George Benson is a prime example of a titan praised in one context, but is equally talented in another.
How people are noted and remembered is a combination of fact, fiction and serendipity. Too often lives of accomplishment, if not stardom, are dashed or marginalized by unfortunate events, sometimes of a minor nature, but often serious in consequences. A quick review of those named “Bill” proves this point. Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Bill Buckner, Billie Holiday, Bill O’Reilly. Each a talented and successful person, yet the mention of their name more often than not conjures up something negative or, at the very least, something disparaging.
On a completely different plane are those folks who are praised as a titan in one context, but are equally talented in another. The latter being so obscured over time that learning of it causes surprise, even disbelief.
Nat King Cole was a top-flight jazz pianist long before his vocals changed the world of music. Diana Krall’s path to stardom was similar to Nat King Cole’s. Steve Tyrell was a very successful record executive, arranger and producer for many years. Almost by accident, he sang on the movie, Father of the Bride, and a whole new career opened up. The list goes on and on.
My favorite example, however, is our dear friend George Benson. Long before his breakthrough vocal recording of Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade,” George was recognized as one of the great guitarists in jazz. Benson began his career as a guitarist working the corner pubs of his native Pittsburgh. Benson tells the story that legendary jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery praised him and urged him on during the early years. In the early 1960s, Benson worked with organist “Brother” Jack McDuff until legendary talent scout John Hammond signed Benson to Columbia, where his life as a jazz guitarist took hold. He performed with Miles Davis, Stanley Turrentine, Ron Carter and Freddie Hubbard. He is responsible for classic jazz recordings, such as Beyond the Blue Horizon, in the early 1970s.
But it was George’s relationship with iconic music producer Tommy LiPuma — resulting in Breezin’ in 1976, the first jazz record to attain platinum recognition — that established him as both a player and a singer. His career then took a hard right turn into the world of pop music, for which he is now known amidst garnering 10 Grammy Awards. Yet, the impact of his jazz years must have been very strong, for, in 2009, nearly 33 years after Breezin’, George was recognized as a National Endowment of Arts Jazz Master, the highest award in jazz. Though then known as a pop vocalist, the legacy of his jazz chops lived on. Truly remarkable.
Thanks to Pat Rains, manager of David Sanborn, among others, I had the opportunity years ago to have dinner with Tommy LiPuma in New York. We talked about George Benson, among other subjects, and I shared with him my favorite “Benson Cruise” story. If you have heard this one before, you can skip the rest of the note, but it remains near the top of my cruise memories.
Having George Benson as a guest on our cruise was a memorable event. There he was on stage with David Sanborn, Marcus Miller and George Duke performing a tune. To be candid, I never thought that we would ever be able to present any one of those four. Having all four on the same stage was overwhelming to me.
To fully enjoy the show, I decided to sit in the main audience and experience the music with our guests. During a powerful guitar solo by Benson, I overheard the two guys next to me comment about his prowess. The exact words were “Man, he can really play that guitar!” Hearing it the first time brought a smile to my face. I was thrilled that the guests were enjoying the show. When the second man repeated the same phrase, this time with a tone of surprise or incredulity, I lost my ability to let it go. I turned to them and said: “George Benson is an NEA Jazz Master Guitarist, one of the few guitarists to ever be so honored and one of the very few still performing.” They nodded and apologized. I felt both relieved and immensely embarrassed. For that moment, I was “that guy,” the guy who tries to shame you for not knowing something.
The next day I ran into one of the men. I apologized profusely. I tried to explain to him that I consider being an NEA Jazz Master on par with being in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame and I wanted him to know. He thanked me for apologizing, but said it was not necessary. He could see my passion. He did however have one more question to ask: “Can you tell me what an NEA Jazz Master means?” Yep!
I realized that what matters to one man may not matter to the other. My new friend was having a great time on the cruise, loving the music and enjoying himself as he wanted to do. Nothing else mattered.
From that day, I have tried to walk in the other guy’s shoes before judging. And, to look at the breadth of someone’s life before dismissing them based upon one chapter, however bad it might have been. I am probably batting around .340 with this approach, high enough to be a candidate for the Hall of Fame, but in no way eligible to be an NEA Jazz Master!
Our Take is written by Michael Lazaroff, Executive Director of The Jazz Cruise, The Smooth Jazz Cruise and Blue Note at Sea. Feel free to express your views or pose questions to him at email@example.com.
SAVE THE DATE: WEDNESDAY, JAN. 27
Join Us for a Clarinet Confab with
Paquito D’Rivera & Ken Peplowski
The next episode of Jazz Cruise Conversations Live features two of the stars of The Jazz Cruise ’22 – Paquito D’Rivera and Ken Peplowski – who share both a keen sense of humor and a notable facility with the clarinet (and saxophone). Tune in on Wednesday, January 27, at 8 p.m. ET for what is sure to be another entertaining conversation.
This series of live online jazz chats will continue every other week with the following stars:
Feb. 10: Niki Haris with Ann Hampton Callaway
Feb. 24: Bria Skonberg with Jennifer Wharton
March 10: Monty Alexander with John Clayton
You can catch all of the Jazz Cruise Conversations Live interviews on our YouTube and Facebook pages or you can listen to them as podcasts on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.
Ann Hampton Callaway Presents The Callaway Hideaway
On the last Sunday of every month at 7 p.m. ET, vocalist and The Jazz Cruise ’22 artist Ann Hampton Callaway presents a live stream concert she calls “The Callaway Hideaway.” Next week’s edition (Jan. 31) has a theme of “Cinematic Serenade” for which Ann will take requests on Facebook for your favorite songs from movies.
A January and February two-show package costs $40 and you can buy your tickets by clicking here. A portion of the ticket sales and tips will be going to the Birdland GoFundMe Fund.
Before & After Listening Session
with John Clayton
Famed jazz writer Leonard Feather originally created the Blindfold Test for Metronome magazine back in the 40s in order to demonstrate that jazz musicians had a deep understanding of music and weren’t just “winging it.” Among his early subjects were Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. He later re-branded the column as Before & After for JazzTimes and his legacy lives on in one of that publication’s most popular features.
On Tuesday, Jan. 26, at 3 p.m. ET, you can watch and listen on Facebook or YouTube as Ken Peplowski will play about a dozen tracks for John Clayton in a special online edition of the Before & After listening session, co-presented by The Jazz Cruise. The results, sure to be fascinating given John’s depth of knowledge, will run in the April issue of JazzTimes.
‘Tamir at Home’ Series to Feature Artists from The Jazz Cruise
Pianist Tamir Hendelman has been sailing with us on The Jazz Cruise for many years, performing as a member of Jeff Hamilton’s trio, as a solo pianist and as a part of various ensembles. Tamir is currently hosting a series of live performances called “Tamir at Home” both solo (every Saturday at 9 p.m. ET) and duo (every other Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET).
Upcoming duo guests include Jeff Hamilton perform Oscar Peterson’s Canadiana Suite (Feb. 2) and a Valentine’s show with Tierney Sutton (Feb. 12-15 anytime).