Buddy Tate: Texas Tenor on the North Shore
One of the great things about having had access to Boston nightclubs when I was young was the opportunity they afforded me to see musicians playing on successive nights during their week-long engagements. Nowadays, most venues book artists for just a night or two, and Boston jazz rooms like Scullers and the Regattabar have followed suit. Valley jazz fans still buzz about the five-night stand Wynton Marsalis played at the Iron Horse in 1999, but while New York institutions like the Village Vanguard and Blue Note still book players for a five or six-night week, for the most part, that’s a thing of the past.
Among the great names I’ve heard two or more times in the same week were Cannonball Adderley, Charles Mingus, Muddy Waters, Barry Harris, Ruby Braff, Max Roach, Archie Shepp and Dexter Gordon at venues like the Jazz Workshop, Paul’s Mall, Lulu White's, Lennie’s-on-the-Turnpike and Sandy’s Jazz Revival. (Come to think of it, Sunday matinee and evening sets were offered at the Workshop and Lennie’s; twice-in-the-same-day encounters included Gary Burton, Mingus, and Charlie Musselwhite.) But there was one opportunity of this kind, a week-long engagement by Arnett Cobb, Buddy Tate, and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson at Sandy’s in Beverly, where I settled for a one-night stand. Ray Bryant played piano with the group, George Duvivier was on bass, and Alan Dawson, Boston’s first-call drummer, made it a sextet.
Bryant’s death last year brought back memories of seeing the soulful keyboard great on numerous occasions at Bradley’s in New York but it was coupled with a twinge of regret that I hadn’t been at Sandy’s for more than one night when those legendary Texans swung the North Shore like nobody’s business. As it happened, that was the only time I saw Cobb, but I caught up with Vinson a few years later when he played one-nighters in Cambridge and Providence with Roomful of Blues; as anticipated, it was basically the same show back to back, but in Mr. Cleanhead’s hands, even patented licks sounded newly minted. My only other encounter withTate was a night in which he got limited playing time on a Kansas City Swing tribute at Carnegie Hall.
Today is Buddy Tate’s 99th birthday. The Sherman, Texas native succeeded Herschel Evans in the Count Basie Orchestra in 1939; Evans was essentially the first of the Texas Tenors, while Tate, Cobb, Illinois Jacquet and other Lone Star saxophonists extended the lineage till kingdom come. Like most of the Swing Era tenors who emerged after the mid-‘30’s, Tate’s style represented an ideal synthesis of what had seemed like contradictory approaches only a few years earlier: the big tone and aggressive, arpeggio-laden harmonics of Coleman Hawkins versus the fluid drive melodic flights of Lester Young. Like Prez, Tate and his ilk were grounded in the blues, but they liked Hawk's sound and combined it with Lester's relaxed phrasing. Buddy spent a decade with Basie, followed by stints with Lucky Millinder and Lips Page. In the early '50's, he began leading his own band at the Celebrity Club in Harlem; speaking of extended engagements, this one lasted over 20 years. Despite this longevity, Tate told Stanley Dance, "I never [saw] any of the well-known New York critics there."
I found Tate’s quote in Stanley Dance’s invaluable chronicle, The World of Count Basie, which contains a 17-page narrative by Buddy that reads like a condensed history of territory bands in the Southwest. He seemed to play with them all, an opportunity afforded by his having got started when he was in his early teens. Tate learned to sight read from a local musician named Frank O’Banner who admired Buddy’s ability to improvise and encouraged his young charge to show up even when he was short on funds. “Money isn’t why I have you here…Someday you may remember what I’ve done.”
Among the numerous bands Tate gigged with was the St. Louis Merrymakers at a time when Herschel Evans was also with the group. He’d met Evans a few years earlier when he was playing with a band known as TNT, or Trent Number Two. Alphonse Trent was so popular in the region that he lent his name to more than one outfit. Tate remembered that Evans “was playing alto then and had about a thousand rubber bands around his instrument but…he was immaculate, sharp as a tack.” He said that when Basie sent for him, he “didn’t know that Herschel had died…but I had dreamed he had died and that Basie was going to call me. That’s the truth, so help me God.” On his second night with the band, a dance at Kansas City University, Basie asked him to fill the many requests he was getting for Evans’ ballad showcase, “Blue and Sentimental.”
“I walked out to the mike and it seemed like a mile,” he told Dance. “I knew ‘Blue and Sentimental,’ but I’d never played it. Everybody danced as I played it and it broke the house up. All the guys in the band stood up and shook my hand when I finished. ‘You’re in,’ they said. Everybody, that is, but Prez. He just looked up and winked.”
As you’ll see in this documentary segment from "Born to Swing," Tate’s name eventually made the marquees of the Savoy and Apollo Theaters, and he enjoyed a long and fruitful career. Indeed, as the narrator observes, Tate suffered less of the proverbial show biz blues than most of his colleagues, and his happy marriage, which began in a “love at first sight” encounter in 1936, didn’t hurt either. But when the chips were down, he found solace in his instrument. “I can be blue and just pick up my saxophone and go play by myself and everything goes away. Just gives you a completely relaxed mind—I think it’s a part of me.”
We’ll relax with George Holmes Tate in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode. Tune in for his work with Basie, as well as Mary Lou Williams, Roy Eldridge, and Buck Clayton. And much as I regret not being at Sandy’s for that entire week in August 1978, Muse Records helps me relive the experience with recordings it issued under Arnett Cobb’s name as “Live at Sandy’s.” We’ll hear a "Blues for Lester" from that tonight too. Meanwhile, check out Buddy soloing on “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” with the riffing tenors of Cobb and Jacquet on this 1982 concert in Berlin. As Basie knew best, Texas Tenors always sound good together.