Benny Powell: Trombone Titan

Andrew Velez By

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What appeals to me is the trombone's range. It can whisper softly or sometimes it can be as bombastic as an elephant. You can express yourself.
Benny PowellMaster trombonist, composer, occasional vocalist and actor, NEA Jazz Master Benny Powell was saluted in 2008 at the All Nite Soul at Saint Peter Church in New York, along with his fellow honoree, pianist Jane Jarvis. A working musician since his early teens in New Orleans and a veteran sideman on hundreds of recording sessions with the likes of Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and Screamin' Jay Hawkins, at 78 Powell is energetic, quick to laugh and looking ahead to what he wants to accomplish next.

All About Jazz: What haven't you done?

Benny Powell: Well I haven't had a record playing on radio, but I am going for that now. It's called Nexttep (Origin, 2008), pronounced like two words but it's all one word. It's like the next step in my career. It's all original tunes written by me and two members of the band. Our next step is to be recognized as composers. The guys in my band are TK Blue (alto sax and flute) and the pianist, a young Japanese lady, Sayuri Goto; my drummer, Billy Hart, and Essiet Essiet, my bassist.

AAJ: How did you get with Randy Weston?

BP: I have a philosophy about meeting people as opposed to encountering them. When you encounter somebody for the first time and talk to them, you feel like you have known them for a long time. I have been with Randy now for 33 years. I came back in 1975 for a visit [to Los Angeles] and I ran into Randy. We talked for a really long time. I said if you ever need a trombonist, please consider me. He called me right after that to do the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina. I turned down the date. You ask somebody to throw you a lifesaver and you throw it back and say, "No thanks, I'll drown." [chuckling] But fortunately he called after that and I joined his band.

I still am as excited about working with him. At the end of the evening I always tell him I had so much fun I shouldn't accept the money, but I'm too polite to refuse it. He doesn't have gigs, he has adventures. He would prefer to work off the spirit of the moment. When I first joined the band I asked for the music and he said, "There is none. I never used a trombonist before." I asked him what to play. "Find some pretty notes and play them." That was the answer that I got.

AAJ: As with Ahmad Jamal, spirituality seems very much a part of you.

BP: Oh, thank you for saying that and thank you for putting me in the same category as Ahmad. Because two guys who really have been mentors for me are Randy and Ahmad. When they enter a room, the temperature changes. There is a whole other vibe they create. With either one of those guys you are in a spiritually bigger-than-life encounter.

Benny PowellAAJ: What do you look for in your students?

BP: Well, first of all I try to carry myself in the manner that I would like them to. [It] means it's just a love of curiosity about everybody. In my living room right now is one of my students, Barry Cooper. Right now, he is in the same seat that I occupied with Count Basie 50 years ago. He, too, has that same spiritual thing about him although he's a younger guy. He's 27. He was a student of mine at The New School. I teach an ensemble. I don't really teach music because they know music and they will be studying it for the rest of their lives. But I teach how to interact with other music and musicians in a humane way. I teach them how to talk to other musicians.

AAJ: The trombone doesn't ordinarily get the kind of attention other instruments do.

BP: It's not an instrument that projects forcefully, I might say. So the trombonists have been sort of like stepchildren in the orchestra. Trombone players for the most part, I think, are a bit more mellow. I don't really know exactly why, but I know we are a little more people friendly, you might say [chuckles].

AAJ: What is appealing about the trombone?

BP: What appeals to me is its range. It can whisper softly or sometimes it can be as bombastic as an elephant. The wide range from a whispering to a roar. You can express yourself.

AAJ: Talk about Count Basie, if you will.

BP: Basie got more from less. He was very minimal in everything. He never said,"We're going to play [this]," he never gave us a program. What he did was play introductions and we could tell what the next tune was. He didn't have to come in front of the band or any of that. [He'd] be out of the way most of the time. If someone in the band was messing up, he'd give them the message they'd better straighten up. Before we'd all get on the bandstand Basie would play a few bars of "There'll Be Some Changes Made" and that was his way of letting whoever was messing up know they'd better straighten up.

He was a very subtle guy. He'd just point a finger in the air and the band would explode. That was the difference between Basie and other bandleaders. He could get to the essence of the music. And really bring that out. Even beyond the writer [of the music], Basie looked at his organization as a family organization. We were family. Consequently I am still in touch with Frank Wess, Frank Foster and Cliff Young. Randy has that same philosophy. There are some bands who have that now but most of the time they don't really stay together to have brotherhood or sisterhood that was.

We're all very much exposed when we're on the bandstand and I try to get my students to understand that what you do, people are looking at. You should be comfortable with your material, be sure you have done your homework, how you look. Anything that is phony or out of place will be detected immediately by whoever is listening to you. If you don't know what to do when you're not playing, look at the person who is playing. That's what we all do if we have been out there playing for a little while. We enjoy the people who are playing. And then also it puts the focus on whoever is playing. All of these are little subtle things that happen. In a sense they have to be taught these days, because when I was coming up you learned that on the bandstand. There are not a lot of gigs these days where you can learn these things.

AAJ: Talk about others with whom you recorded.

BP: [Trumpeter] Harry Edison was sort of my mentor, a very generous, giving guy. A lot of the times when we got offstage, he would go to the cathedrals or churches in Europe. No one would ever think that of him.

AAJ: Sarah Vaughan?

BP: Oh yeah, she was sort of like the kid sister to the Basie band. She was a very shy person. She wasn't shy with us and she loved Basie and Billy Eckstine of course. She sounded like a Stradivarius, like a violin without a vibrato.

And Joe Williams. He was another favorite. I worked with Joe with the Basie band. And I did some things at the Rainbow Room when he was a headliner. Joe always wanted to sing a broader range of things but Basie always wanted him to sing the blues.

AAJ: Benny Carter?

BP: Again, he was one of those guys who got a lot done without shouting. But you knew you didn't mess with Benny Carter. I was on a big date out in Hollywood. At that particular time I don't know whether it was part ego or part wanting to be seen, but I asked about a note. I said, "Excuse me. Mr. Carter. On page 32 I have an E flat." And I questioned it. He looked at it. He said "That's an E flat?" And I said yeah. He said "Play it." And that's all he said to me. And I knew not to mess with Benny Carter.

Benny PowellAAJ: Barry Harris?

BP: I always thought Mayor Bloomberg should make him a city treasure because he has done so much for so many people and been so compassionate to everyone. If you don't like Barry Harris you don't like children.

AAJ: Aretha Franklin?

BP: I met her when she first came here. As a matter of fact, we had a little flirtation. It never did amount to much. She was discovered by John Hammond. He was another mentor. I remember he tried to get me to listen to trombone players who had come before. It's funny how students don't want to be interested in something before John Coltrane. So I can understand very well how he wanted me to listen.

AAJ: Charlie Parker?

BP: I first heard of him when I was living in New Orleans—like 1945. I heard the record "Sho' Enuf." I got a chance to ride in a taxi with Charlie Parker. There was a club on 8th Avenue and 110th Street, The Paradise. Somehow I got a chance to ride in this taxi downtown with Charlie Parker. That was the only time I was ever in his physical presence. I can't even remember how I got a chance to be in the taxi. I was awestruck.

AAJ: Duke Ellington?

BP: We did this thing with the two bands, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Oh man! Seeing them at the same time. Plus all of my heroes, Lawrence Brown and all of those guys. At the end, Sonny Payne and Sam Woodyard with drum solos and both of the bands hitting. Man! Being in the midst of all of that it transported me to another zone altogether. It sent me out there. I don't think I have come down since.

Selected Discography:

Benny Powell, Nextep (Origin, 2008)
Benny Powell, The Gift of Love (Faith, 2003)
Benny Powell, Why Don't You Say 'Yes' Sometime? (Inspire Productions, 1991)
Randy Weston, The Spirits of Our Ancestors (Antilles, 1991)

John Carter, Castles of Ghana (Gramavision, 1985)

Benny Powell, Coast to Coast, (Trident, 1982) Lionel Hampton, Newport Uproar! (Reunion at Newport 1967) (RCA Victor-Bluebird, 1967)

Frank Foster, Here Comes Frank Foster (New Faces, New Sounds) (Blue Note, 1954)

Photo Credit
Jos L. Knaepen

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