Preview of the 23rd annual Vail Jazz Festival: Buddy Rich, the The Drum Wonder | VailDaily.com

Preview of the 23rd annual Vail Jazz Festival: Buddy Rich, the The Drum Wonder

Howard Stone
Preview to the Vail Jazz Festival

Bernard "Buddy" Rich was the greatest drummer that ever lived.

At least that was how he was billed in a career that spanned seven decades. The hubris of such a billing is certainly off-putting, but keep in mind that many jazz musicians have claimed superior standing among their peers, such as Benny Goodman, the King of Swing.

Highly focused and totally dedicated to his music, there is no doubt that Rich possessed remarkable technical drumming ability, with a speed of hand and a precision of execution never heard before.

The great drummer Peter Erskine described Rich saying, "His name conjures images and memories of drumming wizardry, musical mastery and excellence that went beyond mortal bounds with an arrogance that defied the gods of talent."

As Peter mentioned, along with his technical skills, Rich possessed a very strong ego.

A holder of a black belt in karate, he was a die-hard baseball fan and a remarkably good tap dancer. He claimed to never have had a formal drum lesson, that he never practiced. It is doubtful that he could read music.

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Headliner at Age 4

So who was Buddy Rich?

Born in 1917, he was a child prodigy — actually an infant prodigy, performing at the age of 18 months in his parents' vaudeville act.

He was a headliner at the age of 4, billed as "Traps, The Drum Wonder."

In 1939, he joined Tommy Dorsey's world famous big band and his fame grew on and off the bandstand, aided by appearances in Hollywood movies. Rich stayed with Dorsey until 1946, except for a two-year stint with the U.S. Marines during World War II.

Leaving Dorsey, he played with many of the jazz greats and organized his own bands for the next two decades. Rich favored big band jazz, but by the 1960s, the big band era had come to an end.

Leaving the Harry James band in 1966, Rich embarked upon a new phase of his career. He was 48 years old and had been a professional musician for 46 years. He had been a headliner during the vaudeville era, a major force in the swing era and now was prepared to once again lead a big band.

It appeared that he was embarking upon a fool's mission. But instead of failure, against long odds, he succeeded for the next 20.

Continued to Deliver

How did he do it?

He adapted his playing technique to a more modern sound, while blending jazz, funk and rock with "barn burning" arrangements that allowed some of the up-and-coming young musicians in his bands to shine, while the "old" master continued to deliver an intense and exciting performance every time out.

Whether it was a classic jazz tune like "Love for Sale," an extended medley of the great tunes from "West Side Story," or the pop tune of the day, he carefully crafted a program that delivered a musical performance that was enjoyed by die-hard jazz fans and "newbies" as well.

When asked about this change in direction, Buddy said, "This is what I play; take it or leave it — if you know anything about me, you know I don't give a damn about anybody's opinion. I do exactly what I think is right for me."

Celebrating Buddy Rich

So who was Buddy Rich? I submit that Rich was an extraordinary gifted musician and an extremely complex person.

This year is the centennial of the birth of Buddy Rich, and Vail Jazz will celebrate his life and music as part of the 23rd annual Vail Jazz Festival when it presents Jeff Hamilton and Butch Miles in a multimedia tribute to Buddy Rich, along with the H2 Big Band on the evening of Saturday, Sept. 2, at the Vail Marriott Hotel.

In addition, on Friday, Vail Jazz will screen the documentary film "Buddy Rich — Jazz Legend," with a Q-and-A session hosted by Hamilton following the screening.

Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival.

Celebrating its 23rd year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.

If you go …

What: Vail Jazz Festival presents Multi-Media Tribute to Buddy Rich with Jeff Hamilton and Butch Miles joined by the H2 Big Band.

Where: Vail Marriott Hotel.

When: Saturday, Sept. 2, music starts at 7:45 p.m. with the Tribute to Buddy Rich at 8:45 p.m.

Cost: $75.

More information: On Friday, Sept. 1, Vail Jazz presents a screening of “Buddy Rich — Jazz Legend” at the Vail Marriott Hotel from 2 to 4 p.m. (Cost is $20 for the film.) Visit http://www.VailJazz.org.