L.A.-born musician excelled on saxophone and flute

Jazz multi-instrumentalist Buddy Collette, the Central Avenue veteran who led the movement to merge L.A.’s racially segregated musicians unions and broke the studio color line, died Sept. 19 in Los Angeles. He was 89.

Cause of death is not known, but Collette’s daughter told the Los Angeles Times the musician had experienced difficulty breathing.

L.A.-born Collette excelled on saxophone and flute. He was a renowned teacher whose students included such jazz greats as Eric Dolphy, Frank Morgan, Sonny Criss and James Newton and R&B star Big Jay McNeely.

Collette may have been best known to most jazz listeners for his work in the mid-’50s with drummer Chico Hamilton’s innovative quintet, which included cellist Fred Katz. He also led his own ’50s combo with such top local players as bassist Red Callender, drummer Earl Palmer and trumpeter Gerald Wilson.

Raised in Watts, teenager William Collette developed a close friendship with Charles Mingus, and convinced the young cellist to switch to bass, thereby altering the course of jazz history.

Before and after World War II, he worked on the fertile Central Avenue jazz scene, and recorded with Mingus for DJ-retailer John Dolphin’s label.

Collette was among the black musicians whose efforts led to the amalgamation of L.A.’s Local 767 (the black union) and Local 47 (the white local) of the American Federation of Musicians into one all-inclusive local in 1953.

“I think what we found in playing music and being in an artistic thing is that color is not very important; it’s what the people can share with each other,” Collette said in a 1998 interview.

He also became the first black musician to penetrate the rigidly segregated studio system when Jerry Fielding hired him for Groucho Marx’s studio group in 1949.

Collette became one of L.A.’s top studio players; his record dates included work with Frank Sinatra on some of his famous Capitol sessions orchestrated by Nelson Riddle.

In later years Collette juggled a busy schedule as a working musician, college professor and head of the non-profit group JazzAmerica. He co-edited the 1998 oral history “Central Avenue Sounds,” which contains an interview with him, and published his autobiography “Jazz Generations” in 2000.

He was permanently sidelined when a 1998 stroke robbed him of the ability to play.

According to the Times, Collette is survived by three daughters, a son, eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

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