Jazz artist Benny Powell is a trombone player, music educator, activist and organizer, and a founding member of Local 802’s Jazz Advisory Committee. Early this year Jimmy Owens, who chairs the committee, interviewed him for this article.
Powell, who celebrates his 70th birthday on March 1, has been a professional musician since he was 14. He has played with some of the country’s most celebrated big bands; had a busy career on Broadway, in television and recording; and he continues to play and teach. “I’ve always been a jazz artist, and proud of it,” he says, noting that jobs outside the field “were just to support my jazz habit. I’ve always felt that being a jazz musician is one of the highest callings. You have to have a lot of technical ability – and then you have to know where to take it, to help you shape a life with it.”
Born in New Orleans, where “music was everywhere,” Benny Powell started playing the drum in grammar school. At the age of 12 he discovered a trombone in his uncle’s house. “My mother got me to a teacher right away, so by the time I was 14 I was able to play my first professional job, in a kid’s orchestra led by Dooky Chase. There are a lot of gigs in New Orleans because there are so many Catholic celebrations, and all of them usually have music.” He recalls that houses in New Orleans were wooden frame structures, “so you could hear what was going on next door or across the street. There were musicians all up and down my block, rehearsing family bands at night, and music was part of everyday living.”
He describes himself as “a bebop baby. When I became really interested in music there was a guy who had gone to New York in the early ’40s and brought back recordings of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. As a young person, I was very much affected by bebop music.”
After graduating from high school at the age of 15 he went to Alabama State Teachers College, along with a childhood friend, drummer Vernell Fournier. The school attracted musicians; it had been a springboard for Erskine Hawkins’ band. Powell studied there for a year, then took a break from college and began travelling with King Kolax’s band in 1946. He worked with him for two or three years.
That period ended after the band got stranded in Oklahoma City. The musicians began sharing rooms, “but we stayed so long that after a while we began tripling up and it got to the point where six of us were walking the streets at night while the other six were sleeping in one room,” Powell recalls.
He decided to join a Tulsa band led by Ernie Fields. “I walked out of the front door of the hotel in Oklahoma City and Vernell Fournier let down my bag on a rope – sort of like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I worked in Tulsa for a year or two, and then I joined Lionel Hampton’s band in 1948.”
That was his first exposure to the national scene. Powell considers Hampton to have been very innovative for that period. “I hope that some day he gets his just recognition, both as a musician and as an innovator.” Many of the players were New Yorkers, and members of Local 802. Powell joined 802 in the late ’40s when he came to New York with Hampton’s band.
He soon learned about the advantages of belonging to the union, and “how I could use its strength. The band would play a theatre one week, clubs another week, radio broadcasts, etc. I remember one time, at the end of the week, there was something that I thought I should have been paid for, but I wasn’t – and I came to the union with my pay slip to prove my point. Because I came in and reported it, we all got paid.
“Working with big bands can be very difficult. Everybody wants to see justice done, but many people are afraid for their jobs and they don’t want to speak up. I found out, through the years, that I had to speak up and not depend upon the other guys to back me up.”
He stayed with Lionel Hampton until 1951, then moved to Canada for a while. “I was sick of racial prejudice and the limitations of my life,” he said. “I had played in Canada with Hampton, and it was the first time I was exposed to a culture where being African American was an asset rather than a liability.” Powell took up residence in the small town of Hull, Quebec.
In 1951 he returned to New York and joined Count Basie. A new band was being formed, replacing the smaller group Basie had previously led. Powell was to play with it for the next 12 years. “We were a family,” he recalls. “Basie led by example, and he was a marvellous tactician: he got a lot done without saying too much.” One example Powell recalls is that, “when somebody in the band was messing up, just before we began to play, Basie would start playing ÔThey’ll be some changes made,’ and everybody would start looking around to see who it was.
“And we all realized that, if we were going to be travelling with each other every day, we’d better see the humorous side of life. So humor is one of the things I remember most in Basie’s band.”
Lionel Hampton’s band had played the Truman and Eisenhower inaugurations, and the Basie band played at President Kennedy’s inauguration. “I’ve been fortunate enough to play inaugurations for three presidents.” The Kennedy inauguration brought the band to the attention of high society. “We’d play lawn parties for the Mellons and so forth. We played for kings and queens.”
After quite a number of years with Count Basie, Powell recalls, “I felt I needed to expand and spread my wings. But it took me two or three years to leave. Every time I told him that I was going to leave, he’d say, ÔWell, that’s fine – but you know, we’re going to Sweden in two months.’ So it took me a long time to get away.”
After leaving Count Basie in 1963, he started working Broadway shows, beginning with Barbra Streisand’s Funny Girl for two or three years. “I had a grand time, because we would finish the shows at around 10 o’clock, I would hurry home, and then go and play with Thad Jones’ band at the Village Vanguard.” He later worked in Golden Boy, Sammy Davis’ hit show, and then, toward the end of the ’60s, started doing the Merv Griffin Show. During the 1960s and ’70s he worked with Duke Pearson’s big band and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, and as a leader in his own right.
Among the jazz masters he is proud to have worked with over the course of his career are Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton and Benny Goodman.
With his work on Broadway, Powell began earning credits in his AFM Pension fund. At the time, he was unaware of it. “I didn’t really find out about it until I was almost ready to retire,” he said. “I consider myself very fortunate in that I lucked into the pension fund without knowing it. I’m glad that we’re working now to make musicians more aware of it, so they won’t have to depend on luck, as I did.”
He worked with Merv Griffin until 1978, moving to California with the show. Powell holds a jazz musician, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, partly responsible for that move. “There were a lot of pressures for bringing more African American musicians into the affluent gigs. Rahsaan called me and said they were going to demonstrate at a show and asked if I would help. And I said yes; I knew that just because I had a job, the war wasn’t over.
“One day I came to work and I saw all of these guys who would never go to the Merv Griffin Show standing in line to get in. On the show, I remember, Merv was interviewing JosŽ Limon, an Argentine dancer. And all of a sudden you’d hear a rattling sound in the balcony, and over here a bird whistle or something. It was like somebody had let the zoo in. In two seconds Merv Griffin disappeared and the director came out to see what the hubbub was about. And the guys came down and confronted him. They told us the show was finished for that day – we were two or three shows ahead – and they’d notify us when we were shooting again. The next notification we had was that the show was moving to California.”
Powell moved to the West Coast in 1970, and remained until 1978. While there he organized a nonprofit organization, the Committee on Jazz. The organization got grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California State Council, and was able to create about 2,000 jobs. The effectiveness of that organization validates some of Powell’s most deeply held beliefs: “I’ve always seen the benefit of unity in numbers, and I’m a strong believer in the committee principle. That means two or three people with common problems and common possible solutions getting together. I’m all for working on solutions. I’ve been to too many meetings where the energy is dissipated on discussing the problems.”
Over the years, Powell has helped to found and has worked with many organizations to improve the lives of musicians. He believes that the most recent of these, the Jazz Advisory Committee, is playing an important role. “We realized that, as individuals, we weren’t getting as much done as we would like to do. Through a committee, you can take your grievance to your institution; that’s what we’ve done. We collectively came to Local 802. There was a time when we could have done the same thing and gotten nothing – and in fact, we have done this many times in the past, with no results. But I think that in the last couple of years the union has been much more open to us. There are many opportunities open to us now, but we have to formulate a committee and go after them for ourselves.”
He continues to have an active performing career. For the last 15 years he has been playing, touring and recording with Randy Weston African Rhythm. He performs widely as a soloist and, as this article was written, was preparing to leave for Europe with Jane Jarvis and Earl May.
Powell teaches in the New School’s Jazz Studies Program and played an active part in the campaign that won union recognition and a first contract for the faculty. Looking toward the future, he often ponders where his students are going to be working. “I’d like to see jobs developed in institutions that will always be there: schools, churches, hospitals and prisons. I’d like to see more musicians working in schools, in innovative ways. You could link geography to jazz, for one example, and the same thing for history. Our whole culture is documented in our songs.
“There are so many different cultures and languages in New York City,” he points out, “and at some point the schools are going to have to teach about each of them, and share them. And jazz, certainly, exemplifies and chronicles the African American existence.”