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An Interview with Benny Powell

Bob Bernotas  - Trbnplyr@aol.com
Freelance Journalist

Benny Powell

 

Born in New Orleans in 1930, Powell is, perhaps, best known for his 12-year tenure (1951-63) with Count Basie, and for his eight-bar contribution to the Count's all-time hit, "April in Paris." But more than that, Powell, in his all-too-rare solos with the Basie band, displayed a blues-laced, story-telling approach to improvisation. Check out, for instance, his masterfully balanced two-chorus statement on "Blues Backstage" from 1954, or his fleet trip through "In a Mellotone," recorded in a live performance five years later.

After leaving Basie, Powell embarked upon a rich, diverse musical career. A versatile and accomplished player, he has worked extensively on Broadway, television, and recordings.

During the 1960s and '70s, Powell graced the trombone sections of Duke Pearson's fine New York big band and the renowned Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. (His four-chorus solo on Jones'"Fingers" is a master class in modern jazz trombone improvisation.) He also began-and continues-to make his name as a leader in his own right, a respected teacher, and a dedicated activist in the cause of jazz.

After a decade in Hollywood, where he worked on The Merv Griffin Show, Powell returned to New York in the early 1980s and connected with two visionary instrumentalist-composers, the late clarinetist John Carter and pianist Randy Weston, with whom he still performs.

Although an unsuccessful kidney transplant in 1990 left him to undergo thrice weekly dialysis treatments, he never let it keep him from working-and even touring-with the likes of Weston, Benny Carter, and Jimmy Heath.

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About the Author...
Bob Bernotas is the author of Top Brass: Interviews and Master Classes with Jazz's Leading Brass Players and Reed All About It: Interviews and Master Classes with Jazz's Leading Reed Players, available through Boptism Music Publishing. He has contributed to numerous print and Internet publications, and has written liner notes for over four dozen jazz CDs. He also is the host of the weekly radio program, Just Jazz, heard every Sunday night over the Internet at www.wnti.org.