If you’re old enough to remember the year 1980 in South Florida, then you might also remember the Paramount Theatre in Palm Beach. An ornate, 1920s-style movie theater before it was converted into office and retail space, the venue presented this fledgling drummer with a personal crossroads when it hosted Buddy Rich and His Orchestra on January 18 of that year.

What I witnessed that night was a revelation; one that jump-started my interest in both drumming and jazz, leading to my longtime journalistic contributions to [i]Jazziz[i] and [i]JazzTimes[i] magazines. Rich’s 15-piece band included piano and electric bass, but most of the bandstand was occupied by his horn section, which included three trombonists, four trumpeters, and five saxophonists including Steve Marcus on tenor and soprano.

Marcus was the star on tenor for the first of two sets, the highlight of which was “Birdland,” the hit Joe Zawinul composition for his group Weather Report a few years earlier. Rich’s band was known for reinterpreting jazz standards by composers from Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk to Cole Porter and Leonard Bernstein. This time, the crowd erupted in anticipation at what would become a [i]future[i] jazz standard by Zawinul and his standard-setting fusion band.

In set two, Rich took no prisoners. His brushwork and swinging timekeeping imbued gems from Porter’s “Love for Sale” to Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” all leading up to the centerpiece of the “West Side Story Medley” by Bernstein. The lengthy, challenging choice was impressive enough on its own, with the band roaring like the well-oiled machine it was, but Rich’s unaccompanied break within the song brought down the house.

In theory, it was completely audacious. First, Rich took a standard yet blazing solo, blistering his snare drum and rolling with thunder on the single rack tom and two floor toms of his five-piece kit. Then he soloed on only his cymbals: the hi-hats, crashes, ride and a splash. Then he soloed on only his drum hardware, the metallic stands that his cymbals were perched upon. Then, incredibly, he went even one step beyond by soloing stick-on-stick; his hands and drumsticks visual blurs and audio marvels of hummingbird-like speed and musicality.

That created my Robert Johnson-like crossroads, because it was either be inspired or retired. No one else had attempted that percussive decathlon because no one else could’ve pulled it off with such aplomb. As tempted as I was to give up on drumming for that very reason, there was an even stronger push to persevere in the realization of what such a musical mountain climb could result in. All because of Rich (1917-1987) — who, by the way, was 62 years old at that concert.

Bill Meredith is a Lake Worth Beach-based drummer, percussionist, vocalist and freelance journalist. Other writing contributions include a bi-weekly TGIF local music column from 2001-2016 for the [i]Palm Beach Post[i] as well as features for [i]Modern Drummer[i], [i]Palm Beach Arts Paper[i], [i]Florida Weekly[i], [i]Art & Culture[i], [i]Palms West Journal[i], [i]XS[i], and [i]City Link[i].

Musical contributions tally more than 30 album appearances, including recordings by Big Brass Bed, Black Finger, Jason Colannino, The Cravens, Friction Farm, Funky Blu Roots, Rod MacDonald, Smokeboss Militia, Sub Groove, and Monty Warren; multiple SunFest appearances, and opening concert slots for B.B. King, Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, Sarah McLachlan, Ani DiFranco, Johnny Winter, Queen Latifah, The Outlaws, Jennifer Nettles, Jason Bonham, Edwin McCain, and Firefall.

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