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Buddy Deppenschmidt, drummer who helped spur ’60s bossa nova boom, dies at 85

Buddy Deppenschmidt signs an autograph during a State Department-sponsored tour of South America and Central America in 1961. (Family Photo)
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Buddy Deppenschmidt, a jazz drummer who learned the rhythms of Brazilian music on a State Department tour, then appeared on a best-selling 1962 album, “Jazz Samba,” which helped launch a worldwide bossa nova boom, died March 20 at a nursing facility in Doylestown, Pa. He was 85.

His daughter Allyson Cover confirmed the death and said the cause was dementia. Mr. Deppenschmidt’s longtime partner, Marjorie Danciger, said he had recovered from a bout of covid-19.

For many years, Mr. Deppenschmidt was considered a musical footnote, a sideman who played on one of the most popular jazz recordings of all time but then disappeared from the limelight. He was the last surviving musician who performed on “Jazz Samba,” which featured guitarist Charlie Byrd and saxophone great Stan Getz. It was the first bossa nova recording by American musicians to become a major hit and remains the only jazz instrumental album to reach No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart.

Getz won a Grammy Award and became a jazz superstar, and Byrd was acclaimed throughout the world. Both were given credit for popularizing the bossa nova, especially after Getz’s 1963 hit song, “The Girl From Ipanema.”

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Byrd told DownBeat magazine in 1963 that “Buddy Deppenschmidt deserves an awful lot of credit for his part in the album,” but the full extent of his contribution to “Jazz Samba” was largely overlooked for years.

Music historian David R. Adler first highlighted Mr. Deppenschmidt’s role in a 2004 article in Jazz Times. Members of Byrd’s family disagreed with the assessment, but others, including Keter Betts, who was Byrd’s bass player at the time, corroborated Mr. Deppenschmidt’s recollection of the events.

In 1961, Mr. Deppenschmidt was a 25-year-old drummer working in Washington with Byrd, who was known for interspersing classical guitar pieces with jazz. That year, Byrd’s trio embarked on a three-month tour of 18 Central and South American countries as part of a cultural exchange program sponsored by the State Department.

“Everyone agrees about one thing,” Adler wrote in Jazz Times. “The seed for ‘Jazz Samba’ was planted during the Charlie Byrd Trio’s 1961 State Department tour.”

Mr. Deppenschmidt’s favorite stop on the tour was Brazil, where the new bossa nova music was taking shape. Bossa nova, which means roughly “new trend,” was based on Brazil’s traditional samba music, but with a slower, more gentle rhythm and delicate, sinuous melodies. Some of its earliest proponents included singer-guitarist João Gilberto and composers Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa.

Several bossa nova recordings had been released in the United States, but it had yet to catch on as a major trend. During his time in Brazil, Mr. Deppenschmidt was transfixed by the music. After their concerts, he and Betts often went out to listen to Brazilian musicians in clubs, bars and people’s homes.

“There were nights we stayed up all night,” Mr. Deppenschmidt said in a 2013 interview with music writer Chris McGowan for the Brazilian Sound blog. “I’m glad I didn’t just go to embassy cocktail parties. I reserved most of my off time to hang out with local people and most of the time they were musicians.”

At a judge’s house in Bahia, the trio listened to bossa nova records, then played music together afterward.

“They passed the guitar and everyone played guitar,” Mr. Deppenschmidt said. “And his wife played the guitar; his son played piano and drums. That was the first time we ever heard Gilberto and Jobim. Keter and I went out the very next day and bought [Gilberto’s] records. And we started rehearsing in our hotel rooms. Just he and I.”

In another city, a musician spent hours teaching Mr. Deppenschmidt the subtle, syncopated two-beat rhythm of the bossa nova, in which the drummer typically uses a brush in one hand, a stick in the other.

As he and Betts began to practice the music together, Mr. Deppenschmidt later recalled, “I said, ‘We’ve got to do an album of this stuff.’ ”

Byrd was skeptical at first, thinking his fans at Washington’s Showboat Lounge would not go for the new music. Mr. Deppenschmidt and Betts finally prevailed on Byrd’s wife, Ginny, to give Brazilian music a try. Late in 1961, the trio began to work some bossa nova tunes into their repertoire, and the audiences immediately responded.

When Byrd’s record label showed no interest in bossa nova, he went to Verve, Getz’s label. (Mr. Deppenschmidt said he first suggested to Byrd that Getz’s approach would be a good fit for the music.)

Byrd chose Pierce Hall at All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington for a recording session scheduled to begin at noon on Feb. 13, 1962. Getz and his producer, Creed Taylor, flew down from New York that morning.

“I was so up, it could have been a cloudy day and I would have thought it was sunny,” Mr. Deppenschmidt told The Washington Post in 2012. “I was just so happy we were finally doing this thing.”

Besides Getz, Byrd, Betts and Mr. Deppenschmidt, the musicians included Byrd’s brother Joe (then known as Gene Byrd) on rhythm guitar and sometimes bass, and Bill Reichenbach on percussion instruments. They recorded seven tunes in two hours. Getz and Taylor were back in New York in time for dinner.

Getz won a Grammy for best jazz solo on “Desafinado,” the album’s opening track, by Jobim. Throughout the tune, Mr. Deppenschmidt can be heard keeping time on a muffled cowbell.

“Jazz Samba” sold 500,000 copies in 18 months and became a rare crossover hit for a jazz recording. Bossa nova soon became a nationwide sensation, with countless performers capitalizing on the trend. Singer Eydie Gormé had a top-10 hit in 1963 with “Blame It on the Bossa Nova.”

“We had no idea this album would turn out to be so historically significant,” Mr. Deppenschmidt told The Post.

Getz asked Mr. Deppenschmidt to join his group, but he turned down the chance and stayed in Washington. Getz later called “Desafinado” the song that put his five children through college. In 1964, Byrd sued Verve for a greater share of the royalties and received a substantial settlement.

For his efforts on “Jazz Samba,” Mr. Deppenschmidt was paid $150.

“God knows it was successful for Verve records and for Stan Getz and for Charlie Byrd,” he told McGowan. “But it wasn’t very successful for me.”

William Henry Deppenschmidt III was born Feb. 16, 1936, in Philadelphia. His father was a musician and bandleader under the name Buddy Williams. His parents divorced when he was 4, and Mr. Deppenschmidt moved to Richmond with his mother, who worked in a doctor’s office.

He became a professional drummer at 17, working in Richmond and later with trumpeter Billy Butterfield before moving to Northern Virginia. He joined Byrd’s trio in 1960, appeared on several of the guitarists’s recordings and accompanied many major figures, including Coleman Hawkins and Lionel Hampton.

By the mid-1960s, Mr. Deppenschmidt had moved to Bucks County, Pa., where he led bands and worked in small ensembles. He owned a music store in Flemington, N.J., taught at a music school in Newtown, Pa., and gave private drum lessons for more than 50 years.

His marriages to Charlotte Gravatt and Jean Apple ended in divorce. Survivors include his longtime companion, Marjorie Danciger; two daughters from his first marriage, Laura Thomasson and Allyson Cover; four half brothers; a half sister; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

In 2001, Mr. Deppenschmidt sued Verve Records, seeking royalties and an acknowledgment of his role in helping bring about “Jazz Samba.” He received a settlement three years later, but he was legally prohibited from disclosing the terms.

“At the time [in 1962] I was just so excited that the album came out and I was happy with my job,” Mr. Deppenschmidt told McGowan in 2013. “I was getting to play the kind of music I wanted to play every night. It didn’t enter my mind that I wasn’t getting any credit.”

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