Buddy Collette, 89

Jazz saxophonist and rights advocate

Buddy Collette
Buddy Collette
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By Don Heckman
Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Buddy Collette, 89, a Grammy-nominated jazz saxophonist, flautist, bandleader and educator who played important roles in Los Angeles jazz as a musician and an advocate for the rights of African American musicians, died Sept. 19 at a hospital in Los Angeles.

He suffered shortness of breath a day before he died, but no specific cause of death was reported.

Mr. Collette's virtuosic skills on saxophones, flute and clarinet allowed him to move easily from studio work in films, television and recording to small jazz groups and big bands. He was, in addition, one of the activists instrumental in the 1953 merging of the then all-African American musicians union Local 767 and the all-white Local 47.

"I knew that was something that had to be done," Mr. Collette told writer Bill Kohlhaase for a Los Angeles Times article in 2000. "I had been in the service, where our band was integrated. My high school had been fully integrated. I really didn't know anything about racism, but I knew it wasn't right. Musicians should be judged on how they play, not the color of their skin."

Mr. Collette had crossed the color line before that in 1949 and 1950 by performing as the only African American musician in the orchestra for Groucho Marx's "You Bet Your Life" radio and television shows.

"We integrated the Academy Awards, too," Mr. Collette said. "It was 1963, when Sidney Poitier won. We were going to picket that thing. But I was in the band, with saxophonist Bill Green and harpist Toni Robinson-Bogart." Along the way, Mr. Collette, not satisfied with having established a career in the studios, continually laid the foundation for other African American players.

Mr. Collette came to national jazz prominence in 1955 as a founding member of drummer Chico Hamilton's influential quintet. The combination of Mr. Collette's woodwinds and, especially, his flute playing with the cello of Fred Katz and guitar of Jim Hall created a timbre that remains one of the jazz world's most specially appealing sounds.

Although West Coast musicians with Mr. Collette's skills commonly moved to New York in search of wider visibility, Collette chose to remain in Los Angeles, where he worked for more than four decades as a first-call saxophone and woodwind specialist. Performing and recording with Frank Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole, Nelson Riddle, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan and dozens of others, his resume encompasses a virtual history of jazz and traditional pop music in the second half of the 20th century.

William Marcel Collette was born Aug. 6, 1921, in Los Angeles. His father, Willie Collette, a pianist, was from Knoxville, Tenn., and his mother, Goldie Marie, a singer, was from Kansas City, Mo.

The younger Collette was raised in Los Angeles's Watts neighborhood and was a childhood friend and contemporary of former L.A. mayor Tom Bradley's and close musical associate of bassist/composer Charles Mingus's, whom Mr. Collette persuaded at 13 to switch from cello to bass.

While in his teens, Mr. Collette was an active participant in the rich musical environment taking place around Los Angeles' Central Avenue during the pre-World War II years. After serving in the U.S. Navy during the war, he began his long career as a mainstay of the Southern California music scene.

- Los Angeles Times

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