Jazzmobile: Benny Powell Tribute

Thursday, August 13, 2010 7:00 PM

Jackie Robinson Park‎
89 Bradhurst Avenue
New York, NY

Born in New Orleans, Powell first took up drums, but was immediately attracted to the trombone when he first saw one played in a marching band. “I was fascinated by this shiny instrument and this guy parading down the street playing it. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him,” he told Bob Bernotas (Online Trombone Journal, 1997). By age 14, he was gigging around Crescent City with a band of other teen musicians, and by 16 was on the road with the King Kolax Band. He joined Lionel Hampton’s band soon after. Moving to New York in 1951, he was playing at the Apollo Theater when he was tapped for a trombone opening in the Count Basie Band, a position he held for the next 12 years. More than 30 years later, Benny noted that “People still ask me, ‘Is the band in town?’ And I left the band in 1963! So, you know, people very much associate me with the band and I’m proud to say that, because it’s opened a lot of doors for me. When I got my first Broadway show or my first television show, it was because I had been with Count Basie and they figured, ‘If he was with Count Basie’s band for 12 years, this guy must know something.’”

Powell ultimately left the Basie band to make his way as a soloist. “We all have to eventually leave big bands if we want to be soloists,” he told Bob Bernotas. “So it’s not so much that I wanted to start my own band. It’s just that I didn’t get the opportunity to play that much with Basie’s band.” In Los Angeles in the mid 1970s, Powell connected with Randy Weston, with whom he would perform regularly through the end of the century. While in California, he also worked in the orchestra of the Merv Griffin Show. Over the years he also worked with Harry “Sweets” Edison, whom he regarded as a mentor; the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Abdullah Ibrahim, Frank Foster, Benny Carter, Duke Pearson, John Carter, Jimmy Heath, Bill Holman and more, and with singers Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams and Aretha Franklin. Despite an unsuccessful kidney transplant in the early 1990s, Powell continued to perform and became heavily involved in jazz education, serving on the faculty of the New School for Jazz and the Performing Arts in Manhattan.

Benny Powell amassed a significant discography both within and outside of jazz, mostly as sideman. He recorded with Earth, Wind and Fire, Doctor John, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ray Charles and Ry Cooder, among others, in addition to such jazz artists as Duke Ellington, Buck Clayton, Frank Wess, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Donald Byrd, J.J Johnson, David “Fathead” Newman, Oliver Nelson, Roland Kirk, Stanley Turrentine, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Ernie Wilkins, Les McCann, Frank Sinatra, and all artists mentioned earlier. As leader, he made too few recordings, including his last, Nextep (2008, Origin). Source: JazzPolice.com