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A Master Musician Kept His Life's Time In the Rhythm of Jazz

Bill Reichenbach was a member of the band that recorded
Bill Reichenbach was a member of the band that recorded "Jazz Samba," credited with setting "the '60s bossa nova craze in motion." (Family Photo)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 15, 2008

Bill Reichenbach never wanted to do anything except play the drums. When he was 5, he took apart a banjo and started beating out a rhythm on the soundbox.

Through the years, he built a solid reputation as a steady rhythmic anchor at Washington nightclubs and for touring big bands. He was never well known beyond the jazz circuit, but for one golden moment, he unexpectedly found himself at the launch of a new national phenomenon.

In 1961, Washington guitarist Charlie Byrd went on a State Department-sponsored tour of South America, where he and his band -- which did yet not include Reichenbach -- heard a gently infectious music that had come to prominence with the 1959 Brazilian film "Black Orpheus."

"When they got to Brazil and heard the new sound of the bossa nova, Charlie was really taken with it," Joe Byrd, Charlie Byrd's brother and longtime musical collaborator, recalled last week. "It was very lyrical and had all the components he liked."

Charlie Byrd decided to introduce the bossa nova into his repertoire, which was already an eclectic mix of blues, bebop and Bach. The sultry sounds that wafted north from Brazil didn't take root first in New York or Los Angeles or Miami. Instead, they landed in Washington.

Byrd began to hold rehearsals for a recording and asked Reichenbach to join the project as a drummer and percussionist. The other musicians included Byrd's brother (then known as Gene Byrd) on guitar and bass, Keter Betts on bass, Buddy Deppenschmidt on drums and saxophone superstar Stan Getz.

On the cold night of Feb. 13, 1962, the six musicians gathered in a fellowship hall at All Souls Unitarian Church at 16th and Harvard streets NW, where they made musical history. To the surprise of everyone, including the musicians who were there, the album they produced that night, "Jazz Samba," became an instant hit.

Other American musicians had recorded Brazilian music, but it never caught on until "Jazz Samba." Highlighted by Getz's sinuous saxophone and Byrd's understated guitar, the album stayed on the charts for 70 weeks and "set the '60s bossa nova craze in motion," in the words of a 2004 Jazz Times article. To this day, it remains the only jazz album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart.

If "Jazz Samba" introduced North America to the bossa nova, then the distinctive shimmer of its syncopated eight-note rhythm was defined by the drummers, Deppenschmidt and Reichenbach.

"It became the standard for American drummers first learning to play the bossa nova," said Chuck Redd, who spent 19 years playing drums with Byrd. "Bill listened to Brazilian drummers and assimilated it in his own way. He was one of the very first American drummers to grasp that."

William Frank Reichenbach Sr. was a fifth-generation Washingtonian who had begun his musical career before he graduated from McKinley Tech High School. After playing in a Navy group during World War II, he went on the road with big bands led by Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey and Art Mooney.

In Washington, he led the house band at the Lotus nightclub and appeared at the Capitol Theater and other spots around town. He worked with such musical stars as Frank Sinatra, Patti Page, Teddy Wilson and Zoot Sims.

Reichenbach spoke in the classic lingo of a jazzman -- musicians were "cats," a house was a "crib," money was "bread" -- but unlike many musicians, he asked not to be paid by the job. He insisted on receiving a regular salary, with insurance and retirement benefits.

Soon after recording "Jazz Samba," Reichenbach joined Byrd's trio and toured the world with him for 12 years. In the 1970s, he settled in as the house drummer at Blues Alley and performed with virtually every big name in jazz. A powerful man, at 6-foot-1 and 250 pounds, he was known for his light, deft touch on the drums.

"He was the picture of relaxation and finesse when he played," Redd said.

Reichenbach gave drum lessons at his home in Takoma Park and led workshops at colleges and drum stores. Three of his four children became musicians, and in 2004 he came out of retirement to play on a recording with two of his sons, singer Kurt Reichenbach and trombonist Bill Reichenbach Jr.

After his wife of 65 years, Jeannette, died Jan. 3, Reichenbach moved to California to be closer to his two older sons. Ailing from strokes and dementia, he died May 16 in Los Angeles at age 84.

His sons sometimes played "Jazz Samba" while they were driving with their father in the car. He couldn't stop his hands from moving to the rhythm, and he always kept perfect time.


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