Sam Wooodyard

b. 7 January 1925, Elizabeth, New Jersey, USA, d. 20 September 1988, Paris, France. A self-taught drummer, Woodyard played in several small bands in his home state in the '40s and early '50s. In 1952 he joined Roy Eldridge and the following year played with Milt Buckner. In 1955 he joined Duke Ellington, a job he retained with occasional lay-offs through ill-health and personal waywardness, until the late '60s. He subsequently worked with Ella Fitzgerald and as an extra percussionist with Ellington and Buddy Rich. Occasional gigs with Bill Berry helped his sagging career, but by 1975 he had decided to relocate to Europe. Based in Paris, he played and recorded with local musicians such as Guy Lafitte, other ex-patriates including Buckner, and visitors like Teddy Wilson, Buddy Tate and Slam Stewart. By the '80s Woodyard's earlier years of hard drinking and wild living had begun to take their toll. The theft of his drum kit added to his decline, but in the mid-summer of 1988 he was a welcome guest at the Ellington ’88 convention held at Oldham, England. Although his health was clearly at a very low ebb, he was rejuvenated by the renewal of contact with other ex-Ellingtonians, Berry, Buster Cooper and Jimmy Woode, and by the gift from the assembled delegates of a new drum kit. His playing at the convention was inevitably more tentative than of old, but he enjoyed himself and performed such crowd-pleasing favourites as Limbo Jazz with his eccentric vocal. A short while later, on 20 September 1988, he died in Paris. A vigorous and skilful drummer, Woodyard's erratic temperament sometimes showed itself in his playing and he occasionally slipped into musical extravagances. At his best, however, whether in subtle accompaniments to Ellington's piano solos, or driving the big band along in thunderous performances such as the classic 1956 Newport concert, behind Paul Gonsalves's legendary solo on Diminuedo And Crescendo In Blue, or the 1971 UK tour recording of La Plus Belle Africaine, he was unmatched.

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