A full transcript of Todd Bryant Weeks’ interview with Benny Powell available for download.
Who is Benny Powell? He is a multi-dimensional performer who has worked on Broadway, on television, and has starred in world renowned big bands.
He has made hundreds, perhaps thousands of recordings.
A unique, bop-tinged trombone stylist whose emergence corresponded with the popularity of the J.J. Johnson school, Powell has also collaborated with some of the greatest musical luminaries of the last century including Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton, Randy Weston and many, many others.
Powell, who was born in 1930, has the mind and physique of a much younger man, and the social graces and genteel manner typical of those of his generation.
Despite health problems in recent years, he has maintained a rigorous performance schedule.
He’s been an 802 member since 1954.
“I’ve been working with Randy Weston for 35 years,” says Powell. “The band’s called Randy Weston’s African Rhythms. It’s a thrill playing with this group. We went to Spain back in July. We had a rough schedule – long layovers. But we played a marvelous concert, because each one of these guys in the group – T.K. Blue, Alex Blake, Neil Clarke, Randy and I – each of us remembered why we were there. And we couldn’t afford to be tired, hungry or none of that. In a sense, we played above ourselves.”
It’s hard to imagine a man of Powell’s experience ever playing above himself. A veteran of the big band era, he began performing as a teenager in the 1940’s, first in his home town of New Orleans, and later with touring units throughout the Southwest.
“I went to Alabama State,” remembers Powell, “because Erskine Hawkins’s band had graduated from there. I don’t think I stayed over a year. I came home for summer vacation, and went out on the road, and stayed out. This was in ‘46. My friend Arnold Depass told me he was going to join King Kolax’s band, and that they needed a trombone player. I was 16. I talked it over with my mother, and since Arnold was a little older, she allowed me to go.”
King Kolax was a high note trumpeter who had starred with the Billy Eckstine Orchestra.
Powell smiles as he remembers that first out of town gig, over 60 years ago.
“Kolax was then playing in a spot in Port Arthur, Texas – for a review that featured female impersonators! We started with this review; then we began traveling through that territory: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas. I played every little town. But when we got to Oklahoma, we got stranded. I think we were about 12 pieces. When we first got stuck, we had six rooms with two guys in a room, and then as our finances dwindled, it became three guys in a room. After a while we were six to a room. Six guys in the room, and the other six walked the streets. While we were waiting for the band office to bail us out, I got a call to join Ernie Fields’ band in Tulsa. I couldn’t walk out the front door of the hotel, so I walked around behind the building – our room was on the second floor – and my roommate, Vernel Fournier, lowered my bags down on a rope! When I hear people saying that they’ve had some interesting experiences, well, I’ve had some. Once, I traveled on a band bus . . . with a wood burning stove! It was funny in those days, you know. I was all of 17.”
Powell shot to fame in 1948, when he joined the Lionel Hampton Orchestra.
“Hampton had a very sophisticated band,” recalls Powell, “Very good arrangements and so forth. But his emphasis was on entertainment. When I was with him, the whole band didn’t just sit there during a rest in the music. The musicians would be clapping their hands – Hampton’s thing was visual. I think, in a sense, this approach hurt him a little bit; his musical side wasn’t emphasized as much as it should have been. He had a fine band and fine arrangements, but somehow, despite the quality of the music, the musicianship was kind of overlooked. And of course, Hampton was extremely popular.
He was a powerful swayer of people. When we would start playing in front of crowds, he would get that hypnotic beat going – and people in the audience would sometimes start taking off their clothes!”
After three years with Hampton, Powell joined the Count Basie Orchestra.
And after 12 years of touring the world (his distinctive solo work can be found on hundreds of recordings) Powell left Basie . . . and the road.
He had anticipated a change of pace, but he soon found he was working harder than ever. He didn’t mind. He describes an average day post-Basie:
“At 9:00 in the morning, I’d do a jingle – from nine to 12. Then I’d come home and change clothes, and perhaps do a sweetening session for a rock ‘n’ roll date – and that would be either from two to five, or seven to ten. If it were from two to five, then I’d come home and change clothes, and go and do a Broadway show, and when I was finished with that, I’d go down to the Village Vanguard and play with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis! And it went on like that, day after day after day.”
Benny Powell has always felt strongly that it’s union membership that sets the true professionals apart.
While working on Broadway, he continued to remain diversified in his other jobs.
Later, he discovered he hadn’t been fully informed about union benefits.
“When I was getting contributions for all of those shows, I had no idea [about the AFM pension fund]. Coming from the jazz world you don’t think about anything but how much somebody’s paying you. And I’m very fortunate that I was able to do some hit shows that lasted for a little while. At this point in the game, I’m collecting a pension, and I’m fairly comfortable. Now everybody can’t do Broadway, but I’d like to see something done for the people who don’t work on Broadway, such as jazz musicians. That’s why we’ve begun this campaign to get pension in the clubs: Justice for Jazz Artists!”
Powell is actively involved in the union’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign, and has been a member of 802’s Jazz Advisory Committee since its inception in the 1990’s.
“I think a major breakthrough occurred when we were able to get benefits at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music,” he remembers, “When we came through that campaign successfully, I thought to myself: if I never do another thing in life, and even if nobody even knows about what we’ve done, I know about it. And we did it. With a committee of about four guys. We realized the power of an organized entity behind us.”
The trombonist remains up to date in his attitudes and in his approach to his craft, and is very much part of the current scene. (For instance, check him out on Twitter, at www.twitter.com/
As to his continuing advocacy with Local 802 and Justice for Jazz Artists, he’s dead serious about it:
“I feel like I still have a lot to offer. I’m not even 80 yet. You know, for the musicians, thinking about what life will be like when they’ll be 79…that’s something I’m trying to teach young people, because we have to instill the mindset that business as usual has to change. Most younger jazz musicians are likely to say, ‘What has that got to do with me? I don’t even work those big clubs.’ But these larger clubs are just the first step. Justice for Jazz Artists has lots of applications.”
Powell’s star power hasn’t diminished since his days with the Basie band.
And Basie’s music may have had an effect on him not only as a performer, but also as a thinker and a citizen: “I’ve learned that making music is more than just people getting together and playing. It has many functions. It’s an important part of our social identity, and it’s important to the community at large.”
He tilts his head slightly for emphasis: “Look: After jazz music became music strictly for listening, Basie said he’d rather make a record that a housewife could relate to…she could go around and do her housework and still listen to the music – rather than wrestle with something she had to sit down and listen to. The Basie thing is really just music as a service. That beat as a service – helping you to make your work easier, sort of like a work song. In that same tradition. With that same purpose.”