Jazz Institute of Chicago

Most Valued Player: Buddy Tate

Most Valued Player: Buddy Tate
by Nic Jones

There have been two dominant approaches to playing the tenor saxophone in the history of jazz. The trailblazer, not only in terms of approach but also in terms of making the saxophone a legitimate instrument of jazz expression, was Coleman Hawkins; his hardness of tone was combined with harmonic sophistication. Lester Young has come to embody the other approach, although Bud Freeman was the first on record with a lighter, more supple tone and a slipperiness of phrasing by comparison with Hawkins.

Buddy Tate, born in Sherman, Texas in February of 1915, made his recording debut with Troy Floyd in 1931. His musical apprenticeship took in stints with Count Basie in 1934, and Andy Kirk then and in the following year. He was to continue his association with Basie for 10 years from when he replaced Herschel Evans in 1939. In doing so he effectively took on the role of foil to Lester Young, and while his sound bore no overriding Hawkins influence, it was individual enough not only to contrast nicely with Young’s, but also to be perceived as representative of the "Texas Tenor" school which stretches from Evans, the instigator, to Booker Ervin, via the likes of Illinois Jacquet and Don Wilkerson.

For all of his cool and laid-back manner in musical and personal senses Basie’s appreciation of instrumental personalities was arguably second only to Duke Ellington’s. "Rock-A-Bye Basie", recorded in March of 1939 shortly after Tate had rejoined the band, has Tate laying out his credentials as a player at odds with both Young and Hawkins; attentive listening reveals a player whose phrasing is far less idiosyncratic than Young’s, a point lent emphasis by the fact that he plays right on top of the beat, while Young would frequently come on like such a force of nature that he made the rest of the band sound as though they were wrongly accelerating the tempo—as shown by his solo on "Jumpin’ At The Woodside", recorded in the previous year. Furthermore, Tate’s tone is heavier than Young’s and lighter than that of Hawkins.

Basie’s band in this period was nothing if not a tribute to hard work. During the last years of the 1930s the band didn’t enjoy a regular engagement; this was by no means exceptional but it did mean travelling extensively. Though hardly an unqualified pleasure, it did result in the band becoming a fearsomely tight unit that was also able to adapt easily to changes in personnel.

The oddly titled "Gone With 'What' Wind" is a good example of how true this is. Recorded in May of 1940, it finds Basie doing his supremely laid back thing at the piano—per the band’s entire career there is a marked contrast between the leader’s unique aptitude for understatement and the power of the band—before Tate turns in a swaggering solo that shows that by this time he was fitting in as though he’d served with the band for considerably longer than he had in reality.

Tate left the band in 1949 after arguably the most fruitful decade of his whole career. From 1950 until 1952 he worked stints with trumpeter Hot Lips Page and Jimmy Rushing, and in the following year he formed his own band at the "Celebrity Club" in Harlem; this marked the start of a 17-year residency there. Such regularity and longevity of employment has always been rare for jazz musicians, and it meant that he enjoyed a degree of financial security, especially as he was able to take on other work outside of that gig.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s he cut a series of albums for the Prestige/Swingville label with his band from the ‘Celebrity Club’ and with informal small groups.

The album Yes Indeed! under the leadership of pianist Claude Hopkins, finds Tate sharing the front line with trumpeter Emmett Berry, and the two perform throughout in the unpretentious manner born of experience. The same front line is to be found on Tate A Tate, recorded in October of 1960 with Clark Terry on trumpet. Terry’s "Groun’ Hog" sums up what the date is all about, its simplicity acting as a perfect springboard for Tate to preach in his most assertive manner.

Ellington’s "All Too Soon" reveals the depth of Tate’s abilities as a ballad player, an aspect of his talents that, much like his facility as a clarinetist, deserves far greater recognition. Nowhere is this more evident than on "Blue Creek" from the album Buck And Buddy Blow The Blues, another happily informal session under the leadership of Buck Clayton from the same period. Tate’s slightly woozy intonation is distinctive enough not only to define the album’s title succinctly, but also to offer a highly personal take on the blues idiom.

During 1967, his 40th year as a professional musician, Tate recorded in London with Ruby Braff in a quintet put together by George Wein, and in the later decades of his career he recorded and toured extensively throughout Europe, where he found an eager audience for his pre-bebop brand of jazz. The British trumpeter, writer and broadcaster Humphrey Lyttleton’s band frequently provided Tate with an apposite and sympathetic musical setting in this period.

The Ballad Artistry Of Buddy Tate, recorded for the Canadian Sackville label in 1981, fully revealed a facet of his abilities that had been overlooked. His work on Louis Armstrong’s "If We Never Meet Again" is that of a musician who’d learned much in his musical life, not least how to structure a solo in terms of pace and dynamics.

In a sense Tate’s career was the result of informality born of necessity. His music was the product of that now-vanished era in which a musician gained a solid apprenticeship through what might be called "on the job training", arguably the most potent form of training in music. He died in February 2001, 12 days before his 88th birthday.

Nic Jones is a freelance writer living and working in the UK. He has had articles and reviews published in Jazz Journal International, reflecting his wide range of musical tastes. He is presently researching for a biography of Samuel Charters, and continues to come up with Most Valued Players.

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