Benny played trombone for Count Basie through much of the New Testament period of that orchestra. I had the pleasure of meeting him while working on Frankie95 last year. He was one of the more prolific musicians during the weekend. He co-led the band for Frankie’s memorial service. Then the next night my man just showed up to play when he didn’t have to. He confused the heck out of everyone because we thought he just got his nights mixed up since he was scheduled to play with Wycliff Gordon and Art Baron on Monday night. But he heard of the three big bands playing on Saturday, and just wanted to be there.
He was just amazed at the energy of the people and the event. And he was more than happy to give it back. Hearing and watching him play that Monday with Wycliff Gordon was really one of the most inspiring nights of music that I’ve ever witnessed. Benny’s sound felt like a soft cool breeze in comparison to Art Baron’s heat and Wycliffe’s sheer power. He was just coolest cat on that stage in his hat, smiling at the 1200+ people in the ballroom. Those guys were supposed to stop playing around 1 am, but they kept rollin along until the bitter end of the event at 2 am. Their version of Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” still haunts my waking dreams to this day.
And then at the end of the night, after we got all those people to leave and as technicians were tearing everything down, Benny just stood in the middle of the ballroom, his trombone case in hand. I took the opportunity to thank him, and as Wycliffe Gordon walked by and tried to get Benny to leave, I swear it looked like he was about to unpack his instrument again and start playing right then and there. He just didn’t want that night to end.
I was in the exact opposite place that night, and I wish I could have channeled more of Benny’s Zen calm at that moment. I’m sure he liked the applause and adoration, but you could tell that all he wanted to do was play some more.
I discovered this lovely video of him playing with his friend Jan Jarvis illustrating this urge to do regardless of where he was. I don’t want to ruin it with my clunky exposition, so I’ll just encourage you to watch.
Finally here’s a video recorded by Alice at Frankie Manning’s Memorial service. You can hear Benny’s gentle trombone behind Yvette Glover’s powerful vocal offering.
Farewell Benny and rest in peace.
Benny Powell 1930-2010.