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Swinging Texas Tenorman Was Basie StarCopyright © 2001The Scotsman, 2001
Buddy Tate was one of the great tenor saxophonists of the swing era. His playing drew on both of the great models of the day, combining elements of Lester Youngs understated, liquid economy with the robust, hard blowing attack of Coleman Hawkins. Tate had the big, mightily swinging sound of the Texas tenor school, exemplified by players like Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb, but was equally adept at building an emotionally weighted solo out of the most minimal elaborations.
He adhered to the dictum that a jazz solo should tell a story, and had no time for bravura displays of empty blowing. At the same time, he was ready to experiment across the whole range of his horn, pushing into areas of sound and timbre which would later be explored by more modern movements in jazz. Even in his most abandoned, flat out playing, his control of both the horn and the music remained total, and was always purposefully directed.
He was born George Holmes Tate in Sherman, Texas (some reference books give his birth date as 1915), and began his professional career playing in territory bands which toured the southwest in the late 1920s, led by the likes of Terrence Holder and the better-known Andy Kirk. That was a common apprenticeship in the pre-war era, and brought him into contact with his most famous employer, Count Basie.
At the time of their first association, Basie was still a relative unknown, and the band Tate joined in 1934 lasted only a short time. In 1939, however, the death of saxophonist Herschel Evans, a good friend of Tates, created an opportunity to renew the partnership. Tate later told writer Stanley Dance that he had an eerie premonition of the event: I dreamed he had died, Tate said, and that Basie was going to call me. It happened within a week or two: I still have the telegram.
Tate brought his own sound to the band, forming a partnership with Lester Young which was every bit the equal of the earlier Young-Evans team. He remained with Basie for almost ten years, and made his reputation as a powerful and inventive improviser. The post-war economic pressures which quickly eroded the big bands in the late-1940s saw Basie drop his group to a sextet, and Tate decided to leave and look for opportunities which would keep him closer to home in New York, rather than maintain the constant touring schedules which had been the lot of the big bands.
He worked with band leader Lucky Millinder, trumpeter Hot Lips Page and ex-Basie singer Jimmy Rushing in the early 1950s, then secured a residency for his own band at The Celebrity Club, on 125th Street in Harlem. Tate held that residency at the club for 21 years, until his brand of hard swinging jazz was eventually ousted by the demand for rock acts in 1974.
Tate made many recordings during those years, and occasionally went on the road with trumpeter Buck Clayton. When he left The Celebrity Club, he found himself in demand as a guest soloist in both the USA and on the burgeoning festival circuit in Europe, often in the company of another ex-Basie star, trombonist Al Grey. Tate always delivered good value, whether working with an all-star package or a local rhythm section.
In the mid-1970s he co-led a band with saxophonist Paul Quinichette at New Yorks West End Cafe, and led another group with drummer Bobby Rosengarden at the Rainbow Room. He worked with Benny Goodman, and continued to record regularly throughout the 1970s and 1980s, releasing albums on labels like Muse, Sackville, Concord Jazz and Reservoir.
He was badly scalded in a hotel shower in 1981, but soon recovered. He worked with saxophonist Jim Galloway, pianist Jay McShann, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, a band with Illinois Jacquet billed as The Texas Tenors, and the Statesman of Jazz, among others, and remained active well into the 1990s.
His final appearance on disc came at the invitation of the rising saxophone star James Carter, who duetted with Tate on two tunes on his Conversin With The Elders CD in 1996, including a version of Blue Creek which featured Tate on clarinet.
The saxophonist had retired to Massapequa, in New York State, but recently moved to Phoenix, Arizona, to live with his daughter, Georgette. His other daughter, Josie, also survives him.