Drummer Buddy Rich was one of the great virtuosos in jazz, on any instrument. But ask drummer Ali Jackson about Rich and it’s not the late musician’s blazing technique he focuses on. Rather, it’s Rich’s extraordinary range, as musician and showman. “He played in so many contexts, from vaudeville [as a child star with his family] to swing and the big band era, to bebop and everything else.” His lifelong fame — which included a long association with Frank Sinatra and many appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” — made Rich (who died 30 years ago this month at the age of 69) one of the last of a generation of jazz-musician pop stars. “He’s the true popular drummer of America,” says Jackson.
Fitchburg native Rick Stepton, who played lead trombone with Rich on and off throughout the latter part of the bandleader’s career, beginning in 1968, concurs. “Buddy could do it all,” says Stepton. “He was no Duke Ellington, that’s for sure,” but as a popular star, Rich “transcended Gene Krupa, who was Mr. Popular before him,” even playing rock venues in the late ’60s. The drawing power was based on the high-energy precision of his bands (Rich was a famously uncompromising, hot-tempered taskmaster), sparkling arrangements, and, of course, his incendiary solos. Stepton cites fans of Rich such as Elvin Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis, all of whom were regular attendees at Rich’s shows. Davis, according to Stepton, put Rich in the realm of modern drum master and Boston native Tony Williams, (who happened to be a member of Davis’s own band), saying, “If Tony Williams or Buddy Rich can’t do it, it can’t be done.”
On Sunday, Jackson will perform at Symphony Hall, in a Celebrity Series of Boston concert, with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, in a program called “Buddy Rich Centennial: Celebrating the Jazz Drum.” The first half of the program, curated by Jackson, will cover the full range of Rich’s work, from his small-group recordings with the likes of Nat King Cole, Lester Young, and Charlie Parker, to performances with Harry James and Ella Fitzgerald, to some of his own big band’s staples, like Phil Wilson’s “Basically the Blues,” a supercharged version of Eubie Blake’s “Bugle Call Rag,” and Ellington’s “Cottontail.”
The second half of the program will feature Jackson’s own extended work, “Living Grooves: A World in Jazz Rhythm,” which will pay tribute to Rich in part by encompassing the entire history of the music, from field chants and West African and Afro-Latin rhythms through the various permutations of swing. It will reveal Jackson as something Buddy Rich was not: a composer.
Jackson’s own 2014 album, “Amalgamations” (featuring Marsalis), gives an idea of his eclectic versatility. There are provocative arrangements of standards, like the Gershwin perennial “I Got Rhythm,” which becomes “Ali’s Got Rhythm,” and compelling originals: “Done Tol’ You Fo’ Five Times” (a New Orleans groove “chain gang stomp”), the impressionistic, tuneful drum-bass duet “Kentucky Girl,” and “Praise,” an affecting gospel number, slow and mournful, that pays tribute to the storefront churches Jackson, 41, knew growing up in Detroit.
“He’s so attuned to his past and the history of jazz and of music,” says Hope Boykin, a dancer and choreographer with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater who has collaborated with Jackson. On April 29, the Ailey troupe will present the Boston premiere of Boykin’s
“r-Evolution, Dream,” with music by Jackson, a piece inspired by the speeches and sermons of Martin Luther King Jr.
Boykin says she and Jackson worked on “r-Evolution, Dream” from scratch. “He’s my first call, all the time,” she says. “He understands dance, and he understands me.”
Jackson’s musical history with Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s managing and artistic director, is not atypical. Like scores of other musicians, he was “discovered” by Marsalis, at a school event, back in Detroit. By 18, he was playing with the trumpeter and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. A longtime member of Marsalis’s small bands, he’s been a member of JLCO since 2005.
So what’s been his biggest lesson from Marsalis? “The incredible work ethic,” says Jackson. “He’s just serious, all the time, especially when it comes to music.” He cites Marsalis’s consistency over a long period, in many roles — trumpeter, bandleader, composer, artistic director. “It’s just rare in any field,” says Jackson. “I’ve watched this guy write a symphony in a car, traveling all over the country. I mean, who does that?” It’s the kind of work ethic that even Buddy Rich might appreciate.
Buddy Rich Centennial: Celebrating the Jazz Drum
Featuring the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Symphony Hall, Boston, Sunday at 5 p.m. Tickets: $35-$75, 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.orgJon Garelick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.