GEORGE ” SAX ” BENSON
Just over a week ago Willie Jones passed a note to a visiting pianist from New York, Emmet Cohen. Emmet then informed a sold out audience at the Dirty Dog that George “Sax” Benson had died. Emmet knows a lot about jazz and has always been drawn to Detroit’s jazz, yet when I asked him about George, he told me that he didn’t know either George or his music. He did know that the loss of any Detroit jazz artist is a major loss for jazz.
This news had the same effect on me as listening to country music often has, I was knocked back with sadness that was followed by a warm feeling that everything is going to be all right. The mention of George “Sax” Benson will bring a smile to the face of anyone who has been touched by his story and his music.
GEORGE “SAX” BENSON 1929-2019
One of the reasons that George isn’t a household name in America’s music history is because he was never interested in the spotlight. George had no problem playing in front of or talking to a throng of admirers, but reserved the right to also lead a satisfying private life. Important facts about George are that he retired from the post office after 30 years of service, that he was happily married for almost 64 years and that George could really play the sax. He was so good that he was asked to play with:
Lena Horne, Aretha Franklin, Debbie Reynolds, Glen Campbell, Milton Berle, Ella Fitzgerald, Edie Adams, Dinah Washington, Mel Torme, Nancy Wilson, Johnny Mathis, Diana Carroll, Four Tops, Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Kenny Burrell, Lionel Hampton, Benny Carter, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Errol Garner, Quincy Jones, Nelson Riddle, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, Brook Benton, Jackson 5, Diana Ros, Bill Cosby, Lou Rawls, Tony Bennett, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Sheila Jordan, Rosemary Clooney, Mildred Bailey, Vic Damone, Martha Reeves, Rich Little, BB Queen, Regis Philbin, Michael Feinstein, Tommy Tune, Steve Allen, Della Reese, Sammy Davis, Jr., Louis Armstrong, Tommy Flanagan, Benny Golson, Earl Bostic, Pepper Adams, J.C. Heard, Ernie Wilkins, Peter Duchin, Hank Jones, Yusef Leteef, Doug Watkins, Willie Anderson, Paul Chambers
This long list of America’s most celebrated entertainers all thought that George was someone special. As important to George was knowing that he was special to his family and friends. George was successful at living the life he chose to live. Wouldn’t be nice If we all could be so lucky?
A LIFE WELL LIVED
George Benson chose a life in music but would never allow music to choose his life. He told me once that he was a very lucky man. He came into music at a time when there were a lot of gigs. Early in his life Detroit was a good town to be a musician. TV shows needed live bands, people liked to dance to live music, and there were plenty of jazz clubs.
George realized that he could finish a mail route by 4PM and still get a couple of evening music gigs. He had a plan. He could get out and share his music and his family would have a secure life. He didn’t have to go on the road. He would never be so famous that Emmet Cohen would have heard of him, but his family and local jazz fans sure knew that this was a remarkably gifted man.
The last time I saw George was at his last gig at the Dirty Dog.
George just had his 87th birthday and his birthday gift to us was his tone and phrasing. When I watched George play, he sometimes seemed to disappear from the moment and take us on a trip into his past. I felt his emotions even though I didn’t know what episode in his life had just reappeared in his thoughts. Listening to George play a ballad we know that George has experienced some love. As he played, George’s face showed his story as much as his saxophone.
Here is a blog that I posted after George played his last gig at the Dirty dog.
“No problem, he will be here.” Willie Jones
There are situations that spring up and test us. Everyone looks around for a way out of the mess. Sometimes the monstrous obstacle that is thrown in our path isn’t as big as we think it is, and we just needed someone to bring the problem into perspective. Willie Jones, the manager of the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe, often is that someone.
That night a pretty full house was settling in to see one of Detroit’s legendary jazz-men, George “Sax” Benson. As showtime was approaching, George was missing. The piano player didn’t know where he was, the drummer said he was coming on his own and the bass player said, “Oh…oh…. this is unlike George.” All eyes turned to Willie. Willie will certainly handle this. Everything will be alright. The lights dimmed which is the signal to us that the musicians are on their way to the bandstand. Happy clinks of knives and forks on porcelain mixed with laughter as the celebrants waited for the music to start. No one including Willie knew where George was or if he would be there.
I watched in semi-panic as events unfolded. I looked at Willie who looked as calm as our old cat lying in front of the fireplace. He reminded me of those other kids that had really studied before a test. Nonplussed, unshaken, his attitude was calming and reassuring.
Whew, no problem, things will be alright, and they were. It turns out that George got waylaid in traffic and did arrive late. Willie had the piano trio go on until George arrived, and then George played an extra 30 minutes making this a great night for those who came to hear this master of the music. George’s unbridled joy in playing to an appreciative and understanding audience was on full display.
Willie’s lesson for all of us is that old saying, “Opportunity seldom rises with blood pressure.”
Detroit Jazz Festival will be jamming at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café on the 3rd Monday of each month until the Detroit Jazz Festival.
THERE WILL BE A JAM THIS MONDAY MARCH 18, 2019 @ 7:00PM
DETROIT JAZZ FESTIVAL JAM AT THE DIRTY DOG
The third Monday of each month the Dirty Dog Jazz Café opens its doors for the Detroit Jazz Festival sponsored OPEN JAM. This Monday the house band will be once again filled with some of Detroit’s finest jazz artists and educators. Anyone lucky enough to hear about this evening will be treated to some serious musical strutting as the young musicians unpack their best stuff and put forward their challenges to any old thinking. The evening always seems to build in intensity as the night goes on.
When Bing Crosby would attend jam sessions, the musicians would say he was “jammin’ the beat”, since he would clap on the one and the three. It is thought that these sessions became known as “jam sessions”.
In February after the jam ended some tips on “jamming the beat”were handed out. Two of Detroit’s very best jazz artists stayed around to spend some time with a group of earnest young drummers. Marion Hayden brought her bass a little closer to Sean Dobbins drum kit and started playing the song that the young drummer being instructed by Sean had played earlier that evening. She pointed out to him that he had not supplied the beat during the jam when she gave him a signal that she needed it. Sean demonstrated and the young drummer will not forget the lesson nor will those watching. No ones feelings were hurt. Jazz artists seem to be able pass on the rules of the game from generation to generation more as a gift than an admonishment. Come on out and watch the torches get passed
COMING TO THE DIRTY DOG JAZZ CAFÉ
March 20 – 23
Rayse Biggs will bring his gravity defying music to the Dirty Dog Jazz Café for four nights of authentic Detroit jazz. Rayse has always attracted talented musicians to play alongside him. Come and hear why.
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