Bruce Klauber is well aware of Buddy Rich’s reputation. More than 30 years after his death, the jazz icon is often better known for his volcanic personality than his virtuosic drumming.
It’s the latter aspect that Klauber will spotlight on Wednesday night at Chris’ Jazz Cafe, when the Philadelphia drummer, singer, and author will join the Monday Blues/Jazz Orchestra to celebrate the publication of Buddy Rich: One of a Kind, a biography by Swedish writer Pelle Berglund. The event will feature music spanning Rich’s career, from his early days playing with the big bands of Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw to his own explosive ensembles. The program will also include work by peers like drum pioneer Gene Krupa, as well as a reminiscence of Rich’s friendship and collaboration with Frank Sinatra that will feature guest vocalist Eddie Bruce.
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While Berglund’s book doesn’t shy away from depictions of Rich’s notorious volatility and gargantuan ego, it sheds revealing light on his complicated personality and musical genius. Both are much-needed correctives for his modern public reputation.
The 2014 Oscar-winning film Whiplash (for which Klauber served as a technical adviser) presented Rich as the hero figure for an ambitious young drummer whose efforts seemed more athletic than musical. In the internet age, Rich became known for the infamous “bus tapes,” bootleg recordings of his profanity-laden tirades excoriating his band for their sloppy playing and unshaven faces. While he was still alive, audiences who flocked to hear his big band were drawn as much by his tart-tongued appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show as his showstopping West Side Story medley.
“I’ll defend Buddy Rich to my dying day,” Klauber insists. “Try leading a band of your own sometime. Try playing with Bird, Art Tatum, and Louis Armstrong, and then finding yourself on the road with a bunch of slackers. Then come back to me and tell me about temper.”
The pendulum seems to be swinging back toward a more nuanced appreciation of Rich’s career. Berglund’s book, which Klauber helped edit, translate into English, and place with American publisher Hudson Music, fleshes out the drummer’s tumultuous life. Through eight years of exhaustive research, Berglund tells the story of Rich’s early years as a child star in vaudeville; his reinvention as a jazz musician and rise to superstar status as a drum powerhouse; his uneasy relationship with shifting popular tastes as bebop and then rock-and-roll took over from swing; and of course, his abrasive personality.
The biography arrives on the heels of Just In Time: The Final Recording, a newly released live album of Rich’s big band at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London in 1986, six months before his death. It’s a vivid reminder of how thrilling his playing could be, even at that late date. But it’s also important to recall, as Klauber points out, that Rich could play with exquisite refinement in the proper company, as he did on the classic Charlie Parker With Strings or in his essential trio recordings with pianist Nat King Cole and saxophonist Lester Young.
“Seeing Buddy Rich live was like seeing Sinatra,” said Klauber, who got to witness both artists at Philly venues like the Latin Casino and Convention Hall in the ’60s and ’70s. “Forget about his solos; he was a magician, he was Superman. But as an accompanist, this guy could inspire an 18-year-old kid just out of Berklee [College of Music in Boston] to swing in a way he never thought he could. Was life a little difficult on the road? Yeah, because Buddy wanted out of this kid what he wanted out of himself.”
Rich was also an inspiration for Klauber, personally and professionally. Through his relationship with veteran Philadelphia saxophonist Charlie Ventura, Klauber had the opportunity to interview his idol in the late ’70s. “He didn’t want to talk about the drums,” Klauber recalled. “He wasn’t interested in being a part of history. He said, ‘What I did yesterday means nothing.’ I really took that to heart.”
At 67, Klauber hasn’t ever stopped moving forward. He’s a prolific journalist whose work has appeared in outlets like JazzTimes, Modern Drummer, and The Inquirer. He’s written biographies and produced videos on jazz artists including Rich and Krupa, and collected his writings in a book called Reminiscing in Tempo. His All Star Jazz Trio, with pianist Andy Kahn and bassist Bruce Kaminsky, is just two years away from its 50th anniversary; for the last six years, they’ve played every Wednesday night at Chinese restaurant Square on Square. Klauber recently added a Tuesday night residency, singing the music of Frank Sinatra at D’Angelo’s Ristorante in South Philly.
At Chris’ on Wednesday, the focus will be Rich’s musical legacy. Klauber looks forward to sharing the joy of the drummer’s combustible artistry with a modern audience, while spreading the word about Berglund’s compelling tome.
“Buddy once described a drum solo like this,” Klauber concluded. “He said, ‘It’s got to have a beginning, a middle, and a bitch of a punchline.’ That’s the way I look at life.”