Errol Buddle: The Man Who made a Dent in US Jazz

Few – if any – Australian jazz exports can rival the significance of Errol Buddle. The great multi-instrumentalist, who has died at the age of 89, enjoyed phenomenal success in the US in the 1950s, and was the first musician anywhere to use the bassoon extensively in jazz.

Errol buddle. Photo: Tandy Rowley.

Born in Adelaide in 1928, and sharing the same birthday as Duke Ellington (April 29), Buddle initially played banjo and mandolin, before swapping to soprano saxophone and studying at the Adelaide College of Music. He began playing alto saxophone professionally in dance bands during his teens, and when he discovered jazz in 1944 he was instantly smitten. In 1946 he bought a tenor, which would remain the centrepiece of an arsenal of instruments that would ultimately peak at no less than 12, ranging across saxophones, clarinets, flutes, bassoon, oboe and cor anglais.

As a member of the Jack Brokensha Quartet in Sydney in 1949 he had the pleasure of playing with the noted Ellington trumpeter Rex Stewart. Soon after he fell in love with the bassoon (via Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring), studied the instrument at Sydney Conservatorium, and intended to become a symphony bassoonist. That was until the New Zealand drummer Don Varella talked him into moving to Canada.

In 1952 he joined Varella, whereupon the pair undertook a pilgrimage to soak up as much jazz as they could in California, where Buddle was struck by the upswing in quality compared with Australia’s scene of the time. He settled in Windsor, Ontario, played bassoon in the local orchestra, and began exploring the jazz in nearby Detroit. Soon enough he was leading bands that included such major figures as pianists Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris, saxophonist Pepper Adams and drummer Elvin Jones.

Meanwhile two fellow Australians had arrived in Windsor: Brokensha (vibraphone/drums) and Bryce Rohde (piano). In 1954, with the addition of the American Dick Healey (bass/flute/alto saxophone), the Australian Jazz Quartet (AJQ) was born, initially backing singers such as Chris Connor, Helen Merrill, the great Billie Holiday and, for a year, Carmen McRae.

The band soon became a drawcard in its own right, recording seven albums across its quartet/quintet guises and constantly touring nationally. Booked by the same agency that looked after Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck, it became one of the highest-paid jazz acts in the US, its cool-school, aerated, distinctive sound finding favour from colleges and clubs to Carnegie Hall. Three years in a row Buddle also featured in Downbeat magazine’s prestigious instrumentalist polls.

In 1958 the AJQ performed a string of farewell US dates, toured Australia and broke up. Buddle settled in Sydney and, finding little jazz work, played extensively in television and recording studios for the next 15 years. In 1973 he formed the immensely popular Nolan-Buddle Quartet with Col Nolan (organ/piano), which, in 1976, had a hit with their version of the theme from Picnic at Hanging Rock. In 1975 he toured Russia with the Daly-Wilson Big Band, and during this decade also recorded extensively with the jazz composer John Sangster, as well as releasing Buddles Doubles, on which he played nine instruments. He studied in the US in 1978, and in the early 1980s showed he remained open to the new by forming a fusion band that included Mark Isaacs on keyboards.

Later years included a return to Adelaide, AJQ reunions, and the ongoing leadership of his own bands, in which he concentrated on tenor, making a magnificent sound while generating lines that were simultaneously relaxed, vibrant and propulsive.

Buddle died on February 22 in Sydney from heart failure. He is survived by his partner, jazz pianist Maree Steinway, and sons Lee and Perry from a previous marriage.