“I grew up in Berkeley in the 1970s,” said jazz pianist and composer Benny Green, who leads the acclaimed Monterey Jazz Festival All-Star Band this Saturday at Zellerbach Auditorium, after playing the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz Thursday. “It was a wonderful time to be in Berkeley—which looks a little different these days, but whenever I think of it, I go back in my mind to those days of the post-Flower Child generation.”
Born in New York and a student of classical piano at seven, Green began his jazz studies in Berkeley, influenced by his tenor saxophonist father “introducing me to jazz, but also the jazz education program introduced by the late Phil Hardymon. He’d visit all the schools, from fourth grade on ... if a young person was serious, it became a goal to play in the high school band, really a big deal to us. I didn’t realize right away what a special program it was, that other towns, other states didn’t have such a program. It was important, too, because I associated older people with jazz, the faces on the sleeves of my father’s records, and in the jazz program I could hear and play with my peers, playing the music.”
Green began his career as a teenager in the Bay Area. “I went professional at 15,” he recalled, “backing [singer] Faye Carroll and playing with [trumpeter] Eddie Henderson. Tenor player Hadley Caliman helped me so much.” He also worked in a 12-piece band led by bassist Chuck Israels. At 19, Green moved to New York, and worked briefly with alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, then spent four years backing the late, great bop vocalist, Betty Carter.
“My goal when I moved to New York was to learn Art Blakey’s music, to join [Blakey’s band] The Jazz Messengers.” Green played with the late innovative drummer and group leader from 1987 until late ‘89, when he joined trumpeter Freddy Hubbard’s quintet.
Recalling his formative time with Blakey, Green emphasized “the feeling on the bandstand. Art was so powerful, so electric ... he had the ability to elevate what everybody was doing, to breathe so much life into our improvisations and shape them. And he created the illusion you were the one doing this! I discovered sitting in playing with others that sometimes the bottom would drop out. I ended up feeling it was Art playing me! We had to work hard. It was his idea that we should all write music, to see how it worked in a group context, that we should become bandleaders ourselves--to be the ones with the initial conceptions and blossom as composers. He groomed us as composers and performers.”
In 1993, Green joined the now late bassist Ray Brown’s trio. That year, virtuoso jazz pianist Oscar Peterson chose Green to receive the first City of Toronto Glen Gould International Protege Prize in Music. Green remembered Peterson, who died Dec. 26 at age 82. “His human achievement is just staggering. The example he set for all of us, with his integrity and emotional depth, created a legacy to learn from. But when Oscar died, he took a lot of information with him.”
“I love learning from older people musically,” Green went on, “from generations closer to the time musicians played for dancing. They honored the melody ... there’s so much to learn from them, not just in terms of theory, but in the way they carry themselves.”
One older musician Green singled out as someone who carries himself well is James Moody, saxophonist and flautist, who was a close Dizzy Gillespie associate, playing in the trumpet master’s late 40s big band. Moody will turn 83 in March. “He’s been around, been through it all and knows what goes on--and stays optimistic! He has such a positive attitude that comes through, is so enthusiastic ... great to emerge from a long life not embittered by experience, still playing music.”
Green talked about the other members of the All-Star group—trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard (another Blakey alumnus), bassist Derrick Hodge, drummer Kendrick Scott and special guest vocalist Nnenna Freelon—of how the group gelled after a few quick rehearsals over a weekend to bring excitement to the world’s longest-running jazz festival’s Sunday finale show last September.
“We have a variety of instrumental and vocal possibilities ... not all six of us will be up on stage for every tune. Terence is such a wonderful composer and he, Derrick and Kendrick have worked together all the time, for several years now, as the nucleus of Terence’s own band—that we want to feature his music as much as possible. And we want to see how much new music we can perform. There’s such diversity, such rich talent in this group. We came to perform, and at Monterey we came together in just a couple of days in our musical intentions and felt like a team, a family. And the way the audience received us there inspired us to new heights.”
Monterey Jazz Festival:
50th Anniversary Tour with Benny Green
Sat, Jan. 12, 8 p.m., Zellerbach Hall,
UC Berkeley Campus. $34, $40 and $52.