Remembering Buddy Morrow

This IS My Day Gig!

by Hardin Butcher

Hardin Butcher Long Island New York—(Weekly Hubris)—3/28/11—People often ask me how old I am. That either means that my cherubic face doesn’t match my withered sardonicism, or that I’m in the midst of doing something that a grown man isn’t likely to do outside an Adam Sandler film.

I like to say that I’m old enough to know that it was once possible to make a living as a freelance trumpet player, and young enough to know that if I’M going to continue doing so, then I’m going to have to really bust my ass.

I have a new, more concise answer: I’m old enough to have worked for Buddy Morrow.

Buddy Morrow, in the 1940s
Buddy Morrow, in the 1940s

He was my boss for just over seven years, and was, with all due deference to the fellow in the beer commercials, the most interesting man in the world . . . well, at least mine. Survivor of multiple cancers, lover of jokes, food and dogs, world-traveled musician, legend, sage, vicious poker player—Buddy was all of those, and so much more.

In his heyday, Buddy was arguably the greatest trombonist of a generation. According to a mutual friend, Slide Hampton once declared him to be the best, only to be grilled for it by the bebop aficionados in the room. “You didn’t ask me who the greatest JAZZ trombonist is,” Slide countered. “You asked me who the greatest TROMBONIST is, and THAT is Buddy Morrow.”

When I started working for Buddy, he had been leading the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra for over two decades. Cancer had robbed him of his salivary glands; he used to use synthetic saliva that he sprayed into his mouth (“Ninety percent water, 10 percent fun,” he used to tell the audience after a spritzing). His chops were certainly not what I had heard on the recordings of yesteryear, but he still got around on the trombone better than most guys ten years his junior. His wit, I was told, was as sharp as ever.

Buddy was 84 when I met him. I was 28, and had just finished Grad School I—The Easy Part.

I’ll never forget my first gig with the band. It was a total nightmare, a fuster-cluck of the highest order.

I was playing lead trumpet (if you’re not hip to big band hierarchy, then imagine that the quarterback of the horn section is reading the playbook for the first time during the season opener); the singer was drunk, or needed to be drunk, or wasn’t drunk enough, and it showed; the bassist was rushing like a laden freight train rolling downhill; the pianist, another rookie, was in complete shell shock, neither comping over the intended chords nor making his solo entrances (I can still hear Buddy shouting at him, “Play something! Anything! Jeeeeee-sus . . . .”); the road manager was sitting right next to me, and—thanks to the four-alarm three-ring pandemonium breaking out all over the bandstand—he didn’t even have time to properly roast me for my performance.

All these years later, and that first show is still the most epic of failures I have witnessed. Buddy took it in stride. We saw neither hide nor hair of that pianist again.

Never has a man loved Chinese food the way Buddy did. Put him in the middle of nowhere, blindfolded, and Buddy could find a Chinese restaurant (like Charlie Sheen sniffing out a cocktail or any Lohan seeking a photo op). On a stunning autumn day in the Shenandoah Valley, some of us stayed on the bus to hit a Chinese buffet with Buddy after the rest of the band had been deposited at a cluster of fast food joints. Our lunch hour was running short, and a few of us started to wonder aloud if we might get a tongue-lashing from the road manager for being late. Buddy overheard us and, pointing emphatically at the parking lot with his egg roll, said, “How can we be late? It’s MY damn bus!”

Just like I’ll never forget that first gig, I’ll also never forget the morning Buddy died.

I had played with him the Friday before. He was 91, and frailer than ever (Buddy was always a big guy; three separate bouts with cancer put an end to that). He was pushed out in a wheelchair to start the show and played sparsely, an oxygen tube in his nose the whole time. He joked with the crowd as always. They loved him. Nobody could charm an audience like Buddy.

I wheeled him off the bus into his house after the gig that night, gave him a hug, and headed on down the road. It was the last time I ever saw him.

Buddy’s doctor kept him off the Saturday gig, a hit-and-run down to Ft. Lauderdale. We played the show and high-tailed it back north, through the night. I boarded a pre-dawn flight from Orlando to my Sunday afternoon gig in Maine. The ensuing day played out like some surreal festival documentary, filtered by my near-sleepless stupor. To insult my condition, I was playing with a band full of H.I.D. (Hipsters In Denial) who, despite my weary begging, decided to stop and visit on the way home, rather than get me to the train in time to sleep in my own bed before the next sunrise. I crashed on the bass player’s sketchy white couch, its sordid history spelled out in stains visible even in the dark.

The first train out of Brooklyn (where else would a band of H.I.D. live?) on that rainy Monday morning chugged into my tiny Long Island hamlet six minutes too late to kiss my wife before she left for work, much less get a ride home from her. I slumped down the hill from the station through the cold September drizzle like some defeated Hemingway character, dragging suitcase and trumpet behind me like dueling anchors, body and mind numb from an Odyssean weekend.

Dan, the bus driver, called at 7:39 a.m., after I stumbled through the door but before I could slough off my wet clothes and collapse into bed.

“Buddy just had a heart attack,” he said. “He didn’t come back from this one.”

After another 13 hours filled with phone calls and emails to current and former band members, I honored Buddy with a glass of Irish whiskey and fell into bed, crying myself to sleep in my wife’s embrace as it all finally sank in.

The band plays on. We still have gigs on the books and I intend to keep us out as much as the market will bear, playing for the crowds that Buddy used to charm, and for their children and grandchildren (yes, I DO see cause for EXTREMELY GUARDED optimism about the future of big bands).

We pay homage to Buddy at every gig, still play his hits, still tell his jokes, still revel in his stories on the bus rides, still love every minute of it. The people still love it, too.

Buddy’s memorial was last weekend. We all gathered in Orlando to laugh, tell stories, reminisce about the road, and remember the life of an incredible man.

After the memorial, a handful of us had Chinese for dinner. We took our sweet time.

Dr. Hardin Butcher is a native of Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi, and Alabama (yes, all four). His career as a working trumpet player has taken him through some of the finest airports in the world. Butcher moonlights as a devoted house-husband to an awesome wife, and claims to be a ragingly adequate golfer. Possessed of more college degrees than necessary, he continues (mirabile dictu) to avoid teaching anything. He lives on Long Island, where he often dreams of the mainland, proper chicken wings, and conducting Stravinsky (in his boxers).


    • hbutcher

      Speaking of typing trombonists…Thanks, Scott! It was a labor of love. The stories of the life of Buddy Morrow could fill at least three books.

  • Ed Gaston

    Yeah, Hardin.
    Simply, well put. Indeed. The Tommy Dorsey Band was my first gig out of college, when I was greener than a beer in Chicago on St. Patty’s. Buddy was patient, courteous when he had no reason to be, and full of advice, wisdom and encouragement.
    And he continued to be right up to the end. I had the good fortune to come back on board the Night Train (our bus) in 2006 right up to that last gig Hardin mentioned. He will be sorely missed.

    • hbutcher

      Exactly, Ed! Encouraging, patient (except at lunchtime!), and hysterical!!! Story time was the best. Sitting at the front of the Night Train on a hit-and-run with a beer, listening to Buddy recall his considerable exploits; those are the memories that make me smile like the memories of my childhood.

      As so many people have noted over the years, I don’t know of a single person that ever worked for Buddy who didn’t absolutely love and admire him. That’s rare for any person, much less someone who was a no-doubt rock star in his day.

  • Andrew Ferri

    I didn’t know Buddy, but now I feel like I do.

    He sounds like a real original and he thanks you for telling his story.

    I’m happy for the life Buddy Morrow got to live, and you’re lucky to have known him.

  • Peter Morrow

    As the “Son of Buddy”, I want thank you for the wonderful memorial thoughts expressed by you and the other “guys in the band’. I think I’m a little jealous of the times you got to spend with him over the many years. I know he loved what he was doing and his life (with all of you) on the road. Hey Hardin, have you considered writing as a second career? Great stuff. Thanks again.

  • hbutcher

    Peter, your dad was much like a second father to me. I lost my dad in 1995, and meeting Buddy in 2003 was almost like getting him back. Thanks for chiming in!

  • Bob Cary

    In 1952, I met Buddy as I was a Night Train fan. I was only a kid but loved the dance bands of that time. 1961 was with him at a Stan Kenton Clinic in Indiana. Play a couple of weekends with his band. Late 60s I believe. Then Buddy hired me as lead trumpet for 1978/79 after I spent time with Murray McEachren. Back with him for a year in 1999. I played the solo chair. Michael Wyatt played lead. Watching Buddy play was a lesson, even noticed how he stood. How he got out of trouble, playing I mean. I could have done the others, you know, Rich, Herman., etc, but Buddy’s band was like a family. We even played a complete baseball game with all 15 band members. Al Thompson inspired. One of a kind, underestimated, not really rewarded for what he did, there is only one Buddy Morrow.

  • G "Doc" Burrier

    Great article about a great man ! It shows that Hardin’s writing is as good as his heart and his playing. Thanks.

  • HerdFan

    Hardin, One-in-a-Million shot… I ran across this old 1961 photo of the Woody Herman Orchestra, and we’ve been trying to ID all the players. We’re down to 2 Trombone players… One fellow in particular you might (again, 1-1,000,000!) be able to help with: the Bass Trombonist in the picture.
    A couple of guys that were actually in that 1961 Herman band say they can’t remember his Name, BUT that they do remember that after leaving Woody, he joined (((The Buddy Morrow Band))), and while with Buddy, he was (((killed in a car crash when the drummer, Don Davis, fill asleep while driving))). Does ANY of that ring a bell to you? Any help much appreciated!

  • Greg Jones

    Great writing!

    I’d seen Buddy and the Dorsey Band many times throught the last 30 years. He was in fact the FIRST big band I ever saw live. I was awestruck by his playing.

    An inspirational trombonist and great bandleader.

    The last time I asw him, I’d worked 17 hours on a railroad bridge in Toledo, and drove an hour and a half to Bluffton Ohio to see Buddy…and the band of course. I met up with him backstage and told him the same thing, and he was rather appologetic that he wasn’t playing much trombone anymore (owing to his illnesses.) However, he played his but off on many of those jazz solos like “Marie”, “Boogie Woogie”, and of course his bluesy “Night Train”. he told stories of his life that night…things I’d never heard. Working with the Dorsey’s and Whiteman. He was unbelievably entertaining. The band was great. But Buddy was sharing his life story on stage, something I’d not seem before at other concerts.

    I miss him, and dread I will not see him or hear him again! Luckily that night I dragged along my Restore Getzen Super Deluxe Trombone and had hime sign it for me. He even played it a bit.

    Latter I asked Larry O’Brien to sign that horn as well (not realizing I Larry was leaving the Miller Band soon thereafter.) Larry declined saying “No way! Buddy was my hero too! He was in a class by himself and he should be the only signature on that horn!”

    After some coaxing, Larry did sign it, but that left an impression on me as to how great a trombonist Buddy TRUELY WAS!!

    Greg Jones
    Toledo, Ohio

  • Greg Jones

    Oh the bass trombonist in question was John Woehmann (SP)! He was a fine trombonist for Buddy in the mid sixties and wrote a lovely chart called “Soft Talk” which was bucket muted brass, and very reminiscent of Basie’s “Lil’ Darlin'”.