June 29, 2010

Against the Tide

When the oral history gathering began for the Hamilton College Jazz Archive in 1995, a great deal of our focus was on alumni of the Count Basie Orchestra. This is an ever-diminishing class of stellar musicians and we are sorry to hear that trombonist Benny Powell passed away on June 26 at the age of 80. We were fortunate to interview Benny twice, in 1995 and again in 1999.

Benny was born in New Orleans on March 1, 1930. He was playing professionally in his teens and joined the Lionel Hampton Band in 1948. In 1951 he joined the Count Basie Orchestra and quickly began sharing the trombone solo chores with section mate Henry Coker. Benny stayed with the Basie band for twelve years, winning the Down Beat Critic’s Poll in 1956 and recording frequently with small groups during this period. In the 60’s he led his own combos, played with the Merv Griffin Show band, helped administer the Jazzmobile and continued big band work with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. He spent much of the 70’s in Los Angeles, where he performed with Bill Berry and Bill Holman. Benny was also a valued sideman in ensembles led by pianist Randy Weston.

When Benny joined Basie in 1951 at the tender age of 21, The Count liked to play things close to the vest, and Benny related that he played with the band for twelve years and never was officially told by Basie that he had been formally hired.

Benny was a thoughtful man, and described himself as a maverick, partly in the way that he would dip his toe into commercial work but always play an active role in what he considered to be more creative music. He also was a self-described sharp dressed man, shedding his tuxedo as soon as he could, and changing into his own “little slick stuff” which often included traditional African attire.

His secret to making a living as a maverick musician , as quoted by Benny in 1999 was: “I go against the tide but I guess I’d call myself a legitimate maverick, because I’ve been going against the tide all my life. But my secret is I can go against the tide and not be abrasive.”

Benny had some well-formed opinions about jazz and the arts in general. He was a theater person, took great stock in education, and took pride in the fact that he could perform in front of “kindergartners or Congress.” In our 1999 interview he said about his own philosophy, “most successful musicians understand humankind. Whether you’re talking to a president or a porter you should be able to communicate.”

He championed the contributions of the African-Americans and their innovations in jazz and blues, and he also recognized all the historical collaborations that took place, especially in the jazz arena:

BP: One of the things I think that’s never been played enough is Benny Goodman’s role in showing a visible democracy. Up until then you’d see pictures of Franklin Delano Roosevelt with Dr. George Washington Carver; Eleanor Roosevelt with Marion Anderson, but they weren’t doing anything. Benny Goodman with Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, was one of the first visible evidence that we could work together in that kind of respect. And I don’t think history books have made enough of that. I think if that were the case then we wouldn’t still have these arguments, because we would decided that then, we all made this stuff. Now if you go into the non-racial thing then you’re disrespecting my heritage because you see the Blues came from people being whipped and beaten and all of that. I know we’d all like to forget about that, but I think it was because of that — I have a contention, no great art is ever created by happy people. It’s always adversity that creates art. So when I do my lectures, I start off my lectures with Negro spirituals because they chronicle the experience, which is “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” and then I tell the people about the voice of being cut off. Anyway, it’s a deep story behind it, and jazz is being left out.

Most musicians have a few musical moments in their career that remain indelibly etched in their memories and I thought I knew one of Benny Powell’s. True Basie fans know that in 1955 Benny was the trombonist who played the striking solo on the bridge of “April in Paris,” one of the band’s most memorable recordings. It was this audio excerpt that I chose to play for Benny during our 1999 interview. It led him somewhere else, however.

MR: I wanted to ask you if you remember the specifics of this particular recording session.

[Audio of “April in Paris”]

BP: My first impression is how blessed I am to have been a part of that because as I hear it I think about Freddie Green, I think about Marshall Royal, that was just the two things that jumped out at me right away, since Marshall Royal played lead alto and it was so solid, then you could hear Freddie Green in the back. I don’t really remember as much from this date as I do from the one we did with Duke Ellington.

MR: Oh, both bands?

BP: Yes. It was called Battle Royal. I think I was like a kid in a candy store because I think where I was seated, I was sort of like I was in eyeshot of both Basie and Duke Ellington, and I kept pinching myself, I said you’re not here, you’re going to wake up any minute. And these guys were such statesmen themselves, because someone remarked the other night at Lincoln Center on the Duke Ellington thing, about that same date. I think it ended up with Basie playing a solo on “Take the A Train,” and Duke playing a solo on “One O’Clock Jump.” But those guys were such statesmen, they’d say well Mr. Basie, this number just demands your presence. “But no, Maestro, I wouldn’t dare.” Oh man those guys were cool. Oh man. And I was a little kid, you know, and I’m looking at these guys. And I don’t believe it. But also I remember one of the biggest sensual thrills I’ve ever gotten, on the end there’s both of these bands playing these huge chords, I think that arrangement was by Jimmy Jones who used to be accompanist for Sarah Vaughan. I think he had a hand in that. But man at the end there’s some power chords in Sonny Payne’s solo. The drum is playing through all of that. Oh man, if you were in the room, sometimes try it yourself. Go to somewhere in a pretty enclosed room, and turn up the sound. Oh man. I mean it will just do all sorts of thing to yourself. It will rearrange your cells.

I was humbled to read Benny’s inscription on my LP copy of “April in Paris” which read “To Monk, Thank you for keeping the flame burning.” Benny is part of that flame.