Pianist Benny Green wants jazz’s past to continue to inform its future
I can honestly say I’m still learning.” Hearing such an admirable, humble statement from someone like Benny Green—a jazz pianist, arranger, composer and band leader whose 30-plus year career includes performances and recordings with jazz luminaries like Oscar Peterson, Art Blakey and Betty Carter—might be surprising at first. But Green’s insatiable desire to keep learning has served him well. That desire—and his deep love of jazz—is something he wants today’s younger musicians to feel, too.
“The word ‘jazz’ is used all the time, but what it means nowadays is on such a sliding scale,” Green says. “The word is being abused. The rhythmic aspects are often taken for granted with young folks seeking to fuse jazz with something else, i.e. jazz hip-hop, when they haven’t actually gotten meaningful jazz experience first to be able to fuse with anything.”
Green knows a lot about meaningful performance experience. When he was 19, he moved from Berkeley, Calif. to New York City with the sole purpose of becoming part of Art Blakey’s band, the Jazz Messengers. He knew Blakey’s music inside and out, but he also knew that would not be enough if he wanted to get Blakey’s attention, so he was grateful when Betty Carter invited him to play with her band.
“I would never have been ready to play with Art, musically, just being enthusiastic and knowing his repertoire,” Green admits. “I was absolutely green in terms of experience. Betty gave me enough experience so that when I started with Art four years later, even though I felt like I was starting from scratch in a way because of the instrumental contrasts, I did have that experience.”
As Green’s career has progressed, his vision for what he wants to do with his music has crystallized. This is most evident in the fact that he self-produced his newest album, Magic Beans. Inspiration for the album stemmed from women (“La Portuguesa”) to “Jack and the Beanstalk” (“Magic Beans”). Green shows off his dizzying piano-playing skills on the upbeat “Flying Saucer,” and the straight-ahead jazz track “Benny’s Crib” carries within it a free-wheeling feeling which encapsulates Green’s entire experience recording the record.
“It was so liberating to not have someone trying to steer me!” Green laughs. “It makes all the difference in the world to not have someone telling me what they think I should do, or what they think people should hear.”
Green, whose father was a tenor saxophone player and challenged him to be authentic with his piano playing, takes his craft very seriously and loves performing live, especially at Kuumbwa Jazz, which holds a special place in his heart. It was there that he celebrated his 30th birthday, while recording Bassface as a sideman with Ray Brown in 1993. As such, he has something special planned for his shows on June 24 and 25.
“We’ll be recording both shows from the upcoming engagement for a future live CD release, and we’re going to be playing almost entirely new original music,” says Green. “Kuumbwa is just about my favorite club in the whole world. I have such history with Kuumbwa, and playing for the audience there feels like home for me.
“I feel very strongly about this music,” he continues. “I’ve been treated like family by some real masters, and so I actually feel a responsibility, being a Jazz Messenger, and having gotten to play with real jazz musicians, that while I’m here I’m going to do my best to represent my experiences.”
Benny Green will perform at 7 p.m. Monday, June 24, and again at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 25 at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $22/adv, $25/door. For more information, call 427-2227.