Benny Green

When modern piano master Benny Green took the the bandstand at Kuumbwa Jazz Workshop in Santa Cruz, California, last June 13th with bassist David Wong and drummer Rodney Green, he had no idea an album would ensue. But when the set was done, Green, who had followed his customary practice of recording the engagement on his Sony PCM-M10 recorder, thought he had something special.
“I felt really connected with the audience, and when I listened back, it sounded as good as I remembered it feeling,” Green states, explaining why he decided to release Happiness! (Sunnyside). It’s his second consecutive location date from the hallowed northern California club, following the efflorescent 2015 album Live In Santa Cruz (Sunnyside).
“I’ve been playing at Kuumbwa for over 30 years as a sideman in different groups and with my own group,” Green continues. “This audience has heard me before, and I want to give them something new and show some progress. Those are the expectations I put on myself.”
The 52-year-old maestro fulfills that self-imposed mandate: Happiness! is a summational album that is as strong as any item in a distinguished leader discography that dates to 1988, six years after Green moved to New York from Berkeley, California, his home town, 80 miles north of Santa Cruz. In contrast to Live In Santa Cruz and its 2013 in-studio predecessor, Magic Beans (Sunnyside), which both feature his original music, Green interprets repertoire by a cohort of composers—Cedar Walton, Freddie Hubbard, Horace Silver, Thad Jones, Duke Pearson and Wes Montgomery—that evokes the sound and feeling of the 1950s and 1960s Blue Note recordings on which Green cut his teeth as a Berkeley teenager. In continuity with those albums and the 2010 trio date, The Source (JLP), Green channels the inflamed, go-for-broke spirit of bebop, deploying the impeccable, efflorescent technique that has garnered him international acclaim since his mid twenties, without ever showing off or sacrificing the unrelenting swing, pianistic sophistication and abiding blues feeling that is his signature.
“When I was younger, my heroes were still around, and although my passion was strong, my sense of responsibility to represent them was less focused,” Green says. “These days, so much is called jazz that doesn’t swing or have any sort of blues to it, which are the central elements that my mentors taught me should always be present. Now that Cedar and Freddie and Horace have left us, it’s deeper to me than ‘Oh, I get to play.’ I’ve become a veteran. I see many people younger than me in the audience, in addition to older listeners, and I feel they are coming out to experience what straight-ahead jazz does. I may never reach the level of Art Blakey or Ray Brown, but their vibration—the way the beat feels when I played with them—became part of my DNA.”
Green is referring to his 1987-1989 tenure playing piano with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers—which he joined after a 1983-1987 stint with the iconic jazz vocalist Betty Carter—and to a 1992-1997 run with the Ray Brown Trio. After leaving Blakey’s employ, he joined the Freddie Hubbard Quintet, in which, between 1989 and 1993, his bandmates were tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Carl Allen. In 1990, he signed with Blue Note, his label on seven recordings during the ensuing decade Three featured his breathe-as-one working trio with McBride and Allen (Greens [1991], Testifyin' [1992], and That's Right! [1993]); another (The Place To Be [1994]) showcased McBride and drummer Kenny Washington.
On these dates, Green established his ability to tell his stories within a capacious stylistic template, to render them with creative spirit and exemplary consistency. He melded into his own conception vocabulary drawn from warp-speed Bud Powell-influenced bebop and the vertiginous double-octave concept of Phineas Newborn; in-the-pocket, blues-drenched Soul Jazz and oh-so-slow, heart-on-the-sleeve balladry in the manner of Gene Harris; American Songbook interpretations that struck a just balance between esoteric intellect and communicative sensibility; the expansive harmonic ideas of Freddie Hubbard and McCoy Tyner.
He brought similar attributes to Brown’s trio, as documented on a series of CDs for Telarc Jazz: Bass Face (1993), Don't Get Sassy (1994), Some of my Best Friends Are…The Piano Players (1994), Seven Steps to Heaven (1995), Super Bass (1996) and Live at Sculler's (1996). Piano icon Oscar Peterson took notice, and signified his approval by selecting Green to receive the City of Toronto's Glenn Gould International Protégé Prize in Music 1993. Five years later, Peterson bestowed upon Green the rare honor of an invitation to join him on the classic two-piano date Oscar & Benny, on which Brown also performed.
Green’s final Blue Note date, These Are Soulful Days (1999), featured a drummerless trio with McBride and guitarist Russell Malone that piggybacked stylistically on the classic Peterson-Brown-Herb Ellis recordings of the 1950s. After recording Naturally with that trio for Telarc in 2000, Green recorded three more Telarc CDs: a 2001 solo piano recital titled Green's Blues, and two duo dates with Malone (with whom he toured extensively from 2002 to 2006), titled Jazz at the Bistro (2003) and Bluebird (2004).
When the Green-Malone duo had run its course, Green moved back to the West Coast, where he recalibrated, looking for the next step. He recalls: “I got calls to lead trio shows, but I was basically throwing groups together, jamming, playing standards. It wasn’t wholly satisfying. I wasn’t really sinking my teeth into the situation.” The next step arrived in 2009, when, after joining guitarist Satoshi Inoue for a tour in Japan with Kenny Washington and Green’s former Messengers bandmate Peter Washington on bass, the leader asked the rhythm section to play some numbers.
“At our first rehearsal, it felt so great playing with them that I wanted to have a trio again,” Green says. He began to refocus on composition. “I remember Art Blakey telling me, ‘It’s important to write because your music will be here after you’re gone,’” he says.
Indeed, each of the 19 Green originals that appear on Magic Beans and Live in Santa Cruz! has the feel of a tune you don’t remember from a recording by such bebop piano icons as Bud Powell, Tadd Dameron, Walter Bishop, Jr., Walter Davis, Jr., Elmo Hope or Sonny Clark. The music is alive and fresh, as though Green and company were living in the era of his heroes, transplanted into the here-and-now.
“There’s a certain magical world on the Blue Note records I came up with—particularly quintet records with trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums—that I made an effort to translate to the trio,” Green says. “You can’t make the piano sound like a ride cymbal, and there are so many elements in the quintet that a piano, on the surface, doesn’t have. But there’s always a way, if you envision a sound and feeling that you want to get across, know that it’s valid, and hang in there with your concept. If you have the heart to stay with it, it is achievable.”
That Green knows whereof he speaks is evident not only from his own meteoric career trajectory after moving to New York in the spring of 1982, but in his choice to study privately with Bishop (referenced on the “Airegin”-like “Bish Bash’ from Live In Santa Cruz) and Davis (to whom Green paid tribute on “Humphrey”—Davis’ sobriquet—from Testifyin’!).
“I was into Bud Powell and McCoy Tyner, who I saw as connected, not two separate islands,” Green says. “I saw Bish as a connection not only to Bud, but to Jackie McLean, Miles, Charlie Parker, and Art Blakey, whose records he played on. When I introduced myself, he told me that he taught, and that he charged $30. At our first lesson, he showed me his upright piano and said, ‘Play something.’ I played my interpretation of his trio arrangement of ‘Don’t Blame Me’ from the Jackie McLean album Capuchin Swing. That helped us to bond in a big way. My second lesson, he wouldn’t take the money. He started calling himself my New York father. He was patient and tolerant, and really cared about me.”
With Davis, himself a devoted acolyte of Bud Powell during his own formative years, Green studied Powell’s compositions in granular detail, beginning with the volcanic “Tempus Fugit,” which Green recorded at warp-speed tempo on Source. After Green had committed the notes to muscle memory, Davis told him, “You’ve got to make it cry.” Green continues: “Walter slowed the intro way down, like it was a ballad, and he put deep minor-key emotion into the phrasing and the dynamics. It sounded Russian all of a sudden. It goes by so fast at the tempo that Bud played it, but you hear that cry embedded into the music when you slow it down.”
These lessons with Bishop and Davis bedrocked Green’s progress with Betty Carter, whose admonition “swing and play pretty,” remains his mantra. “Betty gave me a sense of visuals,” he says. “You can see a place, whether it’s from an actual memory or a vivid projection. You go there and feel everything about the atmosphere—the sun on your skin, the expanse, nature around you—and you can find the notes and intervals and harmonies and rhythms that seem to paint a picture of this place. If it’s vivid, if you really meant it and you put your heart into it, you can get the listener to feel it, even if they don’t know what you had in mind outside of a title. The challenge is to stay with it, to remember that this inspiration is coming from somewhere deeper than seems to be represented on the surface level of choosing notes.”
A few months before he joined Carter in April 1983, Green sat in with the Jazz Messengers at Manhattan’s Blue Note. He had memorized the band’s book, impressing Blakey, who told him, “Keep doing what you’re doing; I’m gonna need you one day.” That moment arrived in 1987. Carter bestowed her blessing.
“What made me want to go to New York was hearing Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers live at [San Francisco’s] Keystone Korner,” says Green, who was playing locally with such high-level jazzfolk as trumpeter Eddie Henderson and saxophonist Hadley Caliman during his teens. “When I saw the band live, and witnessed the connection between (pianist) James Williams and Art, I saw my whole future. I knew I was going to move to New York, hear the band as much as possible, keep a little tape recorder with me constantly to tape them and learn their music, meet Art, try to get to sit in with him, be good enough that he’d want me in the band, and eventually be a Jazz Messenger. In hindsight, all these years later, this testifies to what a catalytic force Art Blakey was. I felt this history from Art. I felt a spiritual love in how he played. It drew me in like sunshine. I had no aspirations that after Art I’ll become a leader, or that I wanted to record for a record label or anything like that. I just wanted to be a Messenger.”
During his years with Blakey, Green also played with ex-Messenger Bobby Watson’s influential Horizon combo. In 1989, he joined Freddie Hubbard (represented on Happiness! by “Down Under” from Blakey’s 1961 album Mosaic), who heard Green while guesting with the Messengers on several European dates. “Musically it was a great transition,” Green says. “Freddie was looking for a certain sound that was more like McCoy Tyner with Coltrane and less like Bobby Timmons on ‘Moanin’.”

On the three aforementioned trio recordings that Green made with McBride and Allen, the pianist augmented his toolkit, incorporating the parallel octave concept of Memphis-born piano virtuoso Phineas Newborn, and the soulful piano concept of Gene Harris.
“Betty Carter told me that the way Gene Harris touched the piano in the Three Sounds was perfection,” Green says, explaining the source of his “obsession” with the Ray Brown Trio with Gene Harris after forming his trio with McBride and Allen. Green’s then-manager, a friend of Brown, persuaded the iconic bassist to hear Green and McBride play a late night duo set at the Knickerbocker, a Greenwich Village piano saloon. Afterward, Brown told the youngbloods, “Hearing you two reminds me of me and Oscar [Peterson] when we were your age.” Not long thereafter in Europe, Brown heard Green play a set with a “young lions” group called The Jazz Futures, and asked him to participate in a record date with Jeff Hamilton and Australian multi-instrumentalist James Morrison. At the date, Brown asked Green to sub for Harris for the first ten days of an imminent tour of Australia.
“Ray asked me to learn a dozen of the arrangements, and whichever ones I liked would be the repertoire,” Green reports. “He didn’t know that I had all their trio records, and had played note-for-note along with Gene, so I came in knowing every detail. At our first rehearsal in Australia, Ray asked what I wanted to play. I said, ‘Anything from the book.’ ‘Which tunes?’ ‘Anything.’ He started calling tunes, one after another. I knew them all. Ray kept a perfect poker face. But Jeff Hamilton later told me that during the break Ray said to him, ‘I can’t believe that kid learned all those songs.’ I returned home to New York, but a few weeks later, Ray called me from Australia, mid-point in the tour, and said, ‘Gene is going to be leaving the trio; would you like to join the band?’ I said, ‘Please!’”
Green regards his tenure with Brown as “finishing school.” He continues: “Ray was addressing sophistication of sound—the actual sound I get from the piano—in a way that no one had talked to me about. I thought I’d get a Ph.D on swinging from this man, but it didn’t occur to me how much importance he placed on tone production, and that carried over.
“So many things Ray introduced me to still loom large, such as honest respect for a melody as the heart of any tune, which will inform any meaningful improvisation—it’s not just a sequence of chord symbols. Ray not only showed me the melodies of the standards we played, but sat with me at the piano and showed me the value of choosing the right bass note that sets the melody free. He showed me examples of changes that merely ‘work’ as opposed to changes that truly help the melody to resonate and sing.”
In his capacity as Assistant Professor of Jazz & Contemporary Improvisation at the University of Michigan, where he has taught since 2015, Green continues to draw on life lessons his mentors presented. “These guys were consummate masters of music, with such a deep sense of dynamics, contrast, shape and transition,” he says. “I had some beans, I had some juice, but I hadn’t lived that much. It’s incredible that they treated me not like a young guy, but as though I just belonged in the band. I so appreciate the patience they showed me.”
He applies that leadership model on a regular basis with his bassist and drummer, both two decades his junior. “I feel a responsibility to keep the repertoire interesting and engaging,” he says. “When I play with wonderful musicians like David and Rodney, every note means so much more. I’m hungrier and more appreciative of the opportunity to play for people. I’ve never felt a need or a calling to try to become an innovator. Rather, I’ve always wanted to be an authentic jazz musician. I want to be known as a torch-bearer for this continuum of straight-ahead jazz piano.”