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Remembering William Marcel "Buddy" Collette

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Buddy Collette
By Ed Hamilton

Saxophonist and flautist Buddy Collette brought color to white TV game show orchestras, before Martin Luther King fought for civil rights in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. He paved the way for the hiring of musicians of color into all-white TV and film orchestras: Clark Terry, J.J. Johnson, Count Basie, Quincy Jones, Benny Golson, Oliver Nelson and, in this millennium, Kevin Eubanks, Ernie Fields, Ricky Minor, and Ralph Moore can all pay homage to Collete's selfless efforts.

Buddy, as he was always called, passed away recently in Los Angeles of heart failure, after years of wheelchair confinement due to a 1998 stroke—leaving behind a legacy that will never again be surpassed.

In the days of Central Avenue Jazz, Buddy and other musicians of color were denied membership in Musicians Union Local 47 because it was for white musicians only. “I knew there was something that had to be done," he reiterated in his autobiography Jazz Generations: A Life in American Music and Society (Continuum Press, 2001). So the brothers formed their own union, Local 767. Seeing this inequity and exclusion, he challenged Local 47 by getting employment playing sax in the Groucho Marx You Bet Your Life orchestra, in 1953—the first musician of color in the group.

Buddy said, “It was a great gig—we rehearsed for a half hour, filmed for 45 minutes for 35 shows (one/week), and got 13 weeks' vacation with pay. There wasn't a lot of music played. Groucho would talk about the Secret Word—-a bird dropped down and the band played in short phrases." Soon, Teddy Edwards was hired and played in Jack Benny's Orchestra and Desi Arnaz's I Love Lucy orchestra. In 1963, Buddy and Ernie Wilkins integrated the Academy Awards orchestra, the same year Sidney Poitier won the Best Actor Oscar for Lillies of the Field (1963), marking the first time any black musicians other than Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis were in the orchestra—they were the first, and later came bassist Ray Brown. His valiant efforts in desegregating Local 47 were assisted by Gerald Wilson, Frank Sinatra, Britt Woodman, Nat "King" Cole, and Benny Carter. He recorded and performed with Nelson Riddle, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, and many others.

At 12 years old, Buddy formed his first group, with Charles Mingus and Britt Woodman. Later, along with Dexter Gordon and Chico Hamilton, they helped bebop to stay alive on Central Avenue, and in 1955, co-founded the revolutionary Chico Hamilton Quintet—revolutionary in makeup, replacing piano with guitar. Buddy also taught Eric Dolphy, Mingus, Charles Lloyd, Frank Morgan, and James Newton.

Music education and the preservation of the history of Central Avenue were his other accomplishments. He developed the UCLA Oral History “Central Avenue Sounds," and Jazz America, an organization providing music instruction to gifted high school musicians. As a grandparent, through benefit concerts, he raised money for Los Angeles' Burroughs Middle School music department, where he and Horace Tapscott's grandsons, Eric Gales' daughter and Fritz Wise's son also attended.

William Marcel “Buddy" Collette, born August 6, 1921, settled in Watts, California with his dad Willie, who played piano, and mom Goldie, who was a singer. They left Knoxville, Tennessee as part of America's Great Migration of blacks from the south. He is survived by his daughters Cheryl, Veda and Crystal, son Zan, eight grandchildren and nine great grandchildren. Like Paul Robeson, Buddy Colette stood tall, possessing immense talent, and was monumental in solidifying the African American musician into the musical realms of TV, adding many shades of color. And in the words of former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, “Buddy Collette is A living Los Angeles cultural treasure." And his star should also be added to those honored on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was truly the civil rights warrior for African American musicians in the mediums of television and film.

Photo Credit
Brian McMillen

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