Friday, October 1, 2010

Beboppin’ and Testifyin’ with Benny Green

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles was reminiscing about some of the details in this piece on Benny Green and thought it might be fun to revisit it by re-posting it to the blog.

It’s hard to forget the first time I heard pianist Benny Green beboppin’ and testifyin’ as both he and the circumstances surrounding the experience made a lasting impression on me.

The date was January 16, 1994. a Sunday evening in Southern California. I had moved to San Francisco a couple of years, earlier.

Since I had business meetings scheduled in Los Angeles for most of the week of January 17th that year, I decided to fly into Burbank, CA where my folks lived and have dinner with them Sunday night in order to get an early start on Monday.

My parents generally liked to watch TV following dinner, so I rolled my well-stuffed tummy into the rental car and took the Hollywood Freeway over to Catalina’s Bar & Grill, which was then located just up the street from the original Shelly’s Manne Hole.

I had no idea who was playing at Catalina’s.  My plan was to catch the first set along with an after-dinner drink and then get back to my hotel for a good night’s sleep prior to the advent of the workweek.

A lot had changed since the closing of Shelly’s club in the early 70’s including the disappearance of any and all free parking on the surrounding streets.

After virtually spending my young, adulthood in Hollywood,  I still knew my way around and I was able to find a free parking spot at the nearby Ivar Theater.

As I walked up to the club, the name “Benny Green” was on the marquee. The only Jazz musician I knew by that name was “Bennie Green,” a trombonist. I thought he had passed away in the late 1970’s [1923-1977].

Upon entering, the maitre d’ asked me if I had a reservation, and when I said I didn’t he informed me that I was lucky - there was still a seat at the bar.

When I looked out at the seating in the club, I saw what he meant by “lucky:” the placed was packed.

Fortunately, the one remaining seat at the bar offered a clear view of the bandstand [everyone else seated at the bar had a clear view into one another’s eyes, if you know what I mean].

I placed my order with the barkeep and while he was filling it I asked him who was performing that night.

He said: “You are in luck: [the second time within 5 minutes that someone had used that word with me] pianist Benny Green, with Christian McBride and Kenny Washington.”

It took me a minute to place them, but I had remembered hearing both Benny and drummer Kenny Washington on tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore’s Images CD [Landmark LCD-1520-2] which was recorded in 1989.

You can hear a cut from this album as Ralph’s version of Elmo Hope’s One Second, Please forms the soundtrack to the following tribute to Jazz drumming. Benny’s solo begins at 2:32 minutes and both he and Ralph trade 8-bar solos with Kenny Washington starting at 3:27. Peter Washington is on bass.

“Christian McBride,” Benny’s bassist that night, was a name that was new to me.

Vague recollections and newness were soon to be replaced by a smile of recognition when the music commenced.

Benny, Christian and Kenny were in fine form that night, so much so that I forgot to drink my wine during the first set, finished it during intermission and had a coffee while staying for the second show.

To use a particularly apt phrase given what was to come later that night, Benny and the Boys blew-the-place-down; it was some of the most inspiring and swinging Jazz that I had heard in years.

Benny plays in a style that is marked by carefree exuberance and daring. At the same time, he exhibits phenomenal technical precision. 

There’s plenty of Bud Powell, Horace Silver and Walter Bishop, Jr. on display, so in this regard, much of what he plays is “in the tradition,” yet, he puts it together in such a way that he makes it sound original.

And he swings, oh does he swing; thus never forgetting the first rule of Jazz.

After the set concluded, I made my way up toward the bandstand to express my appreciation to Benny, but soon concluded that this was not a good move because judging from the mob scene around him it seemed that every one in the club had the same idea.

Instead, I “talked drums” with Kenny Washington who was taking his cymbals down and putting them in their carrying-case. “You play?” he asked. “Did” I responded before telling him how much his playing reminded me of Philly Joe Jones to which he responded with a knowing smile.

Is there a better joy in Life than the first-hand experience of well-played Jazz in the intimate surroundings of a Jazz club?

With this thought in mind, out the door I went, past Shelly Manne’s old club [talk about many first-hand Jazz listening experiences when the World was young!], got in my rental car and headed-off to my hotel.

For reasons of convenience, I had chosen one across from the Burbank [CA] airport which was a relatively quick drive from Catalina’s in Hollywood.

I happily settled into with the music still playing in my mind and fell off to sleep almost instantly.

I was to be lucky again for a third time.

At 4:30 AM, I was awakened by sound that made me think that I had fallen asleep inside KW’s bass drum while he was dropping “bombs” with it.

The infamous January 17, 1994 earthquake had struck that morning and a very large portion of the greater Los Angeles area and the San Fernando Valley in north west portion of that county was particularly hard-hit by it.

Many of my business meetings for that week were scheduled in cities heavily affected by what was later referred to as The Northridge Quake of 1994.

I spent most of that morning rescheduling these and, fortunate once again given the severe interruptions in the flight schedule caused by the jolt, I was able to catch an afternoon flight home to the Bay area.

Shortly after this incident, I learned that pianist Benny Green was born and raised in Berkeley, CA, a part of this very same “Bay area” when I read in a local newspaper that Berkeley’s [a suburb east of San Francisco, CA] own “Benny Green … would be appearing for a week with bassist Ray Brown trio featuring Jeff Hamilton on drums at Yoshi’s Jazz Club and Sushi Bar.”

What an irresistible combination!

Although the original Yoshi’s was located in a converted home in a residential district, because of the refurbished premise’s proximity to a business zone, the club had managed to get a commercial license which enabled it to offer food and entertainment.

So off I went one rainy Spring evening, taking the Bay Bridge [US Highway 101] east from my downtown San Francisco flat, connecting to Interstate 80 east, then to California State Highway 24 toward Berkeley and Walnut Creek before exiting at Claremont Avenue.

All of these meanderings were necessary just to cover a mere 14 miles!

Set back from the street with a most unassuming entrance and hardly no parking of its own, Yoshi’s had the good sense to be within walking distance of the Dryer’s Grand Ice Cream factory’s parking lot on College Avenue. And College Avenue was also the home of one of the locations of Barney’s Gourmet Hamburgers.

With the money saved from the Free Parking, I filled my tummy with one of Barney’s best and headed over to catch the 8:00 PM set and more of Benny Green’s ferociously swinging piano. Once again, although I hadn’t planned to, Benny, Ray and Jeff played so well that night that I stayed for the second and final set. 

In the fall of 1994, Benny was back at Yoshi’s, but this time he brought in his own trio comprised again of Christian McBride [b] and Kenny Washington.  I was there often and got to chat with Benny during the breaks. I told him my earthquake story; Kenny Washington and I also “talked more drums.”

As you can hear in the soundtrack to the following video, Benny writes catchy tunes. This one is entitled Nice Pants in which Benny and the trio are accompanied by a horn section made up of Byron Stripling [tp], John Clark [Fr.H], Delfayo Marsalis [tb], Herb Besson [tuba], Jerry Dodgion [as/fl] and Gary Smulyan [bs].  Benny and Bob Belden did the horn arrangement.

In addition to Benny funky solo, some highlights in the music to the following video include: Christian playing in unison with Benny’s left hand in the Call and Response sequence, first with the piano at 0:58 seconds and then with the horns at 1:20 minutes, KW launching into a shuffle beat when Benny begins his solo at 1:42 minutes and the long quotation from Work Song beginning at 3:51 of Christian’s solo.

For the next few years, Benny continued to appear at the original Yoshi’s with Ray Brown and his own trio, although in each case, Gregory Hutchinson replaced Jeff Hamilton in the drum chair.

And while living in San Francisco is always fraught with feeling a few tremors, I am delighted to report that the geological shaking was minimal during this period of time.

Here’s more about the formative years in and influences on Benny Green’s career from Stanley Crouch’s insert notes to Benny’s Prelude CD [Criss Cross 1038].

© -Stanley Crouch, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

'I began studying with a teacher named Carl Andrews, who was instructing me in jazz harmony. I studied with him for about two years.' Green would try to get in jam sessions and play jazz whenever he could. 'I would go hear pianists Bill Bell and Ed Kelly, who taught me a lot at that time. Dick Whittington was also a big help and Smith Dobson gave me some important pointers. I was starting to understand the music much better and could see how much more is needed to learn.'

At about sixteen, Green was hired by a singer named Faye Carroll and began performing with her frequently. He learned a lot while with the singer because she gave him a lot of room top/ay, which is how jazz musicians really develop their skills. No matter how many classes they might take or how many improvisations they might memorize or techniques they might work out, unless those materials are brought to the level of performance function, they are largely academic. It is within the sweating demands of the moment, when everything is in motion and every decision has to count, that the jazz player must be able to create musical logic expressive of the emotional qualities that define the individual sensibility. Aware of that, Green would sit in with the best musicians he could, which he did with trumpeter Eddie Henderson after meeting him in San Francisco.

'I sat in with Eddie whenever it was possible, and a few months later he called me to work with him. He was working with a tenor player named Hadley Calliman. Both of them encouraged me a lot. I learned so much being around Eddie. He played me tapes of live gigs with Herbie Hancock that were fascinating to me because of the way the music moved through so many forms, and how one performance could slide through many colors. It was very inspirational and added to what I was already trying to learn. My father had turned me on to Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Monk. I was trying to get a scope of all the eras, so I was listening to a lot of musicians, particularly Red Garland, Tommy Flanagan, Wynton Kelly, Herbie Hancock, and McCoy Tyner.'

By the time Green got out of high school, he was doing trio jobs of his own, which allowed him to work at making the things he was listening to and discovering function within his own improvisational efforts. He was listening to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers when they would come to town and he was noticing that there was something different going on in the music of the musicians who were from New York. He could hear a more powerful level of swinging, a deeper groove, a more substantial grasp of rhythmic components that fuel the phrasing of jazz. He knew he had to move east. 'I had that on my mind for the last few months that I was in California, regardless of what I was doing. I worked for those months with a band led by the bassist Chuck Israels, which was about twelve pieces. Then I got to play with Joe Henderson for one night before I left. I knew if I was going to be serious about this music, I had to go where the sound I was hearing from the musicians in New York was coming from. I knew I was missing a lot being in California. There was a focus to swinging I heard coming from New York, which was more definite, more disciplined. In the Bay Area, a lot of the musicians played with a very loose feeling. So I moved to New York when I was nineteen, in 1982.'

Shortly after Green got to New York, he heard Walter Bishop with Junior Cook
and Bill Hardman. He approached Bishop about studying with him and became a student of the older pianist, who helped him a great deal. 'He showed me a lot about comping because I was impressed by the big sound he got out of the instrument.' Bishop was the link to Bud Powell and he was willing to show Green how he voiced his chords. But, most importantly, Bishop encouraged Green to look for his own music, not just emulate somebody else. 'Walter said that there are three stages of development: imitation, emulation, innovation. Not to say that a musician gets to all three, but those are the logical stages of development. He got me to think about the extensions of the tradition of the piano that have come since Bud Powell'.

At that time Walter Davis and John Hicks also gave Green valuable instructions. Bishop introduced Green to alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, who eventually hired the pianist. While working with Watson, he met pianist James Williams, who also encouraged him to work on his music and stick with it. Williams' encouragement was in line with the assistance and inspiration the young pianist had received from Mulgrew Miller, whom he had heard with Woody Shaw just before leaving the Bay Area. Green was strongly impressed by the sense of tradition and the personal approach within Miller's piano work. Miller also pointed him in productive directions by giving him specific and useful advice. Johnny O’Neil was also very helpful. O'Neil had just joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and was willing to share his knowledge with Green. 'I had heard Donald Brown with Art when the band recorded live in San Francisco. Hearing such a fresh voice was enlightening. I'm grateful to Donald, Mulgrew and James for being at once so inspirational and supportive.'

Green freelanced around New York for about a year, then was called to audition for Betty Carter, who had heard him on a job on Long Island. Green started working with the singer in April of 1983 and remained in her group a few weeks short of four years. 'Betty is a great musician and you learn from her in every possible way. She is a master of pacing. She understands rhythm and tempo and how they fit with harmony and melody perfectly. And most of all Betty Carter swings* Her gig is very challenging because she has very precise things she wants to achieve but she is also very spontaneous. She also helps to heighten her musicians' awareness of their role within an ensemble. That was a very good job for me and it is a very good job for any young musician. Like Art Blakey because she's always finding young musicians, giving them work, teaching them a lot of music, and encouraging them to dedicate themselves. Betty Carter is a great musician and a great person.'

In April of 1987, Green left the singer's band for the Jazz Messengers. 'Playing with Art Blakey has been, by far, the greatest experience of my life. I never have before and I'm sure I never will again come in contact with a greater musical spirit. When Art comes on the bandstand, whatever else is going on in life is forgotten and the music takes over. Art truly practices what he preaches in washing away the dust of every day life with music. And this is certainly the musician's job. As I mature, I hope to come closer to being able to achieve this on my own.'

For his first time out, Benny Green has put together a group of players that have come to New York from such different places that it is obvious how wide the message of jazz still stretches. Terence Blanchard is from New Orleans, Javon Jackson is from Denver, Peter Washington is from Los Angeles, and Tony Reedus is from Memphis. Green chose each of them because he wanted to have a date of players from his age group and musicians who were inspirations to him. Each of the young men is gathering a list of credits and is working at his craft, doing the homework that is so obvious in what they play as they move through the program. The concerns heard in the thoughts and the playing of the leader are sustained in the work of the rest of the players, which makes for a date that shows, again, just how much dedication and how much courage these young people have. They are far from conventional in that they have chosen the path of greatest resistance and are obviously intent on adding their artistic signatures to the declaration of musical democracy that is jazz. Such young people are of priceless importance, and pianist Benny Green should be commended for putting together such a solid ensemble and for making such an honest statement on his first date as a leader.”

Stanley Crouch (N.Y.C., 1988)

Here’s another sampling of Benny’s piano work on Bopag’in, the Jimmy Heath tune that forms the audio track on a tribute to vibist Milt Jackson.