Benny Powell Musician Show, Oct. 13, 1993:
[MUSIC: B. Powell, “Pow-Wee”; Randy Weston-Benny, “Volcano”; “Harvard Blues”; “In Memory Of”; Benny Powell, “We Small Hours of the Morning”; Frank Foster, “Alternative” (from No Count–1956]
TP: Benny Powell and I both had subway rides from hell today, but we’re here now, and we’ll swing ourselves out of it.
BENNY: Thanks. I’m glad I got here.
TP: You’ve selected a wide array that reflects the breadth of your interests, but mostly we’ll be hearing music you heard as a young trombonist and the trombone players who inspired you — J.J. Johnson I think most prominently, Bennie Green, Bill Harris, we’ll go back to Lawrence Brown. But tell me what you were thinking about in organizing the show.
BENNY: I’ve been looking forward to this really, because music is always about listening, and just to hear all these things again that I haven’t heard in a very long time, and just to think about them, is very nice. So I’m really looking forward to this show. This is sort of like “This Is Your Life.” I’ve been around for a very long time, and I’ve been very fortunate to have worked and recorded with a lot of people, especially on the recording side. I was surprised at how many different kinds of bands I’d played with, and different atmospheres and different times. It’s really nice to be part of all of that.
TP: The first repertoire we’ll hear touches on Benny Powell’s experiences in the Count Basie Band. There must be 50-60 records…
BENNY: Maybe more than that. I was there 12 years, so during the course of that time…
TP: We’ll take you through the Verve days, the Roulette days, and focus on a couple of specially selected solos. When you joined me here a few months ago, I asked you how much spontaneity there was from performance to performance? Was it the same set from night to night, or were there variances? Did you have set solos, or did that change?
BENNY: No, everything was pretty well set. It was highly professional. But there was a spark that used to go through the band sometimes, most of the time. It was a highly spiritual band. But I think we had a pride in playing good every night, and seeing if we could play better tonight than we did last night.
So far as set solos, that was funny, because in those days, with arrangements, they were written very much different than these days. A trombone solo might have been just 8 bars in those days. Now it’s kind of stretched out. So each thing had its own purpose.
TP: When you joined Basie, it was the end of the 78 era, when people were getting used to recordings lasting more than 3-4 minutes. The people you’d listened to were making their statements in a short range of time.
BENNY: A very short range. Later I learned to appreciate that, to appreciate a three-minute record. At the time that we were doing it, I didn’t really see what a concise form it was. I think one time I was doing the Merv Griffin Show, and Ray Charles was being interviewed, and he made me aware of that. He said, “A book has 300-some-odd pages to tell its story; we have 3 minutes.” I thought about that. At that time, 3 minutes was a long time.
TP: At the time you came into the band, you’ve described yourself as “a stone bebopper,” and the Basie band was doing something a little bit different. A lot of the band members were young… Was there any conflict between what you really wanted to be doing and what the function required?
BENNY: Not really. I think anybody who came up during the time I did wanted to play with Dizzy Gillespie’s band, wanted to play with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and so forth. But there was not really a conflict. In retrospect… I talk to Randy Weston about this very much. We saw the tail end of an era, that was the big bands and so forth, and the beginning of bebop, and that was a very important period in American history, because bebop was turning the music completely around to where it is today, and we can sort of see it from that point.
TP: It was also turning attitudes around as well as music.
BENNY: Bebop restructured the whole thing.
TP: What were some of the ways it did that for you. You came up in New Orleans, which has many musical cross-currents roiling around, and you were part of a small clique of musicians focusing on bebop.
BENNY: In the 40s there was a musician named Emory Thompson, who spent a little time in New York in the early 40s. So he came back to New Orleans with pictures of Charlie Parker and the horn-rimmed glasses and the whole bebop thing.At this time, I was an impressionable kid of about 12 or 13. So I latched onto it at that age. So for a while, until I was into my 20s, I didn’t want to hear about anything. And bebop was so pervasive during those days. It was really the beginning period, and those people who felt a fervor for it really felt strongly about it being a music of worth, and we were ready to go to war.
TP: New Orleans is famous for the way that music has been integrated into the culture of the city, into the fabric of everyday life through the marching bands and various other functions. The trombone has a rich legacy in the brass bands, of course. Were you second-lining at all?
BENNY: Well, the Second Line is actually not the players. The second line is the audience that walks along the sidewalk; the players walk in the middle of the street. So sidelining, as I knew it, was just the people who marched along, and they danced along, I should say. In fact, they would sort of choreograph things. The band would play…it was sort of like call-and-response. The band would play something, and it was sort of like, DUH-DAH-DEEEE-TT… YEAH! They had little breaks and so forth. But DUH-DAH-DEEEE-TT was the trumpet player and YEAH! was the audience. So it was really like a big party. The Second Line never walked down the street. They sort of sashayed or paraded down the street, and they had all sorts of props. One was an umbrella. I don’t know where the umbrella tradition comes from in the New Orleans parade, but the Grand Marshal always has this elaborate umbrella. But also, there were dances that people could do with handkerchiefs and so forth, and the sideline had their own choreography. But mainly it was like a cheerleading type thing.
TP: How did the older musicians in New Orleans respond to the young whippersnappers who were coming up playing this different music?
BENNY: Musicians are always tolerant of each other, no matter whether you like a guy’s style of not. First of all, older musicians judge you by your tone. If you’ve got a nice tone and you can get over the horn… Now, there were some older guys who I guess were known for their particular style. There was a certain style of tenor player who was kind of more a showboater. Now, bebop was a threat to him, first of all, because he couldn’t play it. Then secondly, it made him feel inferior. So the resistance perhaps came more from a guy like that than… I really don’t know what the older musicians’ attitude was towards us.
TP: But you never caught any particular flack.
BENNY: Well, I was fortunate, because I was with a very young band in New Orleans. I guess I was 15 and the other guys… But we did very well. So the older musicians were rather proud of us. But musicians at that time didn’t have all those different factions. If you all lived in the same town, some… I imagine some of the older guys who were really into maybe Dixieland era did have some not too good words to say about it, but that’s part of any growth.
TP: Let’s get into music from the Basie years. The first selection is one of the most famous Basie-associated pieces, “April in Paris.”
BENNY: I have a funny thing about that. The whole time I was with Basie’s band, the critics were very kind to me. Sometimes when we would play at Newport, the band would get reviewed. The only solo I might have played in this concert was that little part in “April in Paris” — at the end of the review, the guy would say, “Outstanding solos were Frank Wess, Joe Newman, Benny Powell…” — that always did tickle me. That was my claim to fame for many years.
TP: Thad played that little line that was much…
BENNY: Thad hated that. He was a very creative musician, and to have to play the same thing every night was like putting a racehorse in a matchbox and saying, “don’t move.” You’ll hear it on this. He quotes from “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Now, this was nice to him in the studio; that’s what he felt at the time. But that began to be part of the record, so he had to play that every night.
TP: And Basie would say “One more time.”
BENNY: Well, he didn’t mind that. That was Basie’s thing. But to play “Pop Goes The Weasel” every night was too much.
[MUSIC: Basie, “April in Paris”; Sarah Vaughan-Basie, “Until I Met You”; Basie, “Misunderstood Blues”; Joe Williams-Basie, “Roll ‘Em Pete”; Basie-Jimmy Rushing, “Lazy Lady Blues”-1946]
POWELL: Basie’s whole alliance with singers was very interesting. When I joined the band in 1951, prior to that Basie had a small group with Clark Terry, Buddy DeFranco…I think about six pieces — Jimmy Lewis was in that group. Then he organized a big band again to start to play on weekends. We’d go to Richmond, Virginia, just for the weekend. It went on like that for a little while. Then I think Billy Eckstine started doing tours with us. Billy Eckstine was still very popular during those days. I can remember playing some concerts with him as part of the Birdland tour.
But then, when Joe Williams joined the band and Joe had such a big hit with “Every Day I Have The Blues,” this sort of boosted Basie onto a wider market than he had been reaching before. Then after we toured with many singers… The band was a fine band, so singers liked to work with the band. Sarah Vaughan was almost like a sister to the band. Every time we were in California, she would invite the whole band to her house for dinner, and so forth.
In later days, Basie always did present singers and always did give singers an opportunity…
TP: He was under contract to Roulette for a while, so he paired off with Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and others as well through the 60s.
BENNY: Right. Well, as I said, it was such a good band that… Sinatra did a lot of recordings with the band.
TP: There’s something so vocal about the sound of the trombone; it’s often used in conjunction with singers or for playing obbligatos.
BENNY: I think that’s what I liked so much about this trombone solo that just played. This was Count Basie’s band, with Jimmy Rushing singing, but it was done by a trombone player who wasn’t too very well known, named George Matthews. I don’t know if he ever recorded anything but this. One of the things I like about it is his expressiveness — how expressive he was. But trombones have a tradition with voices and so forth, tracing back to Bessie Smith [and Big Green] — the trombone and voice are sort of a natural marriage.
TP: You gave a double take when “Roll ‘Em Pete” came on.
BENNY: Yes. Well, it startled me because I remember all of those nights… In fact, I asked you to play it because I used to play an obbligato on trombone behind Joe Williams’ vocals. It was a nice little marriage. I thought I played rather well in the cracks and so forth. But this is what I was listening for. I think this particular version was done in concert, and by that time… We were speaking about things would become parts of the arrangement. By this time, the saxophones had harmonized the little riffs I played. Again, once you started playing that, you had to play it every night. So I was expecting to hear just myself, and I heard this whole saxophone section playing what was my solo originally. I brought the record in, and I was like, “Whose record is that?!” But in latter years, a lot of things were done… There’s a lot on the market now, Count Basie and live performances. So a lot of times on live performances there would be a different version from the recorded studio version, because by the time we had played it, it was very loose and a lot of things might be completely changed.
TP: Before that was “The Misunderstood Blues” by Frank Foster, from a Basie album on Roulette called Easin’ It, which consists of all Frank Foster arrangements. You brought it in.
BENNY: Well, just because I feel such a closeness with Frank Foster. Basie had taught us all that we had a family, and we still do feel like a family. After all of these years playing with Frank Wess, maybe two years ago I heard a radio broadcast he did with Jamil Nasser. It’s very hard for somebody you’ve known for 25 years to impress you, but he impressed me so much I had to call him and tell him. He’s one of my very favorite people on earth, a very astute man.
I guess when I hear Basie’s band, everybody was such an individual, I can almost see a face for each solo. It really brings back such pleasant memories, because I was there for 12 years of my life, and it was the formative years. I think I joined him when I was 21 and left when I was 33. So I more or less grew up in the band. The reason I asked you to play the song by Sarah Vaughan (“Until I Met You”), which was a Freddie Green composition. Many people don’t realize how many tunes Freddie Green wrote.
But the good thing about the whole Basie band is it was like a university on wheels. We spent much time traveling. As you’re traveling, just sitting on the bus, nobody wants an idle moment. Who wants to just stare out the window? So actually, guys were studying things. Everybody had their heads in a book. I remember when Freddie Green first bought this book on arranging, he more or less taught himself to arrange. All of the guys were really like eggheads. Everybody who got in… At this time Eddie Jones was into calculus. He was into computers before many other people.
TP: As you said, such individual personalities, and yet functioning as such a finely honed unit.
BENNY: That’s what was so amazing. When we were on the bandstand, we acted as one. When we got off the bandstand, we ran in 25 different…like a bunch of ants. Everybody had a strong personality. Billy Mitchell at the time was studying hypnosis in regards to dentistry and childbirth. You’d walk up and down the aisle and just see… It was a very productive atmosphere. You could get a good, intelligent conversation from anybody you sat next to.
TP: What was Basie’s attitude? Whatever you do is cool as long as it sounds right on the stand?
BENNY: Somehow he had a way of disciplining without actually being a disciplinarian. Somehow you knew that your shoes should be shined, you knew you should have a clean shirt on, your suit should be pressed, and you should be reasonably sober. In fact, it was very funny, because… He didn’t really say very much. He was a man of action. There were a couple of heavy drinkers in the band. Budd Johnson was one of them, and I say it in the most loving way, but sometimes Budd would hang out all night and then come to the gig after not having slept for 24 hours, and maybe wasted. What Basie would do was call all of his features. He had to stand up in front and play long solos, and then he’d call another one, and let the poor guy just suffer out there. That was his way. He never said a word to the guys.
TP: I think I’ve heard about Ellington doing that to inebriated band-members.
BENNY: That was a whole psychological study. It would take three psychologists to study the Ellington band. I wasn’t a member of that band, but it seemed like they, too, were individuals. Of course, they were strong individuals, because that’s the way he was able to get all of that good music out of them. But off the bandstand… I don’t know how Duke controlled them. I’m sure it was out-slicking them.
For the last couple of years I’ve traveled places and I’ll inherit a rhythm section in whatever city or country it might be in, and I’d have to work with that. There are fine musicians all over the world, and that’s fine. But in the last year I decided I didn’t want to do that any more. I wanted to have a more organized presentation. So I wrote and produced an album, arranged the kind of presentation I want to have. It’s working now. We’re going to play this coming Saturday, October 16, at La Cave on First Avenue and 62nd Street. I’m very pleased and proud of my guys. I’m the oldest in the group. Jessie Hamin, II, is my drummer; he also owns the label that put out my album.
TP: Inspire Records, Why Don’t You Say Yes Sometime.
BENNY: Then there’s Donald Smith; he’s a pianist and singer. I can’t say enough about him. A sweet guy. I told you, I’ve been traveling around, inheriting rhythm sections, and it works sometimes and sometimes it doesn’t. I was in France, and I’d inherited a rhythm section of younger guys, and they didn’t know any tunes past Miles Davis. So each night I’d have to tell them what we’re going to play the next night so they could go home and study it out of their books of that day. Well, that’s ok, and we make it work, but that was no pleasure for me. Most of the times, you have to just make do with bigger rehearsals.
Anyway, when I started rehearsing this particular group, we were at rehearsal, and almost everybody, for cosmetic sake or whatever, had somewhere to go within two hours. I mean, you do that to make yourself look important. So I asked, “What time do you guys have to leave, so I’ll know what I have to work with?” They told me, “When we get the music together, we’ll leave.” Now, that was the first time in all my travels everywhere that guys had that attitude. As I said, when I go the clubs I inherit what’s there, and most times those guys are there because they haven’t really put in their time to get to New York! They are not New York class. But these guys have been beautiful in that regard. There’s a new young guy playing bass, Eric Lemon, along with the guy who is up front with me, Talib Kibwe. He and I have been working with Randy Weston for the last five or six years. Quite a strong player.
TP: He played with Abdullah Ibrahim for a while during the earlier part of the 80s.
BENNY: Yes. He’s gaining popularity, spending half his time in the U.S. and half in Paris and Africa. So he’s made a name for himself in other parts, and it’s growing here as well. Anyway, they’re really sweet guys to play with.
TP: Let’s move to some of the trombonists who had an impact on you early. We’ll hear Trummy Young with the Lunceford band, and Lawence Brown and Bill Harris. Before we get into it, I’d like to know about the way you heard these people. Were you able to hear the Lunceford band in the theater? Or through records?
BENNY: My first exposure was through radio. Because during these days, the early 40s, radio broadcasts of many performances of big bands. In fact, that’s how many big bands gained the popularity they did. Radio really helped us. Television let us down. (That’s a little aside.)
I was a kid, about 12 years old, and I was listening to children’s programs. There was a program called Let’s Pretend. That would come on about 11:30. The bands were broadcast from the Pompton turnpike. I can’t remember the name of the ballroom. But Duke Ellington’s band, many bands… Every Saturday there was a band broadcast. So I got a chance to hear Lawrence Brown with Duke Ellington during those days; certainly Trummy Young. Trummy Young had a hit record during those days. It was one of the only records that really featured a trombone solo. It was called “Margie,” and it made quite an impact.
The history of trombones and soloists is quite interesting. It seems like during the history, a couple of guys have made a little dent, but trombone en masse has not. Some of us are still struggling to make our little dents, but we haven’t been accepted. We’re sort of like a stepchild. It seems the major solo instruments are trumpets and tenor saxophones.
TP: I guess in the standard histories, the brass instruments were more prominent in the solo function during the 1920s, and there were great trombonists during the Swing Era in the 30s. Then as the histories go, during bebop there was a certain technical adaptation involved in adapting bebop to the trombone that made it more difficult to project a sound.
BENNY: You’re quite right about that. I was thinking that in earlier years, trombonists did have more prominence because of the way the music was written. A lot of times there would be contrapuntal lines between the trumpet and trombone. Louis Armstrong and his trombonist, or even back earlier than that. Trombones served as a real voice and as part of the ensemble. But still then, there’s nothing comparable on trombone to Louis Armstrong, certainly — but nothing comparable on anything else!
TP: No individual comparable. Also during the 20s and early 30s, a lot of bands didn’t record, territory bands or carnival bands, and particularly I’d think in carnival bands the trombone would have been quite prominent. I’ve read oral histories where people talk about trombonists who could just sight-read a whole book, but no one ever knew about them.
BENNY: Yeah, it’s kind of a mystery instrument.
TP: How did you come to pick it up?
BENNY: It was quite by accident. I was at an uncle’s house, and I was sitting on the sofa, and you know how kids turn around on the sofa and face backwards. That’s what I did. As I looked behind it, I saw this case. I was curious to know what it was. So I asked my uncle about it. He said it was a trombone that he had bought for one of his sons, who decided he would rather do sports. So he asked if I wanted to see it, and he let me see it, and I showed interest in it, so he let me take it home and he let me study. So it was through a quirk of fate. But I had been playing drums prior to this, just a little parade drums. In fact, Vernell Fournier and I were in grammar school playing drums together.Wilbur Hogan a little later was in the same band. Joseph A Craig Grammar School.
TP: We’re about to hear the aforementioned “Margie” by the Jimmie Lunceford band featuring Trummy Young. Did you see the Lunceford band in person? You mentioned hearing them on radio.
BENNY: Yes, I saw them in person. Every Sunday night there would be a dance in New Orleans. I remember it was across the railroad tracks in the warehouse district. I guess maybe they rented warehouses. I remember you had to cross…
TP: I think Danny Barker confirms that in his memoir.
BENNY: He probably named it. He was there from day one. But that was a very good experience for us, because the younger musicians used to get there early when the bus arrived, and we’d ask the older musicians to let us carry their instruments into the hall. They would, and they would talk to us. I remember Art Blakey met Vernell during those days, when he was a little kid. He called him Frenchy; then he called him Frenchy when he saw him. But it was a great way for us to meet older musicians, and find out what the road was like and so forth. I remember asking…I can’t remember exactly what trombonist it was…asking a question about the trombone, Sunday night, when I’d see him at the dance. And this guy told me, “Well, if you really want to know, the bus is leaving tomorrow at noontime; be in hotel room at 11 o’clock.” Certainly he would meet you there and tell you so much stuff. My head was reeling by the time I left. Because I’m a little impressionable kid, and here he is telling me about what the real deal is. So it was fascinating. I’m still fascinated with older musicians. I am the biggest fan of Doc Cheatham, because he exemplifies the true jazz spirit to me. He’s open, and he plays beautifully, he lives beautifully, and he wants to spread happiness — and he does spread happiness. Doc Cheatham is 88 years old, and still hitting high Ds!
[MUSIC: Lunceford-Trummy Young, “Margie”; Elllington-Lawrence Brown, “On A Turqoise Cloud”–1947]
TP: Lawrence Brown’s solo moved you profoundly then, and again just now.
BENNY: I love that solo. It sounds like it comes from out of the heavens. When I was a kid and listening to the bands on the radio, I just could imagine them in the most elegant places. Because I was a kid. I had no frame of reference. I didn’t know what it looked like at the Pompton turnpike, but it just sounded like heaven. Then all of that pretty much… You were talking about the corelation between the voice and the trombone, and there it’s used to optimal advantage. They just complemented each other so much. It’s almost uncanny what they really do for each other.
The trombone solo before that by Trummy Young on “Margie,” was again a fantastic solo because when he comes in, he comes in strong, and it’s really like a whole new character. He sort of took charge of that…
[END OF SIDE 2]
BENNY: >..bebop era. As a matter of fact, there are some things that he’s on with Charlie Parker. He was right in the middle. He was a contemporary until he died. I had the good fortune of interviewing in Hawaii in about 1982. At this time, I asked how did he keep… Oh, he was telling me about Ornette Coleman and all of the… He said, “Every morning, I go walking with my little Walkman, and I get the cassettes, I have somebody send them, and I keep up.” His conversation was very contemporary. Oh, it’s a beautiful tape, because it was done outside in Hawaii and you can hear the birds behind him. He was talking about how he made it. He said what to do is to latch on to somebody else, somebody who has a name. He said Jimmie Lunceford had a big name from having broadcast, so when he joined the Lunceford band he was very fortunate to latch on to somebody who had a name, so he made a name for himself. Anyway, he had good words of advice for survival. But I think the main thing that he said was just, “Leave yourself open for all musical experiences; don’t cancel anything – if it’s not particularly your cup of tea, you can always walk away from it, and maybe try and get back and check it out the second time. If it still is not your cup of tea…well, there’s another cup of tea that you will enjoy.
TP: Lawrence Brown, another of the great trombone virtuosos, who in the Ellington band covered every function, from that incredible buttery sound that we heard on “On a Turqoise Cloud” to something as rapid-fire as “Rose Of the Rio Grande.”
BENNY: I had to grow up to the Ellington band, too. I listened to them in the early 40s, and then when bebop hit I didn’t want to hear anything but Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and J.J. Johnson and Monk and those… So it was a while before I got back to Ellington, and was able to listen to orchestral music and see all the beauty in that writing. But I’m telling you, bebop just hit everybody over the head like a sledgehammer.
TP: We’ll hear a set of trombone players identified with the bebop period, beginning with Bill Harris and Bennie Green. We’ll hear something by Bill Harris from 1945 for Keynote Records, a septet with some Hermanites and the superb Chicago drummer who played with Earl Hines for a number of years, Alvin Burroughs. It’s a feature for Bill Harris. Also Pete Candoli, Flip Philips, Ralph Burns (piano and arrangement), Billy Bauer, Chubby Jackson.
BENNY: What I loved about Bill Harris was his sense of humor. I understand he wasn’t a very learned musician in the formal sense. He did everything his way. I think he perhaps taught himself. But he was one of those rare individuals who can really come up with something strong and individual. So his playing was like nobody else’s I had heard before. And what really got me was his sense of humor.
[MUSIC: Bill Harris, “Mean To Me”; Bennie Green, “Whirl-A-Licks” (1951); Bennie Green-Gene Ammons, “That’s All” (1958)]
TP: Bennie Green performing with his high school classmate Gene Ammons, identified on this Blue Note recording, I guess for contractual reasons, by his nickname, “Jug,” which I guess would have hipped everyone to who was playing. Soul Stirring. “Whirl-A-Licks” also had Eddie Lockjaw Davis and Art Blakey… Hearing those two back-to-back gives you a sense of Bennie Green’s range.
BENNY: He was a strong influence on trombone players. He still incorporated some of Trummy Young, but he was beginning to push trombone a little farther. The tempo that he picked was one that most trombone players… It’s difficult to play trombone that fast. There’s no valves on it. It’s much easier to press a little valve down than it is to slide it into another position. The way we articulate is tonguing and so forth, and your tongue is not really that fast. Trumpet and saxophones don’t really have to tongue everything. They can do it with the keys. But we don’t have any, so it’s kind of difficult. So most guys play in slower tempos, or heretofore had played it at slower tempos. But Bennie raised the tempo and started everybody to playing a little faster. Of course, J.J. also. J.J. started playing like a trumpet. He had amazing facilities and could play very fast.
TP: When you think of J.J. Johnson, it’s someone extrapolating vocabularly from another instrument to the trombone?
BENNY: to me, J.J. is like an architect. His solos, every brick is in the proper place, none are sticking out. He’s a very precise man. I think he developed the techniques, because it is possible to play on trombone but you have to really study very much for alternate positions and so forth. It’s difficult, and you have to put in really a lot of time with it — I think J.J. did.
TP: I’m sure you did, too.
BENNY: Well, yeah. In order to keep up with everybody else, we used to practice. I was with Lionel Hampton’s band when I was a kid, and Jimmy Cleveland was my roommate. We’d get up and practice ALL day. When we got to work that night, we could play faster than the trumpets, and we took delight in it. But we had to practice all day to achieve that, because that’s what you’ve got to do. Jimmy Cleveland had amazing facility, amazing chops, and beautiful ideas. As a matter of fact, in Lionel Hampton’s band, the trombone section at one time contained Al Gray, Jimmy Cleveland and myself.
In fact, I was just thinking that we haven’t said enough about Al Gray and his influence on my life. I’ve been playing along with Al Gray since the late 40s with Lionel Hampton. I’m sure he’s been a big influence on my life, maybe more than I realize. Because playing with him every night, I certainly got a chance to hear him a lot. He’s a great, aggressive trombonist. As a matter of fact, most of the times he got the lion’s share of the solos with Count Basie’s band and Lionel Hampton’s band, because he was an amazing soloist, very strong and very assertive.
I’ll tell you a story about when he first joined the band. Tom MacIntosh, the writer, is a trombonist as well. The Basie Band was going to Europe in about 2 weeks, but before we were going to play Pep’s Show Bar in Philadelphia. It was in the wintertime, and as we got there everybody got the flu. Anyway, Tommy McIntosh was one of the guys, and he had to stay home from work one night. Philadelphia is Al Gray’s home town. Al just happened to be in the audience, and somebody asked him to go and get his horn. He came back and played. We were going to England the next week, and Basie certainly needed a strong soloist like Al. Needless to say, there went Tommy MacIntosh’s gig. I remember, because Tom was so hurt. When we were going to Philadelphia, I was sitting next to him on the train, and he was just ecstatic about joining Count Basie’s band. Oh, he was just so happy! He left Juilliard about 6 months before he was to get his degree to go with Basie. As we were going down to Philadelphia, I was trying to pull his coat. I said, “Man, it’s nice to be happy about coming with Count Basie, but if you don’t shut up about how happy you are, Count Basie’s going to want you to pay him.” Anyway, I kind of took him under my wing.
But as I said, he lost his gig. Anyway, when we came back, he wanted to show me a kindness for having been kind to him, and I remember he invited me over to his house for dinner. Only that night his wife had to work late, so he prepared the dinner. I don’t know too much about cooking, but I think he roasted a chicken that’s supposed to be stewed. Anyway, we sat down and he started to try to carve his chicken! Oh, man, the funniest thing you ever saw. Because by this time it was like rubber. It was bouncing all over the place. Tommy MacIntosh was a sweet soul.
But I have very fond memories of so many musicians. It’s really been a delight. Being in the musical field, it’s great; you meet all of these great minds and all of these quirky ways of thinking — and it’s fun. I love it.
I was surprised more than anybody when John Carter called me, because I knew he and Bobby Bradford had this avant-garde duo. Since I was not for coming from the swing era and swing bands, when John called I was very surprised. And when I heard the music, I was even more surprised, because as you’ll hear, it’s a complete departure from the music I’d been associated.
TP: Without further ado, let’s get into J.J. Johnson, who you described as the great architect. It’s amazing how, at these incredible tempos, he seems to be sitting there watching the flow move around him like a chess player thinking 10 moves ahead. This is “Coppin’ The Bop” from 1946 for Savoy, with Cecil Payne, Bud Powell, Leonard Gaskin and Max Roach.
[MUSIC: J.J. Johnson, “Coppin’ the Bop”-1946; J.J., “Pennies From Heaven”-1955]
TP: We hear J.J. Johnson’s style already fully formed on “Coppin’ The Bop”.
BENNY: It’s amazing how he’s always sounded contemporary, no matter what year. These things from 1946. Look how long ago that was. And it sounds contemporary today.
TP: Younger trombonists are still trying to incorporate that level of elegance and phrasing and dynamics into their vocabulary.
BENNY: All of us are. Include me in that!
TP: Another characteristic of J.J. Johnson’s style is to rearrange standards, and always put little twists on things, which he did on “Pennies From Heaven” on Blue Note, 1955 – Hank Mobley, Horace Silver, Paul Chambers, Kenny Clarke.
BENNY: He’s a fine arranger. I think that accounts for the fact that everything is in its correct place. Guys who play instruments and who are good arrangers, too, have one-up on most players. They know how not to play everything they know in one bar and have nothing left over for the next bar. They know how to spread their ideas out. He’s certainly one of the finest. I’ve worked with him in a lot of idioms, from small groups… As a matter of fact, we had something called The Toledo Trombones, Herb Alpert… I’ve worked with him from that kind of group to… He wrote a lot of television shows in Los Angeles while we both still lived there, and I was always so pleased whenever he would hire me for anything. To be hired by J.J. is like sort of being endorsed by Duncan Hines or God!
TP: We’ll hear a piece featuring you from John Carter’s Castles Of Ghana.
BENNY: Before that, we’ll hear a poem I wrote… I started producing my own albums in the late 70s or 80s because I wanted to do things without having somebody to tell me, “Yes, you can do this” or “no, you can’t do that.” At this time, I was studying to be an actor, so I wanted to incorporate that into my musical presentation. So I wrote this poem, and at this time I thought it was really a heavy poem. When I listen to it now, it’s nice, but it reminds me of a certain romantic period in my life. I guess everybody is a poet for 5 minutes.This was my mine.
Anyway, I started producing my own things, and then I got a chance to really break away completely from the style of music that I had played previously, with John Carter, since it was a complete departure. John Carter’s music was very interesting, because half of it was written, the other half was verbal. We did an anthology tracing African Americans from Africa to the New World. He would tell us… I remember one piece, “Run, Juba, Run.” he said, “Now, picture yourself just getting off a ship,” and I don’t mean a cruise or anything – a slave ship. “You’ve been taken away from your home and brought to this new place. So this particular time that we want to record about now, is you’re standing in the water, maybe in South Carolina, and all the loneliness… Anyway, he would set up emotional scenes for you to play, and he wanted all of this in his music. On the surface, it sounds very…well, I can’t say discordant. It sounds experimental. But if you know the stories that these things are supposed to be depicting, it was really a good departure.”
[MUSIC: Benny Powell, “Let me Sing You My song”; John Carter, “The Fallen Prince”-1986]
TP: Talk about your thoughts on putting together this new CD, which comprises 3 sessions from 1991.
BENNY: To me, trombone has to be showcased exactly right. It itself is a mellow instrument, and it can really put you to sleep if it’s done too mellow. So I try different types of tunes. Some are sambas, some are waltzes, some are just straight-ahead swing. But I tried to showcase myself in the most interesting manner to me. It was fun putting it all together, because I wrote about five of the tunes, and I didn’t consider myself a serious writer, but I know that when you produce your own album it makes sense to have some of your own tunes. Who knows? You might write another “Body and Soul” and be able to retire for life. But I wrote about five of these tunes, and when I took them in to rehearsal and the musicians played them, when they played it back to me, after they added their own ideas to it, it sounded much better than the thing I had originally wrote. As a matter of fact, I said, “Wow, did I write that?” It was the input of Ronnie Matthews, Fred Hopkins, Talib Kibwe, John Stubblefield, Jerome Richardson – all of them had a great deal in making suggestions.
One thing I wanted to do was make it a happy, fun album. When I was Basie’s band, there were a lot of housewives who used to always say, “I can put on this music and do my housework by it because it’s kind of up and bright.” Well, that’s the kind of music I like. I like happy music and I like music that makes people feel good. So that’s what I was aiming for.
[MUSIC: Benny Powell, “Dance of the Nile” (by Talib Kibwe, Ronnie Matthews, Fred Hopkins, Carl Allen]
TP: Cued up is something Benny recorded with the Metropole Orchestra.
BENNY: When I left Basie’s band I got a chance to do some guest appearances with orchestras in Europe. This is one of them. It was recorded in Hilversum, Holland, with the radio band. Very seldom do I get a chance to play with strings in the United States. It costs too much money to hire all of those strings. But in Europe, it’s possible sometimes. This is why musicians sometimes like to go to Europe and out of the country, because it gives you the opportunity to do things that you wouldn’t normally do here. This is one of my favorite tunes, by Thad Jones – “A Child Is Born.”
TP: To conclude, we’ll hear you playing Horace Silver’s “Fingerpoppin’”.
BP: Horace Silver is one of my favorite writers. I hope sometime to be able to do a whole album of Horace Silver tunes. I think he rates with the all-time arrangers. He’s still alive and kicking and I think he should be acknowledged much more, especially for his writing. He was responsible for a whole period of music, and for turning the music back to the church for a little bit, if you will.
[MUSIC: Benny Powell 5, “Finger-Poppin’”]
TP: We didn’t have a chance to listen to much of the music you brought, including the non-trombonists who you felt were essential to your development – the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band…
BP: Lester Young.
TP: We didn’t hear “Castle Rock,” which is a favorite.
TP: Trummy Young and Bird.
BP: Yes, or even some of the contemporary trombonists like Steve Turre, Robin Eubanks, Jamal Haynes… There’s some good guys on the horizon.
TP: Coming up is a composition of yours.
BP: I wrote this for Vernell Fournier. We went to grammar school together, as I told you. So we got a chance to record together, which was a sort of life-long dream, because it’s something we talked about when we were kids in high school. It’s called “Lifelong Dream.”
[Benny-Metropole Orchestra, “Lifelong Dream”-1985]