Piano man Benny Green channels jazz heroes
By: David Becker AXS Contributor Jul 10, 2014 2 hours ago
Alot of young jazz players struggle to invent a new idiom for the music, blending in contemporary elements and personal revelations to create something different and modern. Not Benny Green.
The Berkeley pianist, one of the most adept and agile pianists to emerge from the 1980s mini-boom in straightahead jazz, fell in love decades ago with jazz geniuses such as Thelonious Monk and Oscar Peterson. He’s been dedicated to spreading a flavor of classic jazz that copiously references them and other influences ever since. His distinctive style comes from the way he blends those influences into an agile, always-swinging whole.
"I’m not looking to be an innovator; I’ve never had the pretense that I need to invent something," Green says in a phone interview before his performances next week at SFJAZZ. "I’ve never been looking to get away from what’s been established. I want to reflect my love of the great jazz artists..I’ll never be Art Tatum or Hank Jones or Oscar Peterson, but I feel I have a responsibility to represent the music they’ve given me the best I can."
Born in New York but raised in the East Bay, including an early education in the star-making Berkeley High School jazz program, Green moved back to New York shortly after high school and quickly established a reputation as a versatile, energetic player with deep feeling for the jazz canon. After stints with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and vocalist Betty Carter, he set out on his own to build a solid solo career and a busy schedule as a sideman, backing artists such as Freddie Hubbard, Ray Brown and Milt Jackson.
He returned to live in the Bay Area a few years ago, partly to support his recently widowed mother and partly because the New York jazz scene had changed.
"For many years I never envisioned I’d want to live anywhere else but New York," Green says. "But I noticed my last few years there that I wasn’t hanging out as much as I once did. Less and less of the kids were playing 4/4, straightahead swing. It was just less inviting for me to go to shows."
Green credits his return to the Bay Area for helping him get more serious as a composer. The pianist released his first trio album of all original tunes, Magic Beans, last year, although “original” for Green includes naming several tunes for the jazz heroes who inspired them.
"As one has more life experience and emotional perspective, you have things you want to write about, emotional experiences people can pick up on," he says. "I really work on emotional honesty to hopefully create a channel of expression. But if somebody hears me and says I remind them of so-and-so, I don’t have a problem with that."
Moving back to the Bay Area also prompted Green to explore more work as an educator, a trend that will culminate in him moving to Ann Arbor, Mich., shortly to start a professorship at the University of Michigan. Green says he’ll miss his Bay Area connections, but feels like this is the right time to focus on being around young musicians and sharing his love of classic jazz in a more intimate way.
"When you’re really devoted to music, you become intimately familiar with making choices and sacrifices for the music," the pianist says. "Ray Brown told me that you have to know your priority — the music or being a star. You can have both, but you have to know what your priority is."
The Benny Green Trio performs at 7 and 8:30 p.m. July 17-20 at SFJAZZ Center. Tickets are $25.