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WESTSIDER BUDDY RICH
WESTSIDER BUDDY RICH
Monarch of the drums

1-5-80

"Mediocrity has no place in my life," says fast-talking, hard-driving Buddy Rich, wrapped in a bathrobe at his luxurious Westside apartment. "Anybody who is expert at what they do, I admire, whether it's drumming, tennis, or whatever. If they do it at the top of their form, constantly, I become a fan."

Dragging deeply on his cigarette, the man whom critics and fellow jazz artists have frequently called the greatest drummer in the world — perhaps of all time — dismisses such labels with something approaching annoyance.

"I don't think anybody is the best of anything in the world. Babe Ruth's record was broken, Joe Louis was knocked out. … I'd rather not be the world's greatest anything. I'd rather be what I am, which is a good drummer."

It is an unexpected statement to come from a bandleader and drummer known more for arrogance than modesty, but in an hour-long interview, Buddy's complex personality unfolds itself in all its richness, and he proves to be far more than a flamboyant, free-thinking musician who pulls no punches.

In Buddy's hands, a snare drum comes to life: it whispers, shouts, purrs, snarls, chuckles, gasps or roars, as the mood of the music strikes him. He began playing in 1921 at the age of 4, when his parents — vaudeville actors from Brooklyn — included him in their act and then made him the star. By the age of 7 he had toured the world as "Traps, the Drum Wonder." At 15, he was second only to Jackie Coogan as the highest-paid child performer in America. He began recording in 1937, joined bands headed by Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, and finally formed his own band in 1946. Over the next 20 years, as both a drummer/bandleader and as the highest-paid sideman in the business, he made hundreds of recordings with some of the biggest names in the history of jazz — Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Harry James, Thelonius Monk.

Then in 1966 he formed his current band, the 15-man Buddy Rich Orchestra. In December he brought the band to the chic, newly remodeled Grand Finale on West 70th Street. Seated at his drums in the center of the orchestra, he effortlessly mixes snare, tom-tom, bass drum and cymbals in a whirling, benumbing mass of sound.

Back in his huge living room, which is decorated much like a summer house in Newport, Rhode Island, Buddy says that his nightclub gigs are rare. "We do about nine months on the road, which includes Europe and the Orient. All the cities of this country. Most of the tours I'm on are 90 percent concert halls and schools. … The main reason is educational. It's good for the young people............
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