Adolphe Sax and his father dedicated their lives to the invention and refinement of the saxophone. You're living proff they weren't wasting their time. How would you describe the musical discipline -- performance levels -- you impose on yourself, now that you're your own teacher and severest critic?
"I've been playing since the fourth grade. Even back then, I was always more critical of my playing than anyone within hearing distance. The more I learned about my horns and the many other aspects of music, the more I became aware of what lay ahead of me, and that it would be a lifetime commitment. I still enjoy studying music and performing, and I also practice a lot. And when I practice, I try to play at the same level I would if I were on stage."
Long before Boots Randolph and 'Yakety Sax' there was Rudy Wiedoeft and 'Sax-O-Phun' -- the latter credited with helping popularize the saxophone in the early twenties. What later reed performers drew you into the fold -- and at what point did the clarinet butt in?
Standing ovations and extended applause are more the rule than the exception when reedman Jim Buchmann concludes a solo performance. At 72, Buchmann's background reveals a lifetime of unrelenting devotion to both his vocation and avocation as an instrumentalist. Jim's delighted tens of thousands of jazz enthusiasts both here and abroad. His trademark smile tells half the story; the remaining half is highlighted in the conversation that follows.
Who was it that hung the moniker "Gentleman Jim" in front of your surname? We assume the compliment was not carelessly bestowed.
"I was first nicknamed 'Gentleman' Jim by Chris Daniels, leader and bassist of Toronto's Climax Jazz Band. I had immigrated to Canada to work with the band in December 1976. After a few weeks it became apparent to the other band members that I enjoyed visiting with the jazz fans, no matter where we played. I developed a habit of chatting during breaks, and being the last band member to get back up on stage. Everyone in the band had a nickname except me. So between my many contacts with the audiences, plus the fact I neither cussed nor cursed -- at least back then -- I was bumped up a notch. And there it stayed."
RUDY WIEDOEFT: "Jim, here's a song I wrote, titled 'Sax-O-Phun'. 'Been at it for weeks. Went through a dozen reeds. Two music publishers turned it down. Please give a listen -- maybe you can figure out where I went wrong." JIM BUCHMANN: "That's not bad, Rudy -- you're almost there. I think I found the problem. Your root-positioned triads are conflicting with the half-clave and duple-pulse pentatonic scale, resulting in fifty-five flatted fifths. Got it?"
"Actually, my first instrument was the clarinet. I didn't pick up on the alto sax until our band director needed a sax player in the junior pep band during backetball games. So I ended up playing both. The tenor sax came along in Oregon City high school, and the soprano and bass were added when I was a music student at Portland State. Benny Goodman was still performing when I was in high school, and at that time he was my idol. During my first year at college, Portland's own Monte Ballou hired me for his Castle Jazz Band. One of Monte's best friends was Bob Helm, the clarinetist with Turk Murphy's band in San Francisco. He was the traditional jazz clarinetist that I began listening to and studying. Through Monte's extensive record collection, I was also introduced to Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds and Omer Simeon. I knew from the time that I joined the Castle Jazz Band that Dixieland 'classic jazz' was what I really enjoyed. I loved the freedom of playing my own solos and harmonies, and that I wasn't always required to play what was on the page. Being able to invent my own passages felt a lot like being an on-the-spot composer.
What compositions, if any, might you consider as made to order for the saxophone? Love at first sight. Or should we say -- sound?
"My favorite soft jazz tunes for the sax are 'Si Tu Vois Ma Mere -- Have You Seen My Mother' -- plus 'Harlem Nocturne' and 'Georgia Cabin'."
Identify the reed instruments in your collection. Which one gets the heaviest workout?
"My Bb clarinet is a Buffet R13. I have a King saxello, which is a slightly curved soprano sax and rather rare. It's the one horn that people are always curious about. Those two, plus my Keilwerth tenor sax get the most use. In addition, I have a Selmer Mark VI alto sax, and a Conn Bb bass sax. My collection also includes a Gemeinhardt open-tone-hole flute, a Haynes piccolo, and a Bb Albert System clarinet. But I don't play these last three anymore."
There's a scattering of dedicated aficionados who worship the bass saxophone, particularly when it's performing fast-paced melodic solos. What's your attitude toward this throaty instrument?
" I love the bass sax, though there was a period during which I wasn't playing one at all -- just moving the instrument from address to address and country to country. My wife, Andrea, threatened to plant flowers in the bell if I didn't start using it. After we moved from Toronto to Florida, I had a number of opportunities to play the bass with nightclub trios -- and then later with the Black Dog Jazz Band. The bass would still play a big part in my life if only I could afford to have someone carry it from venue to venue and make sure it got on and off the airplanes safely. Traveling with the bass is always a special challenge. I sure don't envy string bass players and tuba players in this regard."
The bass clarinet surprisingly imitates the 'plucked' sound of an upright -- or walking -- string base, particularly when played in the lower register. Yet the former is never seen nor heard in jazz performances. What's your take on that? And have you ever owned one?
"I played a borrowed bass clarinet on those occasions when one was required -- for example, in a woodwind ensemble group in college -- but not since then. I always perceived it as the preferred instrument for more modern or even experimental jazz. I don't recall ever seeing or hearing one in a trad jazz band -- with one exception. Otis Mourning played a bass with Professor's Band at Mammouth Lakes Jazz Festival in 2011."
If you were restricted to a single choice, what style of music would top the list?
"When I first started playing I liked classical music, and performed with orchestras and an opera company. Then I drifted toward 'Moldy Fig' Dixie, which I sill enjoy. But as the years passed, I find that I prefer 'swing' Dixie to anything else. I also enjoy Latin American music and in particular listening to and playing the bossa nova. I find the latter rhythm to be mesmerizing.?
Louis Armstrong, Monte Ballou and Ernie Carson brought their jazz bands to perform at the grand opening of Portland's Lloyd Center 8/1/60. That's Buchmann (age 20) at far right, Monte's reedman.
At some point in your career did you seriously consider establishing your own band? Did other performers encourage you to do so?
"While living in Toronto, and after leaving the Borgy's Banjo Reunion -- which was a full blown stage show featuring Red Hot Mama and a female dance ensemble -- the Skyline Hotel suddenly changed management and switched to a country music format. That's when I decided to start my own band, Jim Buchmann's Jazz Barons. I later renamed the band Toronto Jazz, as I was very proud of that city -- and still am. We had a fair amount of success over the next three years, working steadily around town and playing jazz concerts sponsored by the Ontario Arts Council. We also played some jazz festivals in Canada and the U.S. and recorded an album. No one really encouraged me to do this. Here I was suddenly out of work, had never led a band before, but decided to give it a try. I quickly learned that even though being a bandleader can have great rewards, it can also at times be a difficult and thankless job. I think that while I had the band, I was a good leader -- I know I tried my best to be. But I also realized
I wasn't cut out for it. I believe, though, that the overall experience made me a much better sideman, exposed as I was to molding together a group of performers."
Before passing at age 94, clarinetist/bandleader Artie Shaw sold more than 100 million records and wore out eight wives. He called it "practice". Is practice in the conventional sense still a routine you follow -- religiously or otherwise?
"I follow it rather religiously. Normally I practice three or four times a week and then daily for a week or so before a concert or festival. Playing jobs around town also helps keep me up to snuff. Happily, after 30 years I'm still in the process of wearing out my first wife. A losing battle for me. Andrea is really tough!"
Over the years you've been closely involved with 18 different bands, scattered from New Orleans to Toronto with performances in a dozen foreign countries. What was your longest stint, and which gave you the most satisfction?
"It's hard to choose a favorite band, as I relished them all for different reasons. The Disney Epcot Center German band outside Orlando was my biggest challenge. We couldn't use written compositions on stage. That meant some very difficult arrangements
had to be committed to memory. And wouldn't you know, many were played at lightning speed. After spending a month beforehand trying to learn and memorize the basic 50 tunes of the 200-plus songs repertoire, I played my first shift at Disney World. Seven half-hour shows per day was the regimen. I got home that night and called the bandleader and told him this wasn't for me. He thought I'd done just fine for a first-timer and convinced me to try again. So I did. As it turned out, it became great fun and I came to enjoy it immensely. Especially when we toured pop concerts around the U.S. and Canada, with different symphony orchestras during Oktoberfest celebrations. The Walt Disney World Band forced me to hone my reading skills, as I hadn't done much since college days. In all, I spent 20 years with the Disney organization as a staff musician. Both that and Rosie O 'Grady's Band were coveted full-time music gigs, and I was happy to be part of the action. Both Black Dogs Jazz Bands were equally challenging because of the high energy -- at one stretch we did 21 festivals combined with 40 weekend performances. So that's a glimpse of what my world was like. All the musicians I worked with in the past became like family, and I'm still in touch with many of them.
ALL ABOARD! In the early seventies, Jim joined Don Kinch and the Conductors, who were picking up where the disbanded Firehouse Five Plus Two left off. Jim's next foray was with the Climax Jazz Band, Toronto . From left: John McKinley, Don Kinch, Axel Tyle, Jim (standing), Bobby Brewer (standing), and Al Barrows.
Are there certain compositions or arrangements -- either classical or pop -- that continue to resist your best effort, even if it's not discernible to the listening audience? In other words -- the audience is pleased enough, but you feel it falls short.
"Yes -- try this one on for size. 'Clarinet Polka'. Delivered at a breakneck tempo, with a full symphony orchestra. Ouch!"
The late reedsman Joe Darensbourg -- he tried to revitalize the slap-tongue technique around 1950. Ever try to master it yourself?
"The first time I heard it played I really liked it, but didn't know exactly what to do with it. Later I did some experimenting but never perfected it -- which is absolutely necessary or it falls flat on its face. So I decided to leave it alone."
Do you ever run through a song three or four times improvising as you go along -- with the intended purpose of nailing down and committing to memory the improvisation that pleases you the most?
"When I practice I usually play along with familiar recordings. But if I'm learning to play an unfamiliar tune, I'll tackle it on my own until I work out some of the phrases that sound good. However, when performing live jazz, I don't believe I've ever played a number exactly the same way twice -- even when playing tunes that are the most requested and therefore most often performed."
Do you feel beholden to any particular person or persons you've met along the way during your musical career? Conversely, have you aided and abetted other musical aspirants?
"Naturally, all my formal music teachers helped me to develop and grow. But it was Monte Ballou who gave me my first opportunity to play professionally while introducing me to a style of music from which I would make living for most of my career. So, if I'm beholden to someone in that regard, it would certainly be Monte. Later on -- and turning the tables -- when I first met Mick Lewis, he was in the audience at one of my Climax Jazz Band gigs. He told me that I always looked like I was having tons of fun on stage. He then mentioned that he was a former clarinet player himself. I encouraged him to start playing again. Subsequently, from time to time, we'd talk about tone, embouchure, fingerings and feature numbers. He eventually became my successor when I left Climax to form my own jazz group. Mick's performed professionally now more than 35 years and still going strong.
Jim formed Buchmann's Jazz Barons in 1982 for a three-year stint in Toronto, then joined the Disney organization for two decades where he performed with six different musical ensembles. In total, he's recorded more than 40 LPs, cassettes and CDs.
Dancer Fred Astaire was asked this same question 62 year ago. To wit: how hard is it for you to make it look so easy?
"What did Fred have to say? -- I'd like to know that! My feeling is that everything comes easier when you know what you're doing and in charge of yourself. You might say I've made it a practice of practicing to the point where my fingers move automatically, and that my connection to the notes I'm about to play flow from the subconscious. The trick is to keep the conscious judgmental mind completely out of the way -- and then take it home from there."
And finally -- because you're too much of a gentleman to bring it up yourself -- what question have we failed to ask that you're itching to answer?
"You didn't ask how I got started playing the clarinet. What I really wanted was to learn the trumpet and play like Harry James, my idol. So I signed up for fourth grade music class when I was nine years old. My parents went to Sears to buy a trumpet, but came home with a Silvertone clarinet, as it was cheaper. Dad tried his best to convince me that this was a better instrument as it would be easier to carry -- and just look how many shiny keys it has! Sheez! I wanted no part of it. I was totally disappointed -- I sure didn't want to play a dumb old clarinet. Dad asked me to at least give it a try for awhile, and see how it goes. And...here I am. You know the rest."
PDXdixiejazz is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of dixieland jazz music.