Like a scene from a jazz gangster
movie, Rod Buckner dove, trumpet in hand, behind the drum set to avoid the storm of
bullets hitting the stage. Fresh out of college in the early 70s, Buckner was
gigging around Denver every night with a 10 piece band, jamming hard on Isley Brothers and
Tower of Power grooves. The young guys in the band knew it would probably take many late
nights in shady bars to pay their dues, but no one in the band was ready for this.
The person that walked into the club that
night was looking for someone, but decided to start shooting up the whole club instead. No
one was seriously injured, but Buckner did catch a round in his knee as he dove for
safety. Fittingly, the cover provided by the drum set ensured that the incident would
become little more than an unusual footnote in the career of a truly original Denver jazz
musician and educator.
Buckner has been performing and teaching music in Denver for more than three
decades, and his musical passion and integrity is evident now more than ever. It is
impossible to ignore the joy in his grin as he brags about his middle school jazz band, or
the thoughtful intensity of his performance with his septet, Buckner Funken Jazz.
Through the years, Buckylove (a
fans impromptu nickname has stuck with him) has performed and sat-in with the likes
of trumpet legend Harry "Sweets" Edison, saxophonists Ron Washington, Freddy
Rodriguez, Billy Tolles, and pianist Joe Bonner. He has performed as an opening act for
Roy Hargrove and Jack McDuff.
Last year, Buckner Funken Jazz played
a diverse opening set for Maceo Parker at Boulders Fox Theater. Afterwards, Maceo
wasnt sure if there was any material Buckners band hadnt covered.
"Did you guys leave any funk for me?" Maceo wondered.
Rubbing shoulders with special talent
has given Buckner plenty of opportunity to listen and learn, the way all great musicians
do. But when asked about the origins of his own performance style, Buckners response
echoes with the independent soul of Denver. "Once I get into the groove, I just have
my own style," he says. "For me, it just happens."
It started happening for Buckner at a young
age. Buckners mother, an accomplished piano teacher, introduced perseverance,
integrity, and a love of music to Rod and younger brother Ron. She also tutored another
local youngster on the piano a boy named Larry Dunn, who would go on to become the
keyboardist for recent Rock n Roll Hall of Fame inductee Earth Wind and Fire.
After his mother's initial musical
encouragement on piano, Buckner became enamored with the trumpet. His uncle, Raymond
Russaw, was one of the first black buglists in the United States Navy Band. Uncle
Raymond's influence proved powerful. Buckner began playing trumpet in every Denver city
band he could get into, right through his graduation from East High School.
He continued to study hard through
associates and bachelors programs in performance and education at Otero Junior College and
CU-Boulder. In the 1970s, there were very few blacks in the CU music program. The
curriculum was strictly classical. "We used to have to sneak into the practice rooms
at night to work on our jazz chops," Buckner said.
Outside of the CU music program, a diverse
collage of pop music was in full swing. James Brown, The Temptations, Isaac Hayes, Mama
Cass, Jimmy Hendrix, Deep Purple, Cream, Santana, The Isley Brothers, and Stevie Wonder
made it an exciting time. "There were flutists and guitarists constantly playing folk
and jazz music all around the CU student center in those days," Buckner said.
"With Vietnam, the peace movement, and the civil rights movement, the scene was very
From the peace and love of
Boulder, Buckner jumped right into the hard knock school of jazz in Denver. Like Chicago
and New York, Denver jazz players would stand in line at jam sessions, waiting for a turn
on the bandstand. "Guys there were real tough on the young musicians," Buckner
said. "You had to pay your dues - there were no fake books, so you had to get the
songs by ear. In those days, you only got to choose one song to play. Then the older
players would break into a bunch of songs at a real fast tempo, and they'd change the key.
Of course, if you didn't play it right, they'd tell you to get the hell off the
It was this ‘eat or be eaten’
atmosphere that solidified Buckner’s talent. Today he remembers the
hard-knock school of jazz as endless wood shedding on scales,
listening to recordings and live performances, and messing up stuff
during jam sessions. There weren’t many music lessons offered by the
older players, aside from how to develop a thick skin. He endured
some embarrassments, but always came back to the club a better
player. "If you came back, the older cats knew that you really
wanted to learn," Buckner said. "That was how you earned their
Despite the hostile climate for young
musicians trying to make the scene, Buckner excelled and molded his own sound. He thrived
on listening to and playing with many of the greats now pictured on the walls of El
Chupultepec, including Tolles and Eddie Harris. "My sound, style-wise, is heavily
influenced by sax phrasings from when I was hanging with all these guys because of
the speed," Buckner explained.
The speed of change in Denver is
something Buckner is also familiar with. Construction associated with the urban renewal of
Lodo ended the old downtown jazz scene. Buckner continued performing and leading jazz
ensembles throughout the eighties, during periods when there was not a vibrant jazz scene
in Denver. Now, Buckner believes the old school sound is coming back.
"Old school jazz I call root
music," Buckner said. "Root music takes you back to Coltrane and Lester
Young, Ella Fitzgerald for scatting, Count and Duke, Glenn Miller thats all
root music," he said.
It is this deep appreciation for root music
that Buckner wants to keep impressing upon his students and performing groups. "You
can walk around the house all day with the new jazz on," said Buckner, "but you
dont have time to wash the dishes while listening to Coleman or Parker." After
retirement from full-time teaching, Buckner plans to continue helping people of all races
appreciate the different segments of root jazz.
In the meantime,
Buckner Funken Jazz is
bringing old-school be-bop and funk energy to new audiences. There
aren’t any original Denver bands that can seamlessly transition
through Miles and Monk to Maceo, and back again, the way BFJ does.
Their sets can blow up the party or implode with quiet intensity.
With a lineup of younger brother Ron Buckner (B-6) (on bass),
Bobby Hill (percussion), Tyson Nemechek (tenor sax), Josh Paterson
(guitar), Bobby Cole (synths and piano), and Tony Davis (drums),
Buckner has cultivated a band that celebrates the timeless roots of
music while exploring new ground.
changing," Buckner says. "It is growing by leaps and bounds. So
there is opportunity for performers to grow out of the Denver scene
to the national level." Buckner Funken Jazz released a
full-length original CD, LATE FOR SCHOOL, in the fall of 2001.
welcoming its newest overnight success, 30 years in the making.
Email Rod Buckner
Rod Buckner would like to give honor to God,
his dad, mom, grandmother and uncles. His mother and father encouraged Rod to persevere,
treat others as he would himself, and to have integrity in whatever profession he pursued.