Benny Green interview

On The Corner Masthead


October 8, 2020 | by Richard Scheinin

Benny Green

On October 14, the great pianist Benny Green inaugurates a new streaming concert series: Alone Together: Live from SFJAZZ. With the 60-minute broadcast — available only to SFJAZZ Members and Digital Members — SFJAZZ continues to expand its digital platform, which also includes the Fridays at Five series of streaming archival concerts. Alone Together returns on Nov. 12 with a live solo show by tabla master Zakir Hussain.

Art Blakey and Betty Carter knew what good is. So did Freddie Hubbard and Ray Brown. They all hired pianist Benny Green for their bands when he was practically a kid, and he’s remained one of jazz’s most joyful players.

                  Benny Green with Art Blakey & Peter Washington

The bebop and post-bop traditions are deep in his bones. That should be clear when Green streams a 60-minute solo performance on Oct. 14 from the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco. Alone onstage in an otherwise empty hall, he will interpret his own tunes along with compositions by some of his heroes, including pianists Horace Silver, James Williams, and Duke Pearson.

Green lives in Berkeley, CA, where he grew up before moving at age 19 to New York City and coming under the wing of leading players who spotted his talents, and his eagerness to learn. An evangelist for the music, Green — who moved back to the Bay Area two years ago — recently got on the phone to talk about some of his experiences, and about “getting washed over by the great spirit of jazz.” He also reflected on the pandemic and the new reality of streaming to an invisible audience. Out for a walk in his Berkeley neighborhood as he discussed the “new paradigm,” Green, who has spent much of the last 40 years on the road, said, “It’s a rare moment, getting some fresh air, sunshine. I’ve been a bit of a shut-in.”

Q: This upcoming show is something different for you — performing in an empty concert hall for a remote audience. I guess you’re adapting, like we all are.

A: It’s the reality of here and now and the immediately foreseeable future. And I’m thankful for the opportunity to play in such a fine setting. You know, people always look to artists in difficult times for some inspiration, for some meaning, for some hope, for something to feel. And I realize I’ve been given a lot — a lot of care and attention and nurturing by my mentors while they were here — way back in the 20th century! I’m talking pre-9/11, when we could travel and laugh and hug.

So yes, this is different. But I think the universal challenge for performing artists in a live-streaming paradigm is to not focus on how different everything is, but perhaps to maintain what our consistent focus has been all along. In other words, it’s my responsibility to just focus on the music.

Q: Is this new streaming situation akin to playing solo in a recording studio? That’s another situation where it’s just you and the piano in a room without an audience.

A: No, because this is streaming live. In the studio, I can continue playing until I feel that I have a coherent take.

Typically speaking, you work with and feel the live audience, and it really helps inform the expression of the moment as it’s occurring. It’s an exchange, albeit an unspoken one, between the performing artist and the audience. So this situation is very different — not getting to see their faces and just feel their presence in the room… not getting to see the woman in the front row shifting in her seat. But again, it’s my responsibility not to direct my thoughts to that reality, because the underlying and omnipresent reality throughout is the music itself.

So I think showing up is half the battle. Outside of that, I really just want to immerse myself in the opportunity to play music for people around the world via this live-streaming portal.

Benny Green performing Thelonious Monk's "Monk's Dream" live on KPLU Radio, 2011

Q: Have you streamed other shows during the pandemic?

A: I was invited to do a live-stream for Dizzy’s club in New York, and I did it from home by myself, and there was a technical issue with the sound. And the problem came to light after the fact — after I’d begun — and there was no one there but me. I couldn’t stop and adjust it. I couldn’t try to troubleshoot and see what was going on. I had to kind of keep playing throughout and it was a little stressful.

Q: How have you been feeling during this long lockdown? Has it made you reflective? Motivated? Are you busy with new projects? Listening to albums? Cooking elaborate meals?

A: There’s definitely been a lot of introspection — a lot of reflection and having the time and space to process things that have happened and lessons that have been delivered to me over the years. And I’ve become immersed in a project: I’m editing and compiling essays I’ve been writing for the past few years into a book.

Q: I’ve read some of the essays you’ve posted on Facebook — about Betty Carter. You have a lot of great stories. Does the book have a name?

A: Just a working title for the moment, which is Preparation and Other Selected Essays.

Q: Why “Preparation”?

A: It’s the title of one of my essays, which is sort of central to what I’m discovering about myself and wanting to share. At this time of my life, I want to share with younger people what it was like for me when I was coming up and preparing for some of those great bands — for the opportunity to play with Betty Carter and Art Blakey and Freddie Hubbard and Ray Brown.

So I’m thinking about younger folks, and younger musicians. Because the whole way of life — the way of meeting our elders, learning from them on the bandstand — is just completely different today than 40 years ago when I was coming up.

   Benny Green with Ray Brown, Jeff Hamilton and the WDR Big Band, 1994

Q: I’ve seen your set list for the upcoming solo show. You’ve chosen some fantastic tunes — and I have a feeling they’re reflective of the experiences you’ve had over the last 40 years. Can we talk about a few of the songs?

A: Absolutely.

Q: Tell me about James Williams’ “Soulful Mr. Timmons.” James took over the piano chair with the Messengers in the late 1970s — about ten years before you joined the band. And he composed the song as a tribute to pianist Bobby Timmons, who played with the Messengers in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

A: Yes, sir. I was introduced to James Williams’ “The Soulful Mr. Timmons” through an album by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers called Album of the Year, from 1981. I was already a fan of James, having heard the Messengers live at Keystone Korner in San Francisco. And when I saw the title of the song — “Soulful Mr. Timmons” — I already knew I was going to like it. Because James is all heart...

And I listened to that whole album, including that track, so many times, over and over, again and again, literally in my sleep on a Sony Walkman cassette recorder where you could get the tape to flip sides. And during the daytime, during my first year back in New York — in 1982, when I was 19 — I’d be playing along with the record. So it’s more than near and dear to my heart. It’s inside my heart.

And I think about James every day. He lit such a fire for so many of us in ways that really can’t be totally explained, so much as they’re felt and heard — as color, as expression. James’s heart and soul are so central to the feeling of the Messengers and to so much of the music community who knew him and have been touched by him. And I think even those people who didn’t know James have been touched by the pianists who followed him in the Messengers: Mulgrew Miller and Donald Brown and Johnny O’Neal and maybe even myself and Geoff Keezer, who came after me in the group. They’re all getting a whole lot of spirit from James.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Massengers with James Williams: "The Soulful Mr. Timmons"

Q: You’re also going to play Horace Silver’s “No Smokin’.”

A: Yeah! This is from Horace Silver’s classic 1957 Blue Note album The Stylings of Silver. And in 1982, when I moved back to New York City, there was a club on West 23rd Street called the Star Café. And there was a jam session; I want to say it was on Tuesday evenings, and all the cats would hang. Like, Junior Cook would be in there. Billy Higgins would come if he were in town. You’d see Freddie Hubbard. But younger cats could play and sit in, too. It was led by the drummer Harold White who had played with Horace for years. And the front line was very young: Brian Lynch on trumpet, an equally young Ralph Moore on tenor saxophone, and young David Hazeltine on piano, and a rotation of basses, including Ed Howard. And they were smokin’, man, speaking of the title. And this was one of the songs they played.

That’s how I got introduced to the song as repertoire. I had just dug it on the album, and I’d been a fan of all those Horace Silver quintet records on Blue Note from the ‘50s and ‘60s when I was coming up in Berkeley. I had all those LPs, but I never thought to play the song — until I heard Brian and Ralph and Hazeltine; they’d be wailing on it.

Horace is such a genius composer and arranger at all times, when he’s improvising. The way he presents and introduces moods and colors and contrasts and space and humor — it’s such a great joy. It’s really the essence of what music is about; there’s such uplift in Horace’s music. And something of the spirit of all these great composer-pianists is there in the music that they’ve given us. And I remember when I was with Art Blakey, he said to me once (Green mimics Blakey’s raspy speaking voice), “You know why it’s so important to write music?” And I didn’t bother to ask why, just let him go ahead and answer himself. He said, “Because it’s here after you’re gone.”

He really instilled that in me about this great music — that these songs have become standards because the melodies are sing-able and healing and so adaptable. They bring such love.

Art Blakey and Benny Green (photo by Arthur Elgort)

Q: I hear you’ll be playing one of your own tunes, titled “Blues in Lockdown Flat.” I guess the inspiration for that one is pretty clear. Want to talk about it?

A: (Green laughs.) Not to deflect, but I just want to let the title speak for itself.

Q: What else will you be playing in your solo show?

A: Another one of my originals that I’ve incorporated into the program is dedicated to the great Walter Davis Jr. It’s a piece called “Humphrey,” which was Walter’s nickname. It was taken from the comic strip character Humphrey Pennyworth — big red-headed cat, and cherubic.

Q: Walter Davis played with the Messengers, too.

A: And Walter was one of my teachers and mentors when I moved to New York. I studied with two Walters: Walter Bishop Jr., who was like my New York father, and Walter Davis Jr.

I first recorded “Humphrey” on my album Testifyin’ just shy of 30 years ago in 1991. We recorded it live at the Village Vanguard with (bassist) Christian McBride and (drummer) Carl Allen. And then a couple of years ago, I was about to record an album called Then and Now, and I was featuring a couple of wonderful young artists including the vocalist Veronica Swift, who heard the song and said, “Oh, that’s bad. I want to record that.” So we did it again.

                     Benny Green: "Humphrey" with Veronica Swift

Q: Any other tunes you want to mention?

A: I’ll play an original called “Ray of Light” from Ray Brown’s album Some of My Best Friends Are… The Piano Players. Ray invited me to write something for the date, and I wrote this on the morning of that session 25 years ago.

But let’s leave it at that. I’d rather not talk about too many of the songs I’ll be playing, because I can pigeonhole myself. Can I give you an example? Sometimes you’re going to play a performance, say it’s a solo performance, and there’s an announcement before the show. And the announcer, meaning well, says to the audience (Green speaks in hushed tones), “Now, solo piano. It’s quiet and there’s a lot of subtlety and nuance here. So please be careful and silence your phone. Really listen, because you don’t want to miss a note.” Well, guess what, man? That sets people up, like, “Oh, this piano player is precious.” And it creates a pretense. So in the same sense, if you will, I’d rather not describe the songs too much.

I’ll just say that any time I have an opportunity to perform — any time I play music — what occurs is a natural expression. Having the opportunity to play the piano for a listening audience is like coming home.

Benny Green performs a solo live-streaming concert from the SFJAZZ Center on Wednesday, Oct 14th at 7 pm (Pacific Time). The cost of viewing the show — available only to SFJAZZ Members and Digital Members — is $10. Details here. To become an SFJAZZ Member, click here.

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.