Allegro Interviews Joe Bennett

Volume CI, No. 1January, 2001

Leo Ball

Joe Bennett played the trombone in many of the great postwar big bands. As a member of CBS studio orchestras, he was heard on the Garry Moore, Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleason shows. He had a stint on Broadway and a career in New York City’s busy recording studios. And he is now active in the club date field, working with the Lester Lanin orchestra for the last decade. Joe recently stopped by the 802 office to discuss the highlights of his career, and reminisce about some of the notable musicians he has played with.

He was born Joe Benante, to an immensely talented baritone horn player who immigrated from Sicily and became a member of the John Phillips Sousa band. After many years at that position his father sustained dental problems he could not overcome and retired from the music business to become a building contractor. During these years he had turned his son into a formidable horn player. But, on entering high school, Joe realized that the baritone horn was never used in the musical settings he wished to embrace and switched to the trombone.

Within a very short time he was gaining experience doing small band dates in the Paterson, N.J., area. Too young for World War II and too old to be drafted to serve in Korea, he found playing opportunities he might not have had if the musicians serving in the military were still around. His reputation increased and, right out of high school, he was invited to play a chair in the newly-formed Vaughn Monroe Band.

The band soon disbanded but by then Joe had realized how little he really knew about playing the trombone, and he returned home to commence serious study with Jack Elliot, a member of the NBC Symphony under Toscanini, and Roger Smith of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra. As he continued his studies, he worked gigs in various venues around town and discovered the musical wonders that were taking place in the Big Apple in the late 1940s and early ’50s.

His mentors at that time were Brad Gowans (a valve trombonist who worked at Nick’s in the Village) and, primarily, Jack Teagarden, perhaps the greatest jazz Dixieland trombonist who ever lived, whose band was working at the Hickory House. As Joe studied Jack’s technique, he marveled at the fact that Teagarden only seemed to use about four positions for everything he played. This was probable the precursor to techniques employed by the newly emerging bebop trombonists, and when Jack and Joe took a trip to 52nd Street to hear J.J. Johnson, they both knew that trombone playing was changed forever.

Joe was now ready to take his place in the trombone sections of the great new postwar bands. He joined Bobby Sherwood and then played with Les Brown, who was doing a series of exhausting one nighters. So he jumped at the chance to rejoin the really hot new Vaughn Monroe band, when he got a call from promoter Jack Marchard, half owner of the band. They were doing a weekly radio show called The Camel Caravan, recording about twice monthly, and the bucks were rolling in. Joe spent the remainder of the 1940s with the band.

He became quite ill at the end of the decade, requiring surgery, and spent a long time recuperating and doing light gigs around home. But soon he was his old self, and raring to go. His first gig of the ’50s was as a member of the Lucky Millinder band, the only fully integrated black band in the country. The drummer was the famous Art Blakey, who Joe says taught him the real meaning of “time.” He valued the experience but found the trips through the South too stressful, and left to join the newly formed Jerry Wald bebop band. This was a wonderful musical experience, but drugs were around and not to Joe’s taste, so he jumped ship again – this time, to the opposite end of the spectrum, the Art Mooney ensemble. They had just recorded “Four Leaf Clover” and the band was much in demand but, as Joe puts it, “playing music half Philadelphia Mummers style and half Glenn Miller style was too much to take.”

So he moved to the Charlie Spivak orchestra, in which a young Joe can be seen playing lead trombone in the accompanying photo. Joe thinks Charlie had the greatest trumpet sound in the music business, the band was great, and Spivak was the nicest gentleman Joe had ever worked for. He felt that he had finally found a home, and stayed until 1953. He recalls that one night Dizzy Gillespie came to hear the band and, after listening to Spivak, remarked to Joe: “If I had a sound like that, I’d only play half the notes I do.”

At about this time the big band era was drawing to a close. Joe got married and decided to settle down, stay in town, and establish himself as a New York player. Sol Kusikoff invited him to participate in a Broadway show, and he accepted. He found the following three years in the pit the most boring in his life – but he used the job as a base while he expanded his contacts in the recording field, and soon found himself as busy on the outside as he was in the pit.

One of his contractors, Max Zeppos, called Joe to do an album with Helen Merrill, arranged by up-and-coming arranger Gil Evans. Gil took a liking to Joe and gave him all his work, including the three Miles Davis collaborations: Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. Gil used no piano and utilized the trombones for comping chords, which kept the bones busy from border to border. Joe looks on these albums as the apex of his recording years and, after watching Miles Davis in action, developed a respect for him that has lasted all his life.

The phone rang again about this time and it was the staff contractor for CBS, Lou Shoobe, offering Joe The Arthur Godfrey Show. Joe had heard that it was an extremely unhappy, uptight situation and refused. But Lou called again a while later to offer Joe a job on staff, beginning with The Garry Moore Show.

This time Joe accepted. At the first rehearsal, after a couple of tunes, the trumpet player sitting behind him tapped him on the shoulder, handed him a postage stamp-sized piece of paper, and asked him to list all the name bands he’d been on. Without missing a beat Joe replied, “I know you: you were the fourth trumpet player on every name band I ever saw.” The trumpet player was the famous Bernie Privin, and he beamed as he realized that he had finally met an adversary worthy of his biting wit. They began a relationship that Joe describes as based on “insults made in love.” Their exchanges entertained all around them, and some became legendary.

Shortly before Bernie died of a disease that had robbed him of his ability to speak clearly, Joe received a garbled message on his answering machine. He knew it was Bernie but couldn’t understand the message, so he called Bernie’s pal, Vin Riccittelli, to find out if he knew anything about it. “Yeah,” said Vin, “he was trying to insult you.”

Joe stayed on staff at CBS until 1972, when the networks bought the musicians out with an offer of $1,000 a year for every year on staff, and then shut them down. In addition to The Garry Moore Show, Joe had been playing the Ed Sullivan and Jackie Gleason shows every week. Staff salaries weren’t the greatest (about $300 a week) but overtime paid $40 an hour and, with all he was doing, many of his paychecks were bouncing up towards four figures, marvelous money in those days.

In the ’70s all the good work seemed to be moving to the West Coast, taking the wonderful writers and arrangers out there with it, and the Apple was witnessing the end of its role as the epicenter for all live television shows and recorded music. Joe recalls complaining to famous trumpeter Ray Crisara about how all his childhood buddies were now well-situated doctors, lawyers and businessmen, while he was still pecking away on the horn. Ray’s answer influenced Joe’s thinking for the rest of his life: “Yeah, Joe, but they’ve never been part of a chord.”

Joe stayed busy working the large theatres that featured major acts – such as the Westchester Premier, Westbury, Colony Hill, etc. But he saw the handwriting on the wall and decided to pursue his freelance career, augmented with club dates, for which he had a natural affinity. He jobbed around, doing very well. Around 1990 he joined the Lester Lanin organization as first trombone, and has stayed with him to this day. When I asked Joe whether he ever thought about making a lamp out of his trombone, his reply was typical of many of us older musicians – “Only when it stops being fun, Leo.”