George Benson's Jazz Refuses to Stick to a Script
Photo by Greg Allen
[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
It's been 37 years since George Benson brought his gypsy-nimble funk to the Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood. Yet vivid memories remain of the three-night stand that birthed the platinum-selling 1978 live record Weekend in L.A.
"My band featured the baddest young cats in America. We'd had so much success at everything else we tried that we wanted to do something different," Benson reflects by phone from Phoenix, where he has lived for the last decade.
"At our rehearsal, there were people with sleeping bags on the sidewalk," Benson continues. "I asked my manager, 'What are these people doing here?' He said, 'They're here to see you.' I said, 'But the gig is tomorrow.' He replied, 'Yep, they're already waiting.'?"
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The 71-year-old speaks with undeniable alacrity and cool. It's little surprise that his limpid and liquid guitar licks still pack theaters and amphitheaters - including a Hollywood Bowl headlining slot that closes out the Playboy Jazz Festival on Sunday, June 15.
Any Benson profile inevitably gerrymanders some era of his career. (An autobiography is slated for August release.) At 7, the child prodigy busked on ukulele in a drugstore in his native Pittsburgh. At 8, he gigged in nightclubs. At 10, he cut a single in New York under the name "Little Georgie."
Upon high school graduation, Benson joined the band of Brother Jack McDuff. A stint with Miles Davis followed soon after.
"I learned a lot from Miles, but he kept on asking me what I thought about when I was playing. I thought he was kidding. I mean, this was Miles Davis," Benson laughs.
But Davis' notoriously profane streak was outstripped only by his intellectual curiosity. One day on a flight to Europe, the shoeless Davis beckoned Benson to come join him in first class - only to repeat the same question.
"His toes looked like King Kong's. I said, 'Man, I ain't coming over there until you put on your shoes,'?" Benson says. "When I finally realized that he was serious, I couldn't explain my thoughts. It's a matter of my experience. When I play guitar, I draw on everything I've ever done and been exposed to. I can't put it into words."
The statement could seem like a cop-out for someone less virtuosic. With Benson, it's emblematic of his Django Reinhardt - like gift for transmogrifying magic into music. It's why he's been recruited to play on albums from Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige. That's the short list.
While some critics have maligned Benson's solo material for its smooth-jazz glaze, they ignore his experimental streak and inextricable funk. His reputation was entirely restored when hip-hop producers rediscovered him in the early '90s. Since then, Benson's compositions have fueled songs from Souls of Mischief, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, Foxy Brown and Big Pun.
His latest album, Inspiration, interprets Nat King Cole, whom Benson hails for his universal appeal. During an era in which jazz artists often played to segregated audiences, Cole transcended divisions of race and class. You could argue the same for Benson, whose core appeal remains as strong as it was in 1977, when he induced impromptu sleepover parties outside of a West Hollywood rock club at the height of the disco era.
When asked about his set list for the Playboy Jazz Festival, Benson offers no clues.
"I never plan anything. Once I get close to the stage and feel the audience, things start coming to my mind," Benson says. "As soon as you start to follow a script, that's when things get boring."
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