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New Documentary Planned on Buddy Rich, Legendary Jewish Drummer

September 9, 2012 4:49 am 1 comment

The cover of "Welcome to Nutville," the documentary on Buddy Rich's life. Photo: Courtesy Brian Morgan.

To the late Buddy Rich, playing drums in jazz bands was everything—so much so that when he was in his last days, he asked his only daughter to keep his legacy alive.

After the legendary drummer passed on in 1987, his daughter Cathy worked tirelessly to preserve her dad’s memory, organizing memorial concerts and touring with his band. Now, she is embarking on a new project—a documentary film about the great drummer’s life called “Welcome to Nutville.”

Since the documentary requires a lot of work—researching Buddy’s multi-layered life, editing hours of footage of his pyrotechnics on the drum kit, and interviewing surviving friends and relatives—Cathy partnered with filmmaker Brian Morgan and opened a Kickstarter account to raise money for the project.

Many experts say Buddy—born in Brooklyn, NY, to Jewish vaudevillians Robert and Bess Rich—was the greatest drummer who ever lived. However, there has never been a full-length documentary on his life and continued influence. Cathy Rich and Morgan hope to change that.

A Chicago-area native, Morgan has worked for CBS as a cameraman handling music segments and concerts and has been the director of photography for feature documentaries. After an introduction through mutual friends, Cathy Rich asked Morgan to take pictures of the Buddy Rich Big Band. After seeing his style, Cathy decided he was the man for the job.

“When I came across a bunch of drummers on YouTube I saw Buddy on video and thought wow, this man was incredible,” Morgan told JNS.org.

The online videos show Buddy driving many of the bands he played with over a career that spanned nearly his entire life of 70 years. According to the book Traps The Drum Wonder: The Life of Buddy Rich, written by singer Mel Torme, his life was full of adventures in the music business as well as in his personal relationships.

“No one who ever played the drums, with the possible exception of Gene Krupa, achieved the popularity, respect, and adulation that Rich enjoyed,” Torme wrote. “Rightfully so. Like a few other ‘originals,’ he stood out in bas relief as a genius-grade musician.”

Torme noted that young Buddy began to play a drum in perfect rhythm when his parents took him on the vaudeville circuit—at the tender age of 18 months.

Cathy told JNS.org that her father started playing even before that. “As the legend goes, Buddy was sitting in his high-chair and the radio was on,” she said. “He was playing along with his spoon and fork and keeping perfect time. My grandfather noticed this and would change the dial on the radio to see if this was a fluke. Every time he changed it to different music Buddy played perfectly to every single thing.”

During his long career, Buddy played with Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey, Ella Fitzgerald and Harry James as well as leading his own bands and playing with Jazz at the Philharmonic. He was known for his technique, power and speed. Although on the road constantly, he took time out to return home to attend Cathy’s recitals.

“He did everything for me,” she said. “Before he passed on, he asked me to keep the band and the music going. He knew that jazz was America’s only original art form and he wanted to keep it going. It took a while for me to figure out how to do this. We did scholarship concerts and memorial concerts. Every major drummer in the world came out to play in the band to pay tribute to Buddy.”

The Boston-based Berklee College of Music has a running Buddy Rich Scholarship. Known as the Jazz Masters Scholarship Funds, they were established in conjunction with the appearance at the Berklee Performance Center. Varying amounts are awarded annually to outstanding upper-semester students.

A singer who now fronts her father’s band, Cathy is known for singing the Sonny and Cher song “The Beat Goes On” in a 1967 recording made by her father on his Big Swing album. She was 12 at the time.

Preserving the legacy of her father propelled Cathy into organizing the Buddy Rich Memorial Concerts. The next one is planned for November at the Arcada Theatre in Illinois. As in the past, the program includes many top-tier drummers inspired by Buddy.

According to Cathy, Buddy was proud of his Jewish heritage.

“He kept the High Holy days and would fast [on Yom Kippur],” she told JNS.org. “When he would go to Germany to play he would check into a hotel and the man behind the desk was the age where he could have been in the war. Buddy wore a Star of David around his neck and he would look at the man and make sure he saw the star.”

Part of his heritage was giving back. Cathy said her father performed the highest form of philanthropy—anonymously.

“He did charity work for the underprivileged and he played at prisons,” she said. “He did not invite the press. He was a true humanitarian.”

When completed, Morgan said the film will be taken to the Chicago Midwest Independent Film Festival and that he is also “in talks with the film festival in Palm Springs California, where Buddy lived and his wife still lives.”

Morgan is “technologically savvy, knows the medium and knows how to get the film out there,” Cathy said.

The film’s Kickstarter website—calls Buddy the most inspirational drummer the world has ever seen.

“Some people are born to do what they do, like Picasso and Mozart,” Cathy told JNS.org. “Buddy influenced generations of drummers, but it didn’t stop there.”

“He has inspired so many people and that is what will be in this film,” she said. “His influence was overwhelming.”

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