The New York-born pianist with a hard swinging flair is one of the most talented and experienced jazz musicians in the world today. His style, developed over career spent playing with and being inspired by mentors like Art Blakey, Ray Brown, and Oscar Peterson, is firmly rooted in traditional, swinging African-American jazz.
It’s a tradition he aims to keep alive — or at the very least, breath as much life into it as he can, while he can.
“I do absolutely have a very real sense of responsibility to represent and to give back,” said Green, on the phone from his home in Berkeley, California. “More so now, having lost many of my mentors and heroes who have helped me over the years.”
Jazz is a language and an artform that Green, an “eternal student,” strives to become more fluent in, not one that he tries to dismiss or distinguish himself from, or leave behind altogether. He just wants to be an authentic part of the music that drew him in as a child and never let go.I’ve always wanted my music and my presence here in this generation to encourage folks to keep checking out those records and keep grooving with that, and with those who are drawn to that.
Not wanting to shake his head at the younger generation of musicians and music fans looking for something different, Green was careful not to disparage contemporary, genre-bending jazz altogether. But he is acutely aware of how swing has gone seriously out of vogue, especially among young people.
“I just know that the nature of innovation is rare and special and I think it could be a mistake for a whole generation of musicians to all be clamouring to become the next innovator.”
Put on any of the great Blue Note records and Green will sink in head first. He’ll be absorbed, feeling the music deep down, transported somewhere else entirely. A lifelong student of swing, bringing this feeling — jazz in its purest form — to a younger audience is what’s important.
“[The kind of] innovation that occurs with John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner is very special, and it does happen,” said Green. “But of course there are going to be many people trying to do that…. I’m still trying to better embrace this [established] language that inspired me to play jazz in the first place. Im not trying to just use it, as a validation to improvise and really dismiss all that love and beauty and care that was put into creating this music.”
Green approaches swing from a distinctly philosophical perspective. Describing what swing means to him as a musician and a listener, he casts back and references the greats to unpack his point.
Take Louis Armstrong. As listeners in 2013, we can’t claim to know anything about the thoughts or feelings that ran through his mind when he lived and played. But when we listen to his records, we feel his heart. Astoundingly, powerfully so.
“Because I only know Louis through [his records],” said Green, “they are like some kind of lightpost in terms of the feeling they give us that you don’t usually find in jazz today. I’m still trying to get closer to that.”
Green, who turned fifty this April, has become something of a lightpost himself. His music, despite being oh-so-modernly available on iTunes, is one long love letter to the jazz of generations past. His listeners can hear flavours from the likes of Horace Silver and Sonny Clark, among others, when exploring his discography.
If Green successfully carries out his self-imposed duties as a jazz messenger, listening to his music will inspire you to check out his predecessors.
“I’ve always wanted my music and my presence here in this generation to encourage folks to keep checking out those records and keep grooving with that, and with those who are drawn to that.”
Benny Green will be playing the Bassment Club in Saskatoon on Saturday, October 12. You can get tickets here.
Jazz is a journey
Benny called me on his cell phone as he was out for a morning walk around his California neighbourhood. He wasn’t quite huffing and puffing, but I could from his breath and the sound of cars whizzing by for most of out almost hour-long conversation that he was having a serious stroll. “The birds are chirping,” he said. “It’s a pretty nice day.”
I didn’t ask where he was heading to, but ambulatory interviewee reminded me of a passage from his website.
“Each time a classic Blue Note record is played, magically one becomes transported.”
I asked him where he thought the listener was transported. To the audience at the Blue Note? To the mind of the musician? Something else? I’ve transcribed his full response below.
“It’s a very personal, individual journey or trip that the listener takes. Not to say that two listeners might not have similar experiences, but something in the sound and feeling of music will remind a person of a time or an incident — maybe even a flavour.
I remember hearing Dexter Gordon and I could sense a taste of graham crackers when I heard a certain quality of sound. That kind of thing seems sounds so abstract to talk about as an adult. But I remember being a child, not having any sense that it would be uncool to experience music that way, so I felt like I could taste the music.
And now when I hear music, it reminds me as a musician of so many things, that ideally the way music reaches us so purely on a human level that one does not have to be a musician or informed aficionado to get it. Those kind of experiences we get as a child that move us.
Where the music takes us, it’s a very autonomously, inherently unique journey for the listener. I do think that music causes people to feel and to think. It can be calming or energizing. So I’m speaking of these [feelings] as much as actual places in the mind that we might go, or images that we might get.
I listen to McCoy Tyner I feel like I can envision the Sahara Desert, even though I’ve never actually been there. If I listen to Ray Charles, I really feel like I understand something about being a blind black man living in the South, which I am not, but the music makes it so real for me.
That’s what I mean about the places music takes us.”