“Renaissance Man” and “polymath” are just two of the epithets that have been applied to BEN SIDRAN in an attempt to describe his impressive multiplicity of talents. On the music side, he’s a noted singer, songwriter, pianist, producer, and even a record company owner (he ran the label Go Jazz between 1989 and 2003 and now oversees a newer company, Nardis) but if that isn’t impressive enough, he’s also an author (to date, he’s written five books), a respected cultural commentator, and an award-winning broadcaster. He is, then, a man who wears many hats, though he’s certainly no dilettante or a jack of all trades: rather, everything he puts his hand – or mind – to, he masters completely and with apparent ease.
Though Sidran is primarily regarded as a jazz musician, early on in his career he was a member of the American rock group, the Steve Miller Band, and co-wrote their classic track, ‘Space Cowboy,’ and also did sessions with Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. His own solo career, though, which began in 1971, saw him plough a unique stylistic furrow, melding pop and funk with bebop and an appreciation of wit and wordplay inherited from his hero, Mose Allison.
Now 75, Sidran, who has recorded almost forty albums (his last one, ‘Picture Him Happy,’ came out in 2017), is the focus of a new, lovingly-curated retrospective which distils forty years of live recordings down to 3 CDs and 27 songs. It’s called ‘Ben There, Done That: Ben Sidran Live Around The World (1975-2015)’ and captures the singer-songwriter on stage in Japan, Europe (England, Italy, Spain, and France) and his native USA. It functions like a sonic time machine that transports the listener back to different junctures in Sidran’s storied career, ultimately painting a vivid portrait of an artist evolving over the years. On some of the set’s earliest performances – like an incendiary1975 version of Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Birk’s Works’ – Sidran is musically on fire, playing febrile, bop-inflected piano lines, while on later tracks – a 2015 rendition of ‘The Groove Is Gonna Get You,’ for example – he is perceptibly more relaxed and at ease on stage; and crucially, settling into a deeper, more luxuriant groove, seemingly both in music and in life.
SJF’s Charles Waring recently caught up with Ben Sidran, who not only shed light on his new album project but also talked at length about different aspects of his long career…
What’s the story behind your new compilation, ‘Ben There, Done That’?
Like most musicians, I have a deep catalogue of live recordings. The University of Wisconsin arranged to acquire my personal archives. As well as going through all the material, I also went through audiotapes. Coincidentally at the same time, a fellow named Zev Feldman who works with Sunset Boulevard records, contacted me, and said ‘I’ve got this idea of doing a major retrospective of your live material, would you be interested?’ And so it was a perfect fit. I had gone through hundreds of hours of music and knew where it was and at the same time here was Zev who was proposing not only to put it together but to put out a major retrospective with nice notes and photos. So that was really the short version of the evolution of it.
Are you someone who records every concert that you play?
I don’t go around recording myself but others do quite a bit of recording of my shows. In 1998, for example, I was playing in Grenada, Spain, the home of Federico Garcia Lorca, the famous poet, who was murdered in the ’30s, and it was quite a dramatic evening. I did a series of music dedicated to his poems, which I had done especially for the occasion. It was supposed to be a one-off and at the end of that evening, the sound man handed me a beautiful recording of it. So that’s very typical. You go into these situations and people at the soundboard, more often than not, make recordings.
It’s a lovely collection and it spans 40 years. Listening back to yourself over those five decades, how have you evolved during that time?
The main thing is that I’ve matured and in maturing, you become more relaxed with what you do. Some musicians refer it to as ‘there’s more air,’ or say ‘there’s more depth,’ but I just feel there’s an ease in the presentations. You also have the ability to turn on a dime. When you come up with a new idea in the midst of a performance, you have the ability to follow that idea out as opposed to when you’re younger when you tend to play fast and play a lot of notes. Doing that prohibits you from making certain kinds of adjustments midstream so I really was happy to hear the maturity in the songs as they came along.
What’s the difference, then, between the younger version of yourself we hear on the live compilation and your more recent self?
When you’re young, you’re on fire. You’re going at everything with a lot of fire and don’t know necessarily where you’re going but you’re in a hurry to get there. And when you get older, the travelling is more important, I think, than the destination sometimes. You just enjoy it. You enjoy the process of being there with great musicians and playing your music. So I wouldn’t judge the early stuff as being too much of this or that, it’s just the reflection of youth. I remember when I spent a few years in England in the late ’60s and was playing with musicians there and how everything had so much energy in it. Boy, we were all on fire! But then, later on, you look back and say where were we going and why were we in such a hurry? (Laughs).
On the evidence of your recent recordings and performances, the fire is still burning, though it’s a slow-burning one now.
Yes, exactly, it’s the slow burn that generates the most heat. The metaphor stands up. It’s the white coals, not the red ones.
You’ve played with some great musicians in your long career and on this recording you feature the alto saxophonist, David ‘Fathead’ Newman, on the song, ‘Hard Times.’ What are your memories of playing with him?
Oh, he was a sweet man. Over the years I got to play with some wonderful guys, like (saxophonist) Johnny Griffin. My memory of them is that they were sweet men. I think that was kind of the hallmark of that generation of musicians. They were very generous, they took their time, they had a sense of humour, and that was certainly true of ‘Fathead.’ And that was very close to the end of his life. Of course, he knew he was going, he had cancer, yet he was light-hearted and happy to play.
You have another fine saxophonist who features quite prominently on the new record – Bob Malach (above). How did he come to join your band and what qualities does he have that inspire you when you’re out on stage with him?
I was introduced to him by Michael Brecker in 1977. I was going to Japan and I had just made a recording and Michael and Randy (Brecker) were both part of it. I called Michael to see if he was able to go to Japan with me and he said, he could not but there was a young saxophone player in Philadelphia that he knew about that he recommended and that was Bob Malach. So I met Bobby when he first was going to New York. He was a young man. And over 40 years, he has been really my favourite saxophone player. I’ve used him on dozens of recordings that I’ve made and produced for other people and I’ve played gigs all over the world with him. He’s really one of the great saxophonists of the last 40-50 years and he’s not that well known, which is extraordinary. Musicians know him, of course, but this collection is in some ways really a tribute to him in that I went through the music and almost invariably, some of the strongest performances by the band had Bobby in the middle of it. What he brings is not only the ability of a great soloist but also, he has the ability to lift the entire band. And a great musician will do that. It doesn’t matter what instrument they play, their presence on the stand will lift the performance of the entire band, and Bobby is like that.
Another saxophone player featured on the album is the late great Phil Woods, who appears on the old hard bop tune, ‘Minority.’ What was he like to collaborate with because I imagine he was different again from Bob Malach.
Yeah. I worked a lot with Phil (above). I first met him in the mid-’70s and he was fantastic. He was funny, he was smart, he was a reader – we talked as much about books and ideas as we did about music. Phil was a great teacher: not specifically in terms of a syllabus or teaching about music but a teacher about the jazz life. He would talk often about how important it had been in the old days to be on the bus with the first generation of musicians and how the jazz life really made the music what it was. It was a great opportunity for me because I’m in between those older generations and the younger generations who are learning in school. So having Phil as a lifestyle educator was a wonderful advantage for me (laughs).
You mentioned there that a lot of musicians today have studied jazz at school as opposed to the old guys who have lived the jazz life. Do you that change has diminished the quality of the jazz that is being produced today?
Well, it’s changed it. One of the things that everybody has noticed is that we don’t have that many stylists. Back in the day, musicians had their own voice. They had their own sound. Today everybody has the sound that comes out of university. They’re wonderful players and they have complete control and access to the entire repertoire, which is brilliant, but they don’t necessarily sound like themselves. And the reason is, as Miles Davis once said, ‘your sound is like your sweat.’ You know it’s very personal and you develop it almost invariably by trying and failing. The process of trying and failing is very important. You don’t have that opportunity in schools really often. It’s impossible to fail in school… unless you really want to. They’ll stay with you until you learn. But out on the road, it’s different. I remember (bebop trumpeter) Red Rodney once telling me about playing with Charlie Parker. I asked him, “was Charlie Parker specific about chords and teaching you everything?” He said “no, if he played something, he’d play it once and you were supposed to get it. And if you didn’t get it, he’d play it again and look at you. And if you didn’t get it the second time, you were in danger of losing your gig.” That’s how you learned.
They used to have what they called ‘cutting contests’ as well, didn’t they, where the horn players used to duel with each other on stage.
Yeah, and also you know, the jazz life was a profound experience because it was unique to a time and a place. The time being mid-twentieth century, the place being the American road. And the experience was not shared by a great many people. We’re talking about thousands of players maybe, not hundreds of thousands. So it was an extended family and it involved not just music but also cooking and food and sex and family and it was a very intimate thing. And all of this was shared on the buses and backstage. People talked about music and music was the most important thing, but what you spent your time doing was equally as important, and that’s been lost and sadly will never come back.
You were one of the first broadcasters to document that lost era with your Talking Jazz radio shows in the States.
I was very lucky to come along at a time when a lot of the first generation players were still around and were available and happy to talk. They were very generous. The cliché is that black musicians were isolated from white musicians but I never found that. I found that if you were sincere and approached them, even with someone like Miles Davis. People would say ‘oh Miles Davis, man, he doesn’t like white people and he’s hard to talk to,’ but I found him charming, funny, and easy to talk to. In general, if you approach a mature person with respect, honesty, and not with an agenda, you” find they are equally interested and prepared to share. They were wonderful. So it was just timing on my part. I was very lucky. Looking back, I can see how fortunate I was.
Do you think they were more likely to open up to you because you were also a musician?
It definitely helped. When I was doing interviews on the radio here, when I would contact them to come on the program, they knew who I was as a player as well as being on the radio. I think also from my point of view, as a musician I didn’t ask a lot of the questions that fans would ask. I asked more intimate, day-to-day type questions to find out what life’s like at that level, that age and at that level of performance. For example, I once asked Phil Woods what was it like to be able to play anything you could hear because obviously he’s way beyond most musicians in his ability to translate what’s in his mind to what comes out of his horn. He was in his mid-seventies at that time and he said, ‘no, playing isn’t the problem but as you get older, the problem is wanting to play.’ So we talked about it and it came down to this idea of the desire for desire. As you get older, you tend to lose the desire that you need in order to play. So you have this desire for desire. That type of thing I think was available to me because I was, I still am, a musician, and I’m involved in the same sort of questions.
Who were the most fascinating people that you interviewed?
Honestly, there were so many, so it’s hard to choose one. Obviously, hanging out with Dizzy Gillespie or Miles, Max Roach and Art Blakey was a wonderful opportunity. But some of the most heartfelt interviews came from some of the least likely sources. One was (baritone saxophonist) Pepper Adams, and he really opened up about how hard it was and how the critics had overlooked him. It was very moving. I spent a lot of time also with Mose Allison, and it wasn’t so much the interviews that I did with Mose, but travelling with him. I worked with him as a record producer for a while and we recorded all over – New Orleans, New York, and London. Being on the road with Mose, seeing how he operated and see the dedication of the man, was very powerful to me. When you see musicians, you see them for a night or two, and you see them up there and they’re at their finest, but what you don’t see is what they have to go through to get there and how dedicated they have to be, unlike pop musicians or rock musicians. For jazz musicians, the rewards are often not in this world. So they have to pick themselves up by their bootstraps and it’s very inspiring.
It must be very edifying to spend time with someone like Mose Allison and get an insight into his life and psyche.
Yes, but I also want to mention Georgie Fame here (pictured with Ben Sidran below). I spent a lot of time with him and find him to be as inspiring as any of the older cats like Mose.. Georgie is an amazing spirit and musician. And he’s very much in the old tradition.
He’s considered a bit of an institution over here for us, as you can imagine.
And well he should be. He’s one of the most gifted musicians I’ve worked with and I worked with a lot of them. Being in the studio with Georgie, there’s no hesitation for him when the red light goes on. He gives a great performance every time. And Van Morrison is like that also. The time I got to spend with Georgie and Van in the studio was wonderful. Nobody was troubling over this, that, or the other thing. Everybody was just there and prepared to give it up.
You mentioned Dizzy Gillespie back there a bit. You do a cover of his tune ‘Birk’s Work’ on the new live set, which you transform into an R&B-style groove. You were noted for putting a jazz-funk spin on old bebop tunes, weren’t you?
I had this idea in 1976 but I couldn’t get anybody interested. The idea was called ‘Monk Funk’ and I was going to do an album of all these Thelonious Monk tunes with R&B musicians because I came up at a time when we would listen as ardently to James Brown as we would to John Coltrane. So the idea of putting a bebop or funk spin on something was natural to me. There were a lot of people trying to do fusion with rock ‘n’ roll and jazz but it never really worked for me. What worked was R&B and jazz because they both share the half-time shuffle, which is a dotted eight feeling instead of a straight eight feeling. When I came upon that, which was in the mid-seventies, I had a handle on it. The Charlie Parker track ‘Moose The Mooch,’ was the first time I recorded it and figured out how to get that swing with a backbeat going.
How were they perceived by the bebop purists back then?
The musicians all loved it and when they came to play ‘Moose The Mooch,’ they had a great time. Similarly, I made an album called ‘The Cat And The Hat,’ which was all jazz tunes like ‘Hi-Fly’ and ‘Minority,’ with Steve Gadd and the Breckers, all jazz players. Musicians loved it. Every great avant-garde tenor player has played R&B at one point. There is no separation between the blues and jazz. It doesn’t matter how avant-garde it is. But if you lose track of the blues, you lose track of what jazz was all about. I’m not saying what you’re playing isn’t interesting, but you have to come up with a different name for it. But you’re absolutely right, over the years, journalists and critics have defended one idiom, one aspect, as the pure form. This goes back to the 1930s when swing musicians were separated from New Orleans musicians and then later when bebop musicians were separated from swing. And of course, all those terms, are made-up terms.
Yes, they’re artificial constructs.
They really are. It helps to keep people interested and inform them but from a musicians’ point of view, if it feels good, it is good. And that really what it’s all about.
That’s very true. Also featured on the new live set is your version of ‘New York State Of Mind.’ It’s a Billy Joel song, of course, but am I right in thinking you had the distinction of recording it before he did?
I did, yes (laughs). It was before Billy was famous. He was just coming into his own. He hadn’t put out the record with ‘Piano Man’ yet and he was writing songs. He was a good songwriter and his music publisher was in Los Angeles where I also was at the time, I think it was 1974 or 1975, and I was on the lot, as they called it, at A&M Records and sitting in the publisher’s office. He threw the chart at me and said ‘hey, here’s a song you might be interested in recording.’ I looked at it and I could see just that it was a very interesting song harmonically and the way it moved. So I said yeah. The first time you record a song you need the publisher’s permission and then after that, anybody can record the song. So I had the publisher’s best wishes and went off and recorded it. We did the song and it became fairly well known in the States for a while, especially in New York, where it got played on the radio all the time. I found out later that Billy Joel had written it hoping that someone like Frank Sinatra or Ray Charles would record it but both of them turned it down initially. And so there he was in New York City hearing Ben Sidran on the radio doing his tune and he wasn’t as happy about that as one would hope.
Did you ever meet him?
At one point I was playing at a club in New York and he came and sat right in the front row waiting for me to play his tune. So of course, I waited until the very end of the night to play it, and by then he was well in his cups. I don’t think he was even conscious enough to be aware that I played it (laughs heartily). Anyway, that’s the story, and I was the first one to record the song.
And you had the great Woody Shaw playing trumpet on the original.
I did, yeah. I did a stone-cold jazz, nightclub, version of it with Woody Shaw and Richard Tee on Hammond organ. We took it right down to the basement.
Also included on the new live set is ‘Song For A Sucker Like You,’ which is one of your own tunes from the same timeframe as your recording of ‘New York State Of Mind.’ What was the inspiration behind it?
Well, straight up, I was in Toronto at a party and a girl came up to me and said ‘why don’t you write a song for a sucker like me?’ (laughs). So I took that as an idea and went home and wrote it. The interesting thing about that song and some of the other songs, particularly on that third CD in the sequence, is that these are songs that I rarely play anymore. But every now and then we’d pull them out because the room kind of requires it or somebody requests it. That particular night, I think it was Osaka, Japan, a fan came up to me and he said, ‘oh I love ‘Song For A Sucker Like You,’ and we hadn’t been playing it. So I sketched a little chord chart backstage and we came out and it felt so great. It felt fresh, it didn’t feel like we were trying to cover a record, which is what happened sometimes when you cut a tune that gets radio play and then you have to duplicate it and the arrangement.
Do you think a live recording is more representative of you than a studio one?
They’re totally different. They are and they shouldn’t be confused. What works in the studio is minimalism. For example, if you get in the studio and you stand next to Steve Gadd when he’s playing drums, he’s playing very soft, but it comes across very loud on the recording. That’s part of the mystery of recording. Soft is big. Space is important. When you’re playing live, you’re really working with the energy in a room so you get a different kind of representation. And it’s tricky because live a lot of elements are in play. The room is there, the people are there, what you went through that night having dinner to get there is there and you don’t get a second take. I think of it like being out on the wing of a plane or out on the edge of the precipice where you have five musicians who are all very familiar with the material and trying to lean over and play it as it for the first time. So a lot of interesting things happen. For example, on the new album, there’s a version of the song the ‘House Of Blue Lights,’ which I first recorded in 1973. That came off completely new. Again, it was down to Bobby Malach. But in the middle of it, the band falls away and I’m playing this classic ’30s boogie-woogie left-hand to start off my solo. But of course, that wasn’t planned at all. The band looked at each other and dropped out and left me there to survive. That’s the kind of thing that you’ll get on a live recording that you will never get in a studio recording.
And it’s that spur of the moment spontaneity that makes it exciting.
It’s chance. There’s a chance of failure and when there’s a chance of failure, there’s also a great chance of success. Without failure, there’s no success. In a studio, you’re taking chances but it’s different. Being in the studio is more like painting. You can paint over, you can paint under, it’s different. It’s less an act in time and more an act in space.
It’s exactly 40 years since you recorded your very first live album, ‘Live at Montreux,’ on Arista Records. It’s considered a classic but I believe there were some unusual circumstances behind that record.
Oh, that’s true, yeah. We went over there, a group of us; the Brecker brothers, Mike Manieri, and a bunch of musicians who were all signed to Arista at the time to play Montreux. But I had pneumonia. I was very sick. I didn’t know if I could even get through the performance. Certainly, at a festival like that, there’s no way to focus on things like not feeling well so I just reached deep inside. And the other aspect of it, of course, is there was no rehearsal. It was completely done just with a conversation before we went out on stage. For example, I said to the guys, “I want to play ‘Someday My Prince Will Come’ with a backbeat instead of a waltz.” Everybody said fine. That was the rehearsal. I said to Randy Brecker, “I want to do ‘I Remember Clifford.'” He said “what key?” I said “E flat.” He said “fine.” That was the rehearsal. We had charts for everything but it was completely unrehearsed. I was concerned because I was not well physically and we hadn’t rehearsed. I remember I went to Mike Manieri who was the music director, and he said: “don’t worry, it will be okay” (laughs). And he was right. It was phenomenal.
What was your reaction when you heard the recording?
I was surprised and wish I hadn’t been as concerned as I had been because I can hear myself on that recording pushing the track. I felt the need to come forward more than I should have. That’s just a personal feeling. That’s what I felt. I wish I had just relaxed and gone with, whatever it was.
But it’s still a fantastic recording.
It’s a wonderful recording and a great document of that group of musicians. My goodness. Steve Jordan, and all those cats, man, standing up and playing from the ground up.
You made a great studio album just prior to that, ‘Free In America,’ in ’76. If you were going to remake that album in 2018, how different would it be?
Oh, my God. Well, first of all musically, I would have different tempos, different types of things. That record is very much an album from 1976. The way it’s cut, the tempos. We played things fast so I would change that, but aside from that, just the whole philosophy. A lot of the music that’s come out of America, frankly, through the twentieth century up to the eighties, maybe, really was shaped by the spirit of optimism: this belief in what we call social justice, which is just basically another term for everybody treating everybody fairly. And in the United States, you have this country that is built on the strength and creativity of immigrants from all over the world. So that’s part of the wonderful nature of it. But America today is at war with itself. It’s an incredible time. An extraordinary time here. It’s never been like this ever. This has never happened before. And I suppose it’s a sign of the country ageing and becoming sclerotic and losing its confidence as older people do, as an older country does. But I have to say, the lyrics of ‘Free In America’ are just as true today as they were 40 years ago, especially the line, “the nicest thing about the United States is that everybody is free to make their own mistakes,” and boy, that’s still true. It was true then and it’s true now and maybe that’s the godsend. And maybe, another generation from now will look back at this period as somehow bringing on a golden age. Who knows? We don’t know but right now in America, it’s definitely war. Cultural war.
I was just curious to know how you would approach making an album like that today under different circumstances.
It’s not a hypothetical question because I write from the immediate experience. Like the last CD I put out prior to this one was ‘Picture I’m Happy,’ and it was based on this idea of Sisyphus pushing this rock up a hill and that being a metaphor for life. We have these plans, we try and we never actually get to the top of the hill and so the only way to justify the whole operation is to picture Sisyphus happy pushing this rock up the hill. It’s a metaphor for how you live your life in hard times. So I’ve always tried to write from immediate experience, but frankly, I’m having a great deal of difficulty in trying to formulate words and ideas about the experience we’re in right now. It’s somehow not lending itself to ideation. There’s a very visceral quality to what’s going on right now. I haven’t heard any albums, frankly, or writers, who are capturing what this feels like. And maybe nobody wants to capture what it feels like.
You graduated from the school of Mose Allison (pictured above) so do you think the absence of wit and wordplay in today’s music has made it poorer somehow?
Oh, of course. Absolutely. Not just literally in wordplay but wit and humour in the music itself. The aggression of music and the cartoon nature of popular music, by that I mean it’s describing this kind of fantasy world that doesn’t exist, that nobody lives. It’s not about life. The idea of wit and humour goes back again to the blues. Lines like “I love the blues, they hurt so nice” and calling good “bad” and up “down.” It’s funny, it’s ironic, it gets you through the day. We’ve lost that in all formats. In all genres. We’ve lost that and that’s part of the brutality of life today. By brutality what I mean is the lack of discussion. Everything is down to the price of everything and the value of nothing. It’s about currency, it’s about money, it’s about greed and it’s a fear. These things all come together. And they don’t lend themselves well. Mose found ways to say “when silence was golden you couldn’t raise a dime” or “your mind is on vacation, your mouth is working overtime.” But that refers to somebody who talks too much, it doesn’t refer to people like the politicians today, who have no reverence for the truth or facts: the idea that there’s not a lot of meaning going behind any of what’s going on today in the classic sense. It doesn’t mean anything. Money doesn’t mean anything. Money is a means. And so we’re all surrounded by this environment and it’s still growing stronger. I think the lack of humour, the lack of wit, the lack of simple human-scale emotion is not only a sign or symptom of that but maybe even a cause of that, because over the years, culture – especially popular culture – I think, has determined how people feel and how people act and how people live. Today if we listen to popular culture we don’t have a lot of good advice or good news.
What’s your view, then, on jazz today and the state of it?
The best of times, the worst of times. There are lots of young players who play great, no question about it, and when I travel, I find wonderful players, but there’s no work, really, for anybody. Nobody is making a living really in New York City. The greatest musicians in the world can’t afford to live there. Not only is there no work but also there’s no way to generate ancillary funds because there’s no record business as such. And, as our conversation started out, we’re losing stylists. If jazz is about finding your own voice, then this is the worst of times because everybody is sounding like the syllabus. If jazz is about mastering an approach to harmony and rhythm, then these are the best of times, because in the United States we have 500,000 students in high school and at university a year studying jazz. It’s extraordinary.
Yes, it is. So you have to imagine it out of that 500,000, if it’s just 1%, you have a tremendous number of great players out here, but no work to speak of.
And, as you said, they have the technique but don’t have any individuality or a unique voice.
No, because your voice comes from experience and if your experiences sitting in a practice room eight hours a day, that’s not the same as living out in the world and trying to go down the road in a bus with your peers. That’s why musicians like Georgie Fame are so valuable because they are living repository of a life. It’s not just technique. Anybody can learn the notes given the time. Even an infinite number of monkeys. (laughs).
In contrast to jazz academy graduates, you worked with a brilliant jazz musician who couldn’t read a note of music – Blue Mitchell (above), who played on some of your ’70s albums and was famous for his work with the Horace Silver Quintet
Isn’t that something? It was a shock to me. But he was a brilliant trumpet player. I specifically asked him how he got all those complicated things with Horace Silver. He said, “well, Horace was very patient with me and we would always play songs for six months before we recorded them.” What I found working with Blue – he didn’t tell me he was not a reader – was just that when you put a chart in front of him, it didn’t translate into information for him. He had to hear it several times. And what was so amazing was that it maybe took six times for him to hear something to grasp it. The first five times it was like he didn’t have any idea, but by the sixth time, he owned the song completely and he’d be able to play endless variations on it. So for him, it was not learning in pieces but absorbing something as a whole. It was almost as if the music was organic; something that was alive to him and when he was able to grasp its personality or whatever the information was, he could relate to it entirely. He was amazing, and a very sweet guy too.
Given everything that you’ve done, as you musician, writer, and broadcaster, over the years, what are you most proud of do you think?
I like to think that they’re all the same thing in a way. Broadcasting, playing, and producing, are all very similar. If I had to describe it and say they are all a form of reportage or journalism and documenting the times I’m in. What I’m most proud of, I guess, is now at 75 years old, that I can look back and say, “wow, I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for 50 years and I’m still doing it.” The ability to get up every day and to continue to do it and not surrender at this point, this is the flag I’m waving, so I just keep going. Or as Phil Woods said to me once, “die with your boots on!”
Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions left?
I have to say no, I don’t. I’ve really exceeded anything that I hoped to do. I’ve played more music with more great musicians and had more opportunities than I ever anticipated. I have no regrets and I have no unfulfilled ambitions. And I take it one day at a time.
Finally, Ben, how would you like to be remembered?
As a family man in the family of man.
‘BEN THERE, DONE THAT’ IS RELEASED ON NOVEMBER 16 VIA SUNSET BLVD RECORDS