There are quite a few pretty good players. Over the years, I’ve contributed to some recordings that I’m quite proud of. I worked with Oliver Nelson from the time he moved to Los Angeles until his death. I worked with Quincy Jones for about five or six years there, until Quincy started moving most of his activities to New York. With Oliver I made quite a few records, but the one I was the most proud of is “Live In Los Angeles”.

There are some things I did with Pat Williams, one of which is called “Threshold”, that I love. I got to play all the trumpet parts on that; it was all overdubs. Then there’s one that we did with a French composer, Michael Colombier, called “Wings”, that I just love—it’s a great piece of music, with marvellous performances. That’s definitely one of my high points. They recorded everything in Paris initially, but Herb Alpert, who produced it, felt they could do a better job with the horns in Los Angeles. First of all, when we played it through, it was in French copying—two parts to a line. There were two trumpet parts on this line, first and second, and two parts on this line, third and fourth; this went down, and with all the time changes and everything, we couldn’t keep track of it. So he said: “Well, why don’t you listen to it once.”

We listened to this thing and said: “What do you want us to record it for?”, and Herb said: “Because you’ll do it better.” I don’t know if we did it any better, but we did get a pretty good record out of it. And it was done beautifully; the orchestral portion of it was great, the vocals I loved—and I’m not a vocal lover, you know. When Herb said: “This is my vocal, guys” we thought he was kidding. When we heard the record—no, he wasn’t kidding. I’ve made a lot of other records, but those are some that I remember as being outstanding.

I’ve been very lucky in my lifetime to play in the bands of Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. I look at someone like Ray Wetzel, a great trumpet player who was killed in an accident at only twenty-seven, and I think I’ve been fortunate to have longevity in this business. That God gave me talent to begin with was strictly the luck of the draw—I had nothing to do with that. That I have used this talent is through his guidance. I really did not realise any of this until some years ago when I became a member of the Baha’i faith. Some New York musician friends of mine were responsible for bringing me into the faith and they said, “Just you wait and see what happens to your playing”. Dizzy Gillespie and a number of other musicians are also members.

All I can say is that what has happened to my playing these past nine years has been little short of miraculous. I’m just a witness to this—I see it going along; all I have to do is to make sure I play enough, and it just keeps improving. Which only backs up a theory I always have had, that every year you should be a year better. There is no such thing as hold—except on your telephone. It was in the early Sixties, when I was living in Las Vegas, that I first came to this realisation. Surrounded by the type of musician who was living there in those days it was very easy to get complacent and bored and full of bitterness, playing the same two shows a night for an unappreciative audience, going nowhere. Absolutely no future; you retired.

So all I could do was this. At the beginning of each year I took an inventory—“ Am I playing better? What is it I can play now that I couldn’t play a year ago?” There came a time when I was not a year better, and I said to myself, “That means I have got to do something about it.” One of the times it happened was when I was busy doing studio work. I finally said, “This is not what I want to do.” Fortunately I said that at the time studio work was getting thin in Los Angeles.

What I really wanted to do was play jazz. I said some prayers—it was the first time I said any which really meant anything. I said, “I started off wanting to be a jazz musician. If there is any way you can see to let me finish my life doing that, I sure would appreciate it, if it’s in your plan.” That was basically the prayer twelve years ago. The first thing I had to do was to start doing something about this business of playing jazz as I had always been known as a lead trumpet player. So I started to go to the Los Angeles city college playing in their jazz band, but I made one stipulation—that I sat in the jazz solo chair. After some prayer and soul-searching I wound up going to Chicago and I spent a couple of years there.

I played in a little jazz club with either a big band or small combo seven nights a week plus some afternoons, so I was doing quite a lot of jazz playing. Those two years really helped to put things together. I made a big band album about six years ago there was some local musicians—it included charts by Bob Florence, amongst others. It has had some very good reviews in the States and now some of your specialist record stores are holding copies. My years with Stan Kenton were very interesting. We had a great success with a tune called “Peanut Vendor” when I was with the band. This surprised us all, as it was basically a head arrangement. Pete Rugolo wrote a riff for the saxes and trombones, and a melody line for the trumpets—all the rest of the stuff on there we made up. The piece called for a Latin feel and that was it. One of my favourite writers at that time was Gerry Mulligan—he turned the band completely around musically and put it to a new direction, which was then followed up by Bill Holman.

Stan could never figure out why we liked these charts best. Of course, before that Shorty Rogers and Gene Roland both wrote for the band. When we got into things like “Artistry in Rhythm” it was all difficult to play and it was interesting in an abstract sort of way, but it was not my favourite music. In fact I had a feeling at the time that there would not be any other band in the world who would want me after playing that kind of music.

However, I found out differently later on, when I became available. During this time, because I was not constantly being bombarded with offers from other bands, I thought I had blown it. What I did not realise was that they had me as a permanent member of the Kenton band, hence no calls. In general it was a very happy time spent with Stan.

In between jobs with Stan I was also fortunate to be asked to work with Woody Herman, Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown and Charlie Barnet. Buddy Rich used to sit in during the war years, when he was in the Marines, and we became quite friendly. Around 1967 Buddy asked me, “Didn’t I ask you to join my band once? How come you never did?” I said, “Buddy, we have been friends for a number of years—do you want to screw it up”. He laughed and said, “You’re right, let’s leave it that way.”

I was with the Kenton band on and off for about eleven years. I had four children and I decided it was time to leave Stan as I wanted to be back home with them—the road was keeping me away from the children and they were growing up without a father. You can’t be gone during their early years. Unfortunately I found that out too late. But in those days it was the road bands that paid the money. In 1959 we moved to Las Vegas. I had a really good offer to play there, so I talked it over with my wife, we came up and took a look at Vegas, and she said, yes, she could live there.

So we moved house and stayed there for seven years hoping it would bring the family close together and solve some of the problems of the previous ten years. Unfortunately it did not, so we divorced. I went back to Los Angeles, where I soon became very busy. The first connections I made there were with Quincy Jones and Billy Byers. Between Quincy and Dave Grusin and some other folk, I did very well, and for about ten years there was a marvellous lot of music played. Then it started to get back to “sound effects”.

Quincy moved on to being a producer and Dave Grusin moved back to New York; Billy Byers went to Paris. So all of a sudden the people I worked for making music saw that the studios were no longer interested in musical scores. They wanted “sound effects”. I started to look around again and about six years ago I joined up with Frank Sinatra Jr.

For the first year and a half or so both Frank and his manager Vince Cabonne would tell me off and say, “Bud, this is not a jazz act—you are treating it like it’s a jazz band.” Then all of a sudden one night I heard Frank. say, “We’ve got the only jazz act in Las Vegas”, and he was really pleased—so was I. We have people like Carl Fontana in the band. It’s a really great team of musicians—four trumpets, four trombones, five reeds and four rhythm. Bill Rogers, a truly fine bass trombone player, does most of the arrangements; I also do some. A couple of years ago, when we were in Italy with the band and Frank Jr, we went into Switzerland and made a videotape of just the band. And this is the kind of person Frank Jr is—he came up to me and said, “I would like for you to pull up everything that the band has got that you think you can sound really good on” (we always opened the show for him in Europe) “and let’s see if we can get a video from it for you.”

When we were in Italy a couple of weeks ago I found out that they had put together a video from the programme we did, but they didn’t advise me—I haven’t seen or heard the finished product. I did see a rough copy that Frank had about eighteen months ago—and the video was great but the sound was rough. However, I understand from a trumpet player who has a copy that the sound is now great. But where it’s at I don’t know.  

Talking to Les Tomkins

Copyright © 1982, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.

This article is also serialised as the Buddy Childers interview.