Meet Drummer Jimmy Bennington
All About Jazz: How would you describe your approach to music?
Jimmy Bennington: Back in Texas, when I decided to play blues for a few years, I only knew then, in the abstract, that it would help my straight ahead jazz playing. Music is the key word and its essentials must remain in any style or endeavor. When I listen to some of my improvised performances, I hear a call or fanfare, an opening statement or theme, a middle and exploration of the possibilities present, a closing statement, and an end. There is form, conscious or unconscious, in the most improvised piece of music. It is inherent I think, like in the way nature repeats itself. I approach the music at hand, blues, African, Latin, free music, standards or Broadway show tunes, etc. as just that, the music at hand, and I play to my utmost.
AAJ: How did you start working for Elvin Jones as a drum tech?
JB: In 1993, a friend and I took a Greyhound bus from Houston to Virginia. The University of Virginia was having a Coltrane Tribute Concert and Elvin was the headliner. Also on the bill were Roy Haynes, Archie Shepp, and Tommy Flannigan.
We stayed at the same hotel as all the musicians; the Cavalier Inn. I met Tommy Flannigan and Roy Haynes, David Murray, and Cecil McBee. While I was saying goodnight to Roy, Elvin and his wife Keiko came in. When Elvin saw Roy, he picked him up off the ground and called him "Haynesey. I told Elvin in the elevator how far I'd come to see him and Keiko said "That's dedication, Jonesey. The next year, I saw him in L.A. for a week sitting right by the high-hat. At the end of the engagement, he thanked me for staying, gave me a hug, and a pair of sticks.
I met a drummer who told me that Elvin played in Seattle one week out of every year. Being so different from Houston, I liked Seattle and would save my money throughout the year to make the trip; I was bussing tables then. Gradually I got to know Elvin and he and Keiko got to know me. I would get his drinks, guard the dressing room so he could have a little rest, and walk them to their hotel, carrying their bags and cymbals. Sometimes, he would tell me to get us a couple of drinks and say, "Close the door. We'd sit and talk and he'd ask me what I thought of the last set or the sound of the drums.
One night, after about five years of coming to see him, he asked what I did for a living and would I consider working for him. I said yes then, but he didn't mention it again for two years. I was living in Portland when the phone rang. It was Keiko and all she said was, "Are you ready James? A black envelope that said Elvin Jones Jazz Machine came in the mail with plane tickets and itinerary. It was a two-week tour: one in California and one in Seattle at the Jazz Alley. That was in 2000.
AAJ: I'll bet that was interesting, getting to know some of the great musicians of our time. Can you talk you talk about that a little bit?
JB: Working for Elvin was a whole different story. I was no longer the fan buying records and tickets; this was business and hard work. Part of my job was to clean the cymbals before every show, and I used to do this with great enthusiasm in my hotel room. I was in charge of all the musicians' luggage, the band's equipment, Elvin's drums, and the whereabouts of the musicians themselves. I played more than a few sound checks and got to know some of the musicians in the band those two years: Pat LaBarbera, Eric Lewis, Antoine Roney, Ari Brown, and Delfeayo Marsalis. Eric Lewis took me to jam sessions in New York to sit in. Pat and I walked around England and he told about his long tenure with Elvin and how he'd left Buddy Rich's band. He said "Buddy was a metronome, Elvin is the opposite. Antoine Roney took me to hang at his home in Harlem, and saxophonist Ari Brown played piano for me one night at the Jazz Alley condos. Delfeayo wrote the liner notes to my first recording.
AAJ: What are some of the things that you learned from your work with Elvin?
JB: I learned professionalism, first and foremost. Be on time, treat and compensate your band well, dress appropriately for any performance, show respect for the artform. Deal with the music and the moment sincerely, use all your knowledge to pursue truth, and don't be afraid to take risks for the sake of the music. At 70 plus, night after night, Elvin continued to surprise, astound, and amaze! After being around him for awhile, the question of "how became non-existent. Aside from the great musical language he created and the great musical devices he employed, I learned from Elvin to always be true to yourself and to this art form. Keiko was resolute in how she felt Elvin's music should sound, how it should be presented, it's value, and how it would be seen by history. To be around these two was to be shown in black and white how to do it.
AAJ: You have two CDs out, Contemplation and Midnight Choir. Can you talk about some of the similarities and differences between them?
JB: The two recordings you mentioned come from almost the same period; they're a year or two apart. As you know, a lot can happen in a year and that I think is the difference between the two. The similarities are myself and the other band members staying on track and approaching the music in the same fashion. "Contemplation came about when my friend and saxophonist Seth Paynter told me he was moving to Korea. I felt the need to document what we'd been doing. The other group with Andre Hayward and Ralph Gill happened when we met during this period. Andre was with Betty Carter at the time and is now a member of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The bassist, Danny Zanker, originally from England, had left Houston for New York and was in town for a few days. Contemplation is a little more straight forward, but it shares similarities with Midnight Choir in that it has some tunes and some originals. Andre and Ralph introduced me to Grachan Moncur III's The Coaster and Seth and I probably played "Equinox a hundred times. Both were very exciting to do and reflect where we were all at as far as our approach to this music. When I hear them today, I'm very proud of the music and feeling we created.