Two-part harmony

As newlyweds, some 28 years ago, pianist Buddy Budson and vocalist Ursula Walker had promising futures in the music biz. They were also madly in love, recently wed and parents of a newborn. For jazz stardom, that was a problem.

Budson was the quintessential accompanist with phrasing as precise as an architect’s measurements, a style that he has continued to refine. Walker’s voice was cozy as warm slippers.

In the ’70s Budson played the famed Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland with Detroit’s Austin-Moro Band. He toured with drummer Buddy Rich, guitarist Earl Klugh and then with the Four Tops. Touring was a dream for the pianist who grew up on Detroit’s West Side, graduated from Henry Ford High School, and started working in neighborhood dives at 15.

Back home, Walker was working regularly, turning down offers to go on the road and caring for three children from a previous marriage plus her and Budson’s baby daughter.

Eventually the strain was too much. Budson, for his part, says he got tired of rushed airport visits with his wife and daughter when he was between flights.

“I said, ‘I can’t continue to do this.’ So I came home and just figured, ‘Well, I got four kids; we need health insurance,’” Budson says. He took a job as a vocal and dance accompanist for Detroit Public Schools.

That was hardly as exciting as the road, but since Budson had such a solid reputation, stars passing through hired him. Mel Torme, Charles McPherson and Sammy Davis Jr., for example.

Meanwhile, the Walker-Budson duo became a fixture on the Detroit jazz scene, which means they work regularly, too often get taken for granted, but are always ripe for rediscovery, which audiences can do now on Friday nights at the Whitney’s third-floor lounge.

The chemistry of affection bubbles when they perform. With his grey ponytail, Budson is the image of a hippie intellectual. Walker, on the other hand, has the bearing and sense of propriety of a compassionate schoolteacher. He comps behind her, following “The Man I Love” as if hearing the lyrics for the first time. She stands nearby when he solos, beaming.

Walker’s had brushes with stardom from an early age.

“I used to sing all the time from the time I was 2 years old. I never had formal training. I like all good singers and all good music. I didn’t limit my listening to just jazz. I liked country music, and I loved classical music,” she says. And she was noticed.

At age 11 and continuing through her teen years, she performed on such local television and radio programs as Auntie Dee’s children’s variety show and Make Way for Youth. And when she was 17, Motown expressed an interest in her, although it wasn’t music that she was interested in performing.

Walker married at 22, and she had three children. But she never stopped working clubs with such popular local bands as the Brookside Jazz Ensemble and the bands of Johnny Trudell and Eddie Nuccilli and Jack Brokensha.

There were offers — before and after she married Budson — to go on the road with such group leaders as Stan Kenton, Count Basie, Tony Bennett and Harry James. But she didn’t want to be away from her kids.

Budson recalls a time they were backstage while Sarah Vaughan was out front. “I was standing in the wings with Count Basie. Ursula was talking to somebody else. He looked over to her and he said to me, ‘It is the biggest shame in the world that Ursula is not on the road.’”

Ironically, one time when Walker was ready to go, the offer fell through, she says: “Tony Bennett’s manager called. And he said, Ursula, Tony wants you to go out on the road with him, but I need to send a contract. We were talking, and just before he hung up, my kids came in the room. They were running around laughing. The manager said, ‘Oh, do I hear children?’ I said, yes. He asked me how many did I have? I told him three. And he said, ‘OK, Ursula, we will be getting in touch with you.’” The call never came.

Not getting the Bennett gig is one of her few regrets, but she laughs when she tells the story.

Budson first heard Walker when she was working a regular gig with Brokensha — the onetime vibraphonist for the Australian Jazz Quintet who settled in Detroit for many years.

“I was taken immediately by her singing because I had never heard anybody sing like that; it was just different, the way she would phrase and lay back,” Budson says. “And I was also taken by her whole persona, of course. She was so cute. Actually, when I first saw her I was afraid to introduce myself to her because I was in awe of her.”

Then a few years later, he had a chance to work with her.

“Somebody that knew her was opening a club, Duffy’s out in Union Lake. They were looking for a group. They wanted to put her with a trio. So they took her to hear us to see if we were OK,” Budson says.

Budson passed the test and they gigged together. And later, after Walker’s first marriage ended, they became a couple professionally and romantically. They’ve been making music together ever since, dealing with the ups and downs of the local scene. As to theirs being an interracial marriage, they’ve encountered some pettiness along the way, but Walker says the jazz community is accepting — as long as you can play.

Back in the ’80s, they watched sadly as places that they once played turned into discos, and that was when they began doing more work out of the public eye: weddings, private parties, corporate functions.

And they’ve seen the downside of being “locals.” Since they’re always around, they seem less special. It’s also awkward, they say, dealing with young managers and venue owners who don’t know them from Adam.

So it can be refreshing to get an out-of-town gig where they can be freshly discovered, where they’re talked about “like you are some young performer that people have never heard of,” Budson says.

And while the gigs are still plentiful, and there’s the hope that the Whitney Fridays will catch on since Walker and Budson haven’t had a long run in the public eye in years.

Oddly enough, they’ve never recorded as leaders, though that’s changing. Recently, Budson released his self-produced debut, On with Their Heads, featuring sharp, swinging arrangements for a three-horn combo. Walker plans to go into the studio next year.

“One thing that we truly believe in is growing with our music,” Walker says. “And that is what we have been trying to do over the years.”


Fridays from 9 p.m. to midnight at the Whitney, 4421 Woodward Avenue, Detroit; 313-832-5700.

Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
Scroll to read more Michigan Music articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.