Longform

The Prodigious Son

Page 3 of 5

After they're done, a radio reporter asks Buddy, "Are you doing this for a hobby, or are you serious about this?"

"Very serious," he replies. "Most serious."
Within minutes, the princess' Bentley pulls up. She steps out and strolls toward the band. She's wearing a green dress and those white "princess gloves," as Bob Diaz dubs them.

The princess seems to actually listen to the choir's fine rendition of "Chattanooga Choo Choo" for a few minutes.

"They're very professional sounding," she tells Diaz after Buddy scats the tune home in a silky tenor that sounds like a young Nat "King" Cole. "Do you do this every day?"

It's a moment for Diaz to savor: Anne grew up in Buckingham Palace; like his students, Diaz was reared in a somewhat-less opulent setting--near 11th Street and Washington, in his case.

After the princess steps into the school, Diaz and some of his class assess the performance.

"All things considered, it went pretty smoothly," the teacher says. "You guys didn't choke one bit under the pressure."

"C'mon, man," Buddy says, tongue mostly in cheek, "she just a princess."
That earns a chuckle from Diaz, who considers Buddy a prodigy but cuts him little slack. Diaz has taught music for more than 25 years, the past decade at South Mountain.

A few weeks earlier, Diaz had lambasted the choir after an attempt at "Chattanooga Choo Choo" that bore little resemblance to the smooth performance it would give the princess.

"You got to make a commitment to the note," he told them then. "If you're wrong, you're wrong. Thousands of people are not waiting to hear what you have in mind. You blow a note into the [music] stand, you sing into the stand, where's it gonna go?"

"Into the stand," Buddy Strong answered.
"Where do we want it to go?"
"Into the air, into the crowd, through the air, through the crowd."

Diaz asked the students to sing their last note in the tune for as long as possible. Buddy lasted about twice as long as anyone else.

"You sure you weren't a pearl diver in the Pacific in a past life?" Diaz asked him. Everyone cracked up.

They tried the song again, getting through it without a glitch, but with little elan. Buddy, the de facto teacher's aide, provided an instant critique to his peers.

"That sounded stale," he said testily. "We need to sound almost drunk a little bit. We need to do a blues, to feel it a little more."

Buddy improvised a line, sounding like an ancient blues singer: "My baby, I said, my baaaaby left me, left me feelin' so very baaaad."

His classmates lapped it up.
"You guys got to practice, practice, practice," Diaz told the class, "so you don't end up on the streets. It's hot out there. There are riots out there."

The students roared at Diaz's intentionally ironic comment. Every few years, it seems, South Mountain High is thrust into the media spotlight after a school fight turns into an alleged race riot. Daily life at the school, however, is more benign and sedate than outsiders may suspect. Kids are learning.

Diaz says no one he's taught has more natural skill than Buddy, and that he expects the teen to become famous in whatever musical style he embraces.

Buddy's ear is astonishing. Not long ago, he and a piano-playing pal, Jeff Arnold, learned Charlie Parker's complex bebop classic, "Donna Lee," from a recording during a few lunch breaks. The tune is a litmus test for advanced jazz students; anyone who can negotiate Parker's lightning-fast changes without caving in qualifies as a serious player.

But Diaz has had trouble getting Buddy interested in music-theory classes, and suspects he knows why.

"I think his dad thinks that Buddy will lose some of natural feeling if he knows technically what's behind the stuff he's playing," Diaz says. "I don't think Buddy has been encouraged in that one area."

Pastor Strong doesn't deny it.
"Sometimes, Buddy's teachers just don't understand that the music just come out of him," he says. "In the old days, we didn't know keys. We'd just sing and play, and sometimes it sounded beautiful."

He pauses.
"I had a musical gift, too," he says, "playing piano from when I was a little boy. But when I was a young teenager, a lady asked me to play something in the key of C-sharp. I didn't know C-sharp from B-sharp. I was humiliated, and I quit music for a long time. I went through a lot of frustration about this."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin