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Rod Buckner - Buckner Funken Jazz

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 70’s, 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.

I Was Made For Playing My Horn


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 fan’s 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 Boulder’s Fox Theater. Afterwards, Maceo wasn’t sure if there was any material Buckner’s band hadn’t covered. "Did you guys leave any funk for me?" Maceo wondered.

Buckylove

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, Buckner’s 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. Buckner’s 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.

BuckyLove - Buckner Funken Jazz

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 alive."

Rod Buckner In The Studio

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 bandstand."

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 respect."

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.

I SEE You

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 – that’s 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 don’t 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.

Rod Buckner Blowin At The Jazz Club

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.

"Denver is 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. Denver is welcoming its newest overnight success, 30 years in the making.

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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.

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