Pianist Benny Green has grown up with the Kuumbwa, but even after 35 years of shows here, he’s still a revelation
When Kuumbwa Jazz Center celebrated its 40th anniversary in April with an all-star “Dream Band” featuring some of jazz’s biggest names, the evening’s revelation was pianist Benny Green, who was also the musician with the most history on that bandstand.
That might sound contradictory, but Green has spent much of the past two decades performing in trio and duo settings. The rare opportunity to hear him with a larger band offered a dazzling glimpse of a commanding improviser thriving in the give and take of a well-acquainted but ad hoc ensemble.
On stage with bassist Christian McBride, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, saxophonist Joshua Redman, and drummer Eric Harland, Green was the senior cat. He didn’t exactly steal the show, but amidst his fire-breathing juniors he played with such fierce energy, deep soul, and exquisite intelligence that it was like witnessing him gracefully accept the mantle of elder statesman in a building that has seen the unfolding of his entire career.
It’s hard to overstate how much history Green shares with Kuumbwa. The venue was only a few years old when he made his first appearance there as an ostentatiously gifted Berkeley High student accompanying Finnish-born trumpeter Mike Koskinen in 1980—two decades or so younger than veteran players like saxophonist Hadley Caliman and bassist Chris Amberger.
“I was the kid for sure,” says Green, 52, who returns to Kuumbwa with his trio on Monday, June 8, celebrating the release of a stellar new album recorded at Kuumbwa, Benny Green – Live in Santa Cruz! (Sunnyside Records).
“I used to pester everyone and ask them about records, and what they thought about everyone’s playing, and who influenced who,” Green recalls. “I remember it was so great playing with them. They swung and had a wonderful sound, and the piano was a joy.”
For his follow-up visit to Kuumbwa, Green drove down from Berkeley with a friend to catch his teacher—the late beloved Santa Cruz pianist Smith Dobson—playing a gig with tenor sax great Eddie Harris. A year later, he was back in the club, and this time he was on stage with a bona fide jazz legend.
Like many of his peers in that first generation who graduated from the Berkeley public school system’s innovative jazz education program in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Green decided to plunge directly into the New York scene rather than enroll at Berklee College of Music or some other top-shelf music school. He made the move in 1982 and landed a succession of gigs more demanding and rigorous than anything he could have found in a classroom.
Before long he was recruited by Betty Carter, who was in the early phase of turning her band into an essential proving ground for a generation of brilliant young musicians. During the four years he spent with the daring and demanding vocalist, he traveled back to the Bay Area with her at least once a year for tours that always included a gig at Kuumbwa.
I first caught Green at Kuumbwa in the late 1980s with a talent-laden edition of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. After he finished the drummer’s Ph.D. program in hard bop, he took over what was arguably jazz’s most imposing piano chair with bassist Ray Brown, filling a spot previously held by Oscar Peterson, Monty Alexander and Gene Harris.
“My parents started coming to every Kuumbwa show I played, starting in 1983 with that first trip back to the Bay Area with Betty Carter, and that’s a big part of my emotional fondness for the club,” Green says. “Playing there with these beautiful mentors with my parents in the audience made the bandstand come alive.”
Green marked his 30th birthday with a memorable night at Kuumbwa, a concert immortalized on the 1993 Ray Brown Trio album Bass Face (Telarc Jazz). And now he’s returning to this most familiar of venues once again as the tried and true veteran leading a band of rising stars.
Bassist David Wong and Rodney Green are both about 20 years younger than Green, and they clearly afford him the respect due to a master who knows exactly where he’s coming from.
“For the most part, what I want to play is hard bop,” Green says. “I don’t want to live in a bubble, and I don’t want to limit myself. I’m very influenced by Stevie Wonder, but I’m deeply inspired by the 1950s and ’60s, just the attitudes inherent in the music and how the musicians played with each other to achieve a feeling.”
INFO: 7 p.m., Monday, June 8. Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $25/adv, $30/door. 427-2227. PHOTO: Benny Green plays the Kuumbwa on Monday, June 8. R.R. JONES