Benny Green: Teaching Jazz to the Next Generation
“ Everything you play underneath should support the melody -- or don't play it. ”
After exhibiting great potential as a young pianist during his teens on the San Francisco jazz scene, Benny Green, long regarded as one of the most promising wunderkinds of jazz piano, spent his twenties serving apprenticeships with a virtual pantheon of musical giants. During his thirties, Green fulfilled his early promise, making the transition from sideman to a headline act in his own right. Now, in a small college auditorium in Des Moines, the student had become Zen master, and he was teaching a group of rapt young musicians about respect for the music, keeping jazz traditions alive, and playing fewer notes.
A hard-swinging hard-bop stylist in the mold of Bud Powell, Green, 43, is a native of Berkeley, California. Although he began studying classical piano at age 7, by the time he had turned 12 he was playing jazz. His father, an amateur saxophonist, encouraged him to listen to vintage records by such figures as Powell, Art Tatum and Thelonius Monk.
After moving to New York City in '83, he spent the next decade playing with a veritable who's-who of veteran jazz artists, including Betty Carter, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard and Ray Brown. Through Brown, Green met piano giant Oscar Peterson, who became something of a mentor to him. In '93, when Peterson became only the third person to be awarded Canada's prestigious Glen Gould Prize, he was asked to name a young musician of great promise. Green was Peterson's choice for this prize, and in '98 the two recorded a stellar CD, Oscar and Benny, with Brown on bass and Gregory Hutchinson on drums.
It was with Hubbard that Green met bassist Christian McBride, with whom he was to start a trio culminating in the '94 Telarc Jazz recording Naturally, featuring McBride and guitarist Russell Malone. That CD was followed Green's Blues, a highly acclaimed solo offering, and a spectacular duo recording with Malone, Live at the Bistro, in '03.
On this occasion, Green had been brought to Des Moines ("for the first time," according to him) by Drake University, a private liberal arts college with a very strong music education program. Among Drake's cultural offerings is a 75-year-old "Civic Music Program." The program's directors stress that sponsoring performances by top-notch musical talent is only one element of its mission, part of a three-pronged combination that also includes community outreach and education.
Other nationally-known artists participating in the program have played at community centers and senior homes in the Des Moines area, and one musician recently performed music for newborns at a local hospital maternity ward. For his part, Green had been asked to conduct a master class for aspiring jazz musicians in which he would listen to several young performers and offer critiques. Two combos and two solo pianists were slated to participate.
Although Green has a self-effacing, puckish manner, he was not shy about offering criticisms and suggestions. And like a yoga master citing time-honored wisdom, he did it in spiritual terms, invoking the authority of some of the most revered names in the jazz world, stressing the need to move beyond ego and serve the music.
The first combo, a sextet of college-age guys in baggy cargo pants and sneakers, played an energetic rendition of Wayne Shorter's "Black Nile" with strong solos on tenor and soprano sax and guitar. (The pianist, primarily a saxaphonist who "just sits in," did not solo). Overall, they were a serious, talented group who did a lot of things right. However, Benny, sitting in the front row of the auditorium taking notes, didn't seem quite as enamored as the rest of the audience. Of course, like any good teacher, he began by pointing to the positives. "Your basic harmonic sense is good," he said, "You've got good feel and time, and good material," mentioning his own enjoyment of Shorter.
Before beginning his critique, he teased the bassist about his high-tech instrument, a minimalist electronic upright essentially, a fretboard on a tripod. Green, ever the traditionalist, made it clear he felt the acoustic upright bass was the only proper instrument for jazz and asked the young player about his choice of instruments. When the bassist mentioned its light weight and portability, Green would have none of it. "You're a big guy," he said, shaking his head with a smile.