By Ted Blankenship
Drop in for a nightcap at the Wichita Country Club and if you’re lucky, you’ll hear the sweet sound of traditional jazz coming from a grand piano. Delicately touching those 88 keys will be a smiling gray-haired lady in a sequined jacket Doris Buss, 90 years old this month.
She’s been playing in Wichita and all over the country for more than 75 years and doesn’t plan to stop any time soon.
“Music is part of my life,” Doris said. “It keeps me going. I’d like to play more than the once-a-month gig at the Wichita Country Club, but I just can’t do five hours at a time like I used to.”
The country club job isn’t all she does, though. She works when it doesn’t interfere with her bridge playing, and when transportation is available. She has found it easier to stop driving than to stop playing the piano.
“If there’s no piano around,” she said, “I play songs in my head.”
Doris can see well enough, but finds it more difficult to read music than it once was. It doesn’t cramp her playing style, though. Over the years, she has learned thousands of songs and can play them from memory – and in any key, which makes it great for singers she accompanies.
She memorizes the sheet music, then uses that as the basis for the improvisation that makes it jazz. Though she makes it look easy, her mastery of the piano is the result of many years of effort. She started taking lessons at the age of seven and was closely monitored by her mother who insisted that she practice faithfully.
She began on the accordion and quickly moved to the piano. She lived with her mother on the second floor of the June Frisby Academy, where lessons on several instruments were available. She studied marimba, steel guitar and ukulele in addition to the accordian.
Doris attended high school at Cathedral High and at age 14, was hired by the Ark Valley Boys at Wichita’s radio KFH, in those days when radio stations featured live entertainment. She would get up early in the morning and play piano on the radio, then go to class. Cathedral High (now gone) excused her from classes when she had to take several days off to play the Kansas State Fair with the band.
Doris married a musician, Leonard Buss, a bass player who became part of the Doris Buss trio. They had been married for 60 years when he died in 2008. Leonard’s day job was manager of Bulger Cadillac.
Doris continued to play Wichita clubs. She also taught piano and at one time had more than 75 students.
At one point in 2018 Doris thought her playing days might be curtailed. She had quadruple bypass, open surgery and later a slight stroke that affected her left hand.
“It’s the hand that mostly plays chords,” she said, “and it’s okay. I just have to think more when I’m playing. Luckily, it didn’t affect my right hand, the one I use to play the runs and the more difficult stuff.”
She played for the Ice Capades in the 1940s, played a duet with Henry Mancini when he was in town, she did the Gridiron shows in the 1960s, was an original member of the board of the Wichita Jazz Festival, toured with Norman Lee who took over the Eddie Howard band and toured with Smiley Burnette, Gene Autry’s sidekick.
“I went to California for the Armed Forces Broadcasts and was invited to Smiley’s home,” Doris said. “He did all the cooking and was really easy to talk to.”
Doris also played for Bing’s brother, Bob Crosby, when he hired the Norman Lee band and fronted it for a time. The Lee band also backed the Mills Brothers when Doris was at the piano.
She has an uncanny ability to carry on a conversation while never missing a beat at the piano.
“I guess I taught myself to do that,” she said. “But every now and then a politician will try to shake my hand while I’m playing. I haven’t figured that one out yet.”
Contact Ted Blankenship at email@example.com