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Benny Green values his jazz piano elders on ‘Solo’ recording

Don Dixon
courtesy of the artist
Benny Green

Some say giving a musical solo performance can feel like giving a speech wearing no clothes. So where does one find a wardrobe? For pianist Benny Green it comes with early work with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, as a Jazz Messenger with Art Blakey, accompanying the legendary Betty Carter, or as a musical protege and friend to Oscar Peterson. All this, and more, brings Benny Green full fashion to his latest recorded effort, Solo, which we chatted about recently for WBGO Studios.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Gary Walker: There are a number of great pianists that you pay tribute to on your new recording, and the very first one is a guy that when he was on tour with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers or with his own trio, the phone would ring in the studio in the morning and he'd be in Japan and he'd just say, “Gary, I just wanna say hello and see that you're okay.” That's the kind of guy that James Williams was. He would run the educational program at William Paterson University, and he was also a big influence on your life. You, James, and a number of other folks that we're gonna talk about later on were all Jazz Messengers once upon a time with the legendary art Blakey. Talk about James Williams and how he influenced you.

Benny Green: Oh, goodness gracious. You're speaking of pianists who played with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The first time I saw the band live was with James. The first thing I noticed visually about James was almost the joy that he was emanating and that he was sharing with Art. I saw the eye contact between the two of them and that's the way his music felt to me. It felt like so much sunshine. It felt like a big hug. The band that James entered into the edition of the Messengers that had the personnel of Valery Ponomarov playing the trumpet and Bobby Watson playing the alto saxophone, David Schnitter playing the tenor saxophone and Dennis Irwin on bass with Buhaina on drums had a very significant influence on the sound of all the Messenger units that followed. I've spoken with the other Messenger pianists who followed James, specifically Donald Brown, Johnny O'Neill and Mulgrew Miller, before I entered the band. We all feel that James really impacted the sound and the approach of all the Messenger pianists who came since. As you mentioned, he was such a personable human being, such a very genuine and caring person, and very concerned with the continuum of the music. He was a true Messenger, in the sense that somehow at the end of the day, with all his contributions as a composer, band leader and recording artist, I think he was most concerned about passing the music on and seeing it treated with love and respect.

Art Blakey and Benny Green
c/o the artist
Art Blakey and Benny Green

I understand that entirely about James Williams. In fact, when I listen to his playing, I get the feeling that he felt that the intent of the content was necessary in order to be content. That's just the way he did it. Now, if I could get a little plug in for my own, radio was also an influence on you. Let's talk about Cedar Walton and that day you heard that Cedar Walton tune coming on the radio from that station in San Francisco that you were listening to growing up in Berkeley.

For years, the wonderful jazz station that services the Greater Bay Area has been KCSM in San Mateo. But when I was a youngster in the ‘70s, there was a great station called KJAZZ in Alameda. The station featured little station breaks by visiting artists, and they would fade into a clip of one of their songs. Then you'd have the artists talking in their cool voice shouting out the radio station. I heard such a clip for Cedar Walton. And the melody was his “Fantasy in D,” which was originally entitled “Ugetsu.”

I heard that melody. And I heard saxophone, piano, bass, drums, just in those few seconds. I was zeroing in on it and I wanted to get that record, whatever it was. I went to the used record store and just started buying Cedar Walton records. The first one I bought was Volume One of A Night at Boomers with Clifford Jordan, Sam Jones, and Louis Hayes. I heard that beautiful melody, written by Cedar, called “Holy Land.” I fell in love with that one, but I was still on the search for this melody that I'd heard. I finally found “Ugetsu.” It took me a while to find the actual version that was playing in that little clip for the station break. The version that was actually playing was from Eastern Rebellion, Volume Two with Bob Berg, Sam Jones, and Billy Higgins. But I finally found it as the title track to the Art Blakey album Ugetsu with the original recording of the song. So I was happy to find that. With the things they were doing, there's a whole different sound, the way they approached the song. Next thing I knew, Cedar came to the original Keystone Korner in San Francisco. This was just within a couple months of me hearing that station break. I went to go hear him. Gary, I was just completely taken with his whole presence. You might remember that back then he used to chew gum when he was playing.

Fantasy in D

That's right.

You remember that?

That's right. I do remember that.

Working that gum and just tipping, man, just swinging. I was like, this is the coolest man. I almost felt like I wanted to be him.

You pay tribute to him by doing one of his tunes that is actually a tribute to one of his heroes, Duke Ellington. The piece entitled “The Maestro.”  Art Blakey said to Benny Green one time when he was a Jazz Messenger, “Make sure you write your own music. You know why you write your own music? Because after you're gone it'll still be here.” And one of the originals on this recording is a tribute to Jackie McLean. A big influence in your life too, especially since you reference those front lines with the Jazz Messengers.

Boy, Jackie Mac had some front lines too. Woody Shaw and Bill Hardman and somebody else. Freddie Hubbard and Kenny Dorham and Woody Shaw, and I mean, it just goes on and on. Hank Mobley would tip in there every now and then and join him. Serious stuff. Nothing better.

That's one of many reasons I'm forever in love with those classic Blue Note albums. The predominant instrumentation, as you know, on most of those Blue Note albums is the trumpet, saxophone, piano, bass, and drums. I was just talking with my wife about it last night. We were listening to Lee Morgan's Rumproller album. Lee Morgan and Joe Henderson in the front line. There's just such a perfection to the one brass instrument, one woodwind instrument playing a melody together. It’s just the coolest thing.

Benny Green 'Monk's Dream' | Live Studio Session

Somebody else, in fact, who came out of the Jazz Messengers and did his own thing and had some great front lines over the years was Horace Silver. You chose a gorgeous ballad of Horace’s called “Lonely Woman.” But I want you to talk about the Horace Silver music that you used to go see in New York City at the Star Cafe and some of the then youngsters that were on the stage playing with him.

The Star Cafe on West 23rd Street was the hippest weekly jam session in New York in the early ‘80s. I want to say it was the hippest. The environment in the club, the setting was a little sketchy there, with gangsters in there and drug deals going on. But I say it was the hippest in terms of the fact that when cats were in town, or the cats that lived in town, they would actually come through and play with us youngsters.

We had a chance to play with Art Taylor or Billy Higgins at the Star Cafe. It was run by a drummer named Harold White, who played in Horace's quintet for a spell in the ‘70s, and it featured the front line of Brian Lynch playing the trumpet and Ralph Moore playing the tenor saxophone.

I was born in New York in 1963, but I moved back in the spring of 1982 and I was 19 when I first went to the Star, Brian at the time wasn't yet working with Horace Silver, but as I recall, Ralph Moore was splitting duties between Roy Haynes’s quartet and Horace Silver’s quintet at the time.

Then within a couple months of that, Brian indeed joined Horace. Fast forward, I joined Betty Carter in April of 1983 and I remember one of our first tours, we came through Milwaukee, which is where Brian's from. I remember how cool it was to encounter Horace's band with Brian and Ralph, both of whom I knew from the Star Cafe, checking out of the hotel that we were checking into with Betty. I felt like, “Man, I've arrived now—I'm out here with the cats’ life out on the road.”

For Benny Green, when you were 16 or so, you had a regular gig with your group at Yoshi's out in San Francisco.

That's right. The original location of Yoshi's was on the Berkeley-Oakland border on College Avenue, Before it was a national, let alone an international room, they featured local artists. They gave me a steady Thursday night gig leading my own trio. I had different folks playing with me. First, I had my friend John Donnelly playing the bass and a wonderful drummer named Achyutan.

His original name was Marvin Patillo, who happens to be the drummer on Pharoah Sanders’ first album on the ESP label as Marvin Patillo. Eventually Larry Hancock started playing drums with us. Ultimately, I hired a couple of veterans. I guess they were in their fifties and sixties at the time, a bassist named Chuck Metcalf, who used to play with Dexter Gordon's quartet when Rufus Reid was unavailable. And a very legendary drummer who mostly stayed close to home here in the Bay Area named Smiley Winters. He had played with Charlie Parker here at Jimbo's Box City back in the day. So I had these couple of older guys playing in my trio and that's kind of where it began with my father introducing me to the music.

But this gig that I led in which I hired Chuck and Smiley, my elders, to play with me kind of established a bit of a cycle for me of really seeking out elders to play with and learn from and be around. As I get older now—I turned 60 recently—more than ever before, I value my living elders, the George Cables and Kenny Barrons, because I see how our elders are linked. They're a connection to what's come before. And I see it in my life now that I'm living it. The younger people come to me want to ask me about Art Blakey or Betty Carter or Ray Brown or Freddie Hubbard. And we do our best to be approachable and coherent, but it's an honor to get to be any kind of a link to what came before. Honestly, Gary, from a very early age, it was kind of a vision I had that I thought like, “I want to learn about the music and I want to be accepted by the elders, and I want to get a chance to play with them and to learn from them. As I get older, I want to get to connect younger people with how wonderful this music is.”

This new recording Solo certainly does connect that thread to those who came before, some of whom are no longer with us, but who still influence the music of today and tomorrow, like Tommy Flanagan and McCoy Tyner.  You do “Sunset” by McCoy Tyner.  I believe that was on McCoy's first solo album as well.

“Sunset.” Just a gorgeous piece of music, man.

Let's talk about another cat that you paid tribute to named Drew with an original “Blue Drew” on this recording.

I'm a big Kenny Drew fan and I'm so happy because he was always like an insider's musician. The musicians and the real fans of the music know who he is and appreciate him. He was never marketed widely. I understand that he was very popular in Japan. He was certainly celebrated as he expatriated to Denmark. But he had to get out of here during that period in the ‘60s when British invasion and rock was really eclipsing straight-ahead jazz in terms of being the mainstream popular music in our country.

Kenny Drew is really one of my prime sources, actually. It's very interesting if you go back and listen to some of his earliest recordings. You can find him playing live with Charlie Parker in 1950 and his essential characteristics were already there. It's very easy on the surface for people to characterize artists and say, “Oh, well he's, he's coming out of Bud Powell, this and that.”

But actually, Kenny Drew has his own thing. It's so evident in the way he phrases in his right hand. It's calming. I’m a fan of his recordings. I got to meet him once. Betty Carter actually introduced us on our very first trip to Europe. I got to speak with him. He was very soulful to me. He invited me to step outside with him on the break as he was smoking a cigarette and looked me in the eyes and just kind of gauging if I was serious about it. It was a beautiful moment. I didn't get to know the man, but I had those few moments just getting to speak and hang with him.

But you knew the feeling because it's in this piece of music that you wrote called “Blue Drew,” which has that real soulfulness to it. We should mention Kenny Drew was one of the cats along with I think Blue Mitchell that were also part of some of those Jackie Mac records that you talked about earlier in our conversation today.

That album he made is one of the last ones Kenny Drew made before he actually moved to Europe, Jackie McLean's album Blues Nick. By that time he'd really refined this certain kind of a sound to w when he plays a chord with a certain kind of a punch to them. I don't wanna try to describe it too theoretically or, or technically, but I listened to those records over and over again. I've been listening to them for decades. To this day and ongoing, each time I listen, I notice new things.

Isn't that wonderful? The thing about archeology in music is that you go back to the same spot because you feel maybe there's something else here, many times you find out that there is indeed something else there. Such was the case as well with Barry Harris. Did you ever go to the Jazz Cultural Theater when Barry had that thing going?

I sure did. Actually, my patience was short if there were a lot of vocalists there sometimes, because he'd really take his time, working with the vocalists. And I was there wanting him to teach me some bebop, so I would stick my head in. Because I was young. If it were to happen now, I would just want to attend the whole thing.

Well, we should not infer that Benny slights vocalists, because one of the very first times I heard Veronica Swift sing was with you on one of your records.

I just appreciate good musicianship. I think we all do. I think that supersedes what the instrumentation is. No, I didn't make the remark about the Jazz Cultural Theater to disparage singers so much. It's just to point out that stage of youth that I was in that I needed to really see piano players at piano. Otherwise, I couldn't relate.

When we take Barry Harris, for example, back to his youth growing up in Detroit, he came by the station one morning and as he's playing, he said, “Another cat and myself, we used to do duets for the school assembly.” And it wasn't at Cass Tech, it was at Northside High. Cass Tech gets all the play where all the great musicians came from. But he said Northside had its own thing too. “Me and this other guy used to play duets.” And I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah.” I said, “Well, what happened to the other guy?” He goes, “He kind of fell away from the music.”  You know who that other guy was? Berry Gordy. Berry Gordy and Barry Harris doing duets in high school together.

You cover Barry Harris's composition “Rouge” on this new recording Solo. We have to talk about the legendary Oscar Peterson, who is a huge part of your life. And you were a huge part of his life. I want to ask you what it felt like when you received that phone call. Oscar had received the Glenn Gould Prize, and one of the things that was part of that prize was he had to go out and find a protege, and he called Benny Green. You remember that day? What did that feel like?

Oh man, it was surreal, because I was observing myself as I was speaking on the phone with Oscar. I said, “This is really happening.” He’s the greatest. I've always been very upfront with Oscar about the fact that I feel there's many people, some of whom you and I don't even know by name, all around the world who know more verbatim Oscar Peterson piano vocabulary than I do. He's characterized for his virtuosity, and there are just hundreds and hundreds of people that can play the instrument better than I can. Oscar really believed in me, as a whole person, as a communicator. I'm so grateful that he took me under his wing and shared the sincerity with me.

I had an opportunity…it took me six months to get this interview. It was after Oscar had had his stroke, but he was back on the road and he was performing and he could play more with one hand than a lot of people could play with two. He was at the Blue Note, but due to his size, he couldn't get upstairs to the dressing room. So they got a mobile home and parked it out front of the Blue Note. So I go up and I knock on the door and his road manager opens the door and I could see him laying on the couch, because you know when Oscar performed, he gave everything he had and that which he didn't have either. He pulled from some mystical reserve to pull it off.

I said to myself, “Oh, this is gonna be tough.” I said to him, “I'm Gary Walker, I'm here to talk with Oscar Peterson.” And he says, “Oh yeah, he's expecting you.” And so I went in and I said, “You don't have to get up, man.”  I put my hand out and he shook my hand and I said, “Is that the bracelet Fred Astaire gave you in 1953?” And boy, his eyes lit up like a GE three-way. He said, “Well, yes it is.” It was this ID bracelet, but it had a diamond, an emerald, a ruby and a sapphire. And he told me, “Of all the people that were part of that date with Fred Astaire, his first jazz record, I guess I was the only one that still has the bracelet.” That meant so much to him because when you and he encountered one another, there was one Christmas in 1996 where he said, “Don't bring any presents.” And you thought, “Well, that means I'm not gonna get any presents either.” But man, he did surprise you, didn't he?

There it is. [Shows the bracelet.]

And what does the bracelet say?

It says, “The torch is passed. – Love, Oscar, 1996.”

The performance that is here on this recording by Benny Green of Oscar’s is “He Has Gone.”  I believe that's a piece that Oscar wrote for one of his sons whom he actually wasn't able to get to know better, unlike the relationships he had with some of his other kids.

What's deep is that Oscar told me a story that he performed the song, it's an instrumental of course, in someone's home in a private performance in I forgot what country in Western Europe. He didn't announce the name of the song. After the performance, the gentleman who was hosting the concert came to Oscar and said, “That ballad you played, the third piece, it really touched my heart.” He said, “It made me think of my son who was in the plane that went down over Lockerbie Scotland.”

Celebrating 60 Years of Oscar Peterson's Hymn To Freedom

Oscar in his playing always looked like he was having the time of his life. He was the happily that the rest of us are all ever after. But a social message was also part of his fabric too.  I look back to December around Christmas time in 1962 and Oscar was in the studio with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen. They were recording Night Train and they had one piece of music left. They had room for one more, and Oscar came up with something called “Hymn to Freedom,” which was just a powerful piece of music. Marking the 60th anniversary of that recording, you were part of a recreation of “Hymn to Freedom.”

That was a tremendous honor for me. I was grateful for Oscar's wife, Kelly, to call on me to get to record the piece with John Clayton Jr. and Jeff Hamilton. As I'm sure you will understand, John and Jeff are my big brothers. Even though I was friends with Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson, John is a link to Ray for me. And Jeff is a link to Oscar, who he played with. Of course, Jeff and I played together for years in Ray Brown's trio.

Both of those men have been so consistently supportive and encouraging to me, each in their own way. They've also taught me, they've also gotten on my case when I needed to be brought in line, but each in different ways. John, if you step out of line, he won't say anything about it. He'll just kind of leave you to figure it out. Jeff will let you know he didn't dig something and he won't pretend. The thing is, they both helped me. You can only grow up so much by getting pats on the back. These guys really care about me and believe in me. And we're family. John, Jeff, Christian McBride and myself were pallbearers at Ray Brown’s funeral.

Benny Green - Ray of Light (Live at SFJAZZ)

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In jazz radio, great announcers are distinguished by their ability to convey the spontaneity and passion of the music. Gary Walker is such an announcer, and his enthusiasm for this music greets WBGO listeners every morning. This winner of the 1996 Gavin Magazine Jazz Radio Personality of the Year award has hosted the morning show each weekday from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. And, by his own admission, he's truly having a great time.