An Interview with Benny Powell

By Bob Bernotas • September 01, 1999 • 26 min read

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.

People have an impression of New Orleans as a place where there's music always in the air. How accurate is that? Was there a lot of music around when you were growing up?

Well, it was pretty well right back then. Of course, I haven't lived in New Orleans for many years, but I think it's still relatively true. But when I was coming up there was music. It was just part of everyday life. You didn't really have to go anywhere to hear music, all you had to do was wake up and listen. You know, it's hot there, so people leave doors open and you can hear much more than you would in, say, Philadelphia, where it's insulated.

How did you happen to take up the trombone?

It was part of the New Orleans folklore. You've heard about the parades that they have there. I think I was in a parade. Not actually walking in the parade-I was riding in one of the cars. I can't remember how I got there, maybe my mother or somebody in my family belonged to the organization. These parades were created by organizations. People in those days wanted a good funeral, so working people belonged to these organizations that promised them a good burial if they paid their dues. So that's the premise behind a lot of those parades.

Now, I'm not sure this was a funeral parade. It could have been a social club parade. At any rate, I was riding in an open car and right behind my car was the band. Trombones are usually in front so the slides won't be knocking people all out of the way. Well, I turned around in this open car and saw the trombone player-I think he was the only one-and 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.

The parade stopped frequently for rest periods. It would stop at different homes and the musicians would go in for refreshments and come back. Well, at one of these stops I must have expressed my interest to my mother and I met the trombone player. And I found out-I just talked to him briefly-he was a very fascinating man, so I think I became enamored with his personality as well as the shininess of the horn.

Well, that was my first experience with the trombone. I played drums when I was nine years old. That was my first instrument. By the time I was 12, I was at an uncle's house and I was sort of kneeling backwards on a sofa, as kids do, and behind the sofa was this case. So I asked my uncle what was in it and he took it out and it happened to be a trombone that he had bought for one of his children, who decided that he was more interested in sports. He opened the case to let me see it and I expressed interest in it, so he said, "Well, you can take it home and see if you like it."

I did and I liked it very much. My mother found a teacher, Mr. Eddie Pearson, who was quite a great player and a great teacher. He's one of the trombone players who didn't really gain that much popularity. You'll find a lot of fine musicians who never did have much prominence other than in New Orleans.

A lot of guys in New Orleans-I didn't realize it then-depend upon tourism. So there's a lot of jobs there. And by being in a Catholic state, there are many religious celebrations. All during Mardi Gras and Easter there are balls and dances held. New Orleans had a lot of dance halls. So there was a lot of work for musicians and there still is, I believe. And most New Orleans musicians were real family guys. In fact, there are a lot of family bands where the whole family plays. So the guys didn't really have to leave New Orleans to make a living.

New Orleans is, of course, known for traditional jazz, but you were growing up during the birth of bebop. Were you caught between the two?

No, I was a bebop baby. I wasn't interested in the older New Orleans music because by the time bebop came in I was just becoming a teenager. A friend of mine had been to New York and he came back and brought these bebop records. I remember one was "Shaw 'Nuff" by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. And once he played that for us, we were all hooked, me and all my friends.

'Cause, you see, I played in a kids' band. We were all teenagers, 13 and 14, I mean, real teenagers. But we had a band, and it was a working band. I don't know how we got away with it, but we used to play dances and so forth. The leader of the band was Dooky Chase. Dooky Chase is a restaurant owner now, but he was a bandleader then. I think he was maybe a year or two older than us and his father was a businessman, so that qualified him to be the leader. He played trumpet himself. He owns one of the most famous restaurants in New Orleans now.

So you were a professional at a very early age.

Yes, at 14. It was by accident. Not that I had gained that much proficiency, but you have to remember that World War II was still on and a lot of the professional musicians were away. A gig came up New Year's Eve of 1944 at the USO club and they needed a trombone player. What they really needed was a warm body who could at least play some trombone. So somehow my name came up and I got the gig.

In those days we used to play what were called stock arrangements. They were actually arrangements of popular tunes that the big bands had made famous. Well, I used to listen to Tommy Dorsey. One of his solos that I had memorized was "Song of India," but in this stock arrangement of it the trombone solo was actually written down. When we got to this the bandleader said, "Do you think you can handle the solo, kid?" I said, "Yeah."

So when we got to it, I sort of stuck my head in the sheet, really looked at the sheet hard like I was reading, but I had memorized it already. I must have sounded pretty good and surprised everybody, because they didn't expect too much out of me. I was a 14-year-old kid who was just filling in. But evidently I impressed them enough to get a job with the band. And I always did kind of laugh at that because they thought I was reading and I never told them any different. Although I could read. I told you, I studied with Eddie Pearson and he made sure that I could read. I wasn't just a blowing musician who depended upon his ear.

You also went on the road at an early age.

Sixteen, yeah.

How did that happen?

Well actually, I went to Alabama State College. I was sort of an egghead, and I was lucky, too, so I skipped grades and I went to college when I was 16. But I entered the semester late. My dad died when I was seven and my mother had to support me and my three sisters. When September came around, she just didn't have the money to send me then, so I might have entered a month or two later. I went to Alabama State Teachers' College because Erskine Hawkins' band had been there and the school was sort of known for that. I knew then that I wanted to be a professional musician and I went there specifically hoping that it would make me one.

Well, when I came home for the break there was a fellow, Arnold DePass-he is a trumpet player-who was going to join King Kolax's band. He told me there was an opening and he told me to check with my mother to see if she would let me go. He was a little bit older than me and he could look out for me, so my mother gave me permission. So I joined King Kolax in Port Arthur, Texas, when I was 16 and I never looked back.

I tell my students that's the name of the game. Jo Jones had a phrase that I think is great: "When you see opportunity, handcuff it." And I instinctively did that from Day One. I took advantage of the opportunity and I've sort of been doing that throughout my career. I think opportunity presents itself every day to a lot of us, but we miss a lot of opportunities that would give us exactly what we want. We're so busy, carried away with this or that or some other thing, until it knocks on the door and we don't even hear it. And it goes away.

With King Kolax's band I traveled around the Midwest and ended up stranded in Oklahoma City. Somehow I got word that there was another orchestra, a territory band, working in Oklahoma. That was Ernie Fields, but he was based in Tulsa. I don't know how, but anyway, I got an offer to join Ernie Fields' band in Tulsa.

In those days, bands got stranded often. We traveled on buses and sometimes we'd get to a town and, for whatever reason, the job that we were going to wasn't there. Sometimes there was a mix-up in booking. Other times we'd get there and the nightclub had burned down. Anyway, we were stranded in that town until the bandleader could get in touch with the head office, which was in Indianapolis, and get some money to get us rolling and moving out of there.

So during one of those stranded periods, we stayed in Oklahoma City for a little while. At first, we had two guys to a room. Then as we stayed there for a longer period and the money started running down, it was three guys to a room. After a while it was four guys to a room. It went on like that until-I think the band was about 12 guys-there were six of us sleeping and the other six were walking the streets! I was 16 or 17, so what the heck did I care?

During this time that the band was stranded, [drummer] Vernel Fournier was my roommate. I went downstairs, walked through the lobby like I was going out shopping or something, and I went around behind the building. Vernel lowered my bag out of a window on a rope and I grabbed it and ran to the bus station. That's how I got out of Oklahoma City to join Ernie Fields' band in Tulsa.

At that time, territory bands, like King Kolax and Ernie Fields, provided important experience for a lot of young musicians, didn't they?

Oh, yeah. I'm sorry that the big bands aren't around now, because they were a wonderful training ground to teach musicians how to blend with other musicians, for example. And because I was a young guy, the older guys in the band are the ones who taught me all about life, how to dress, manners, how to carry myself, how to conduct myself. I think the older guys kind of took to me because they could see that I was trying to live in the tradition. And I asked them different things. You know, "How do you this? How do you do that?" And they were always very gracious because I was a gentlemanly young guy from New Orleans and I never overstepped my bounds.

Musicians in those days really loved to see the younger guys coming up, and these days, too. Jimmy Heath for one. Any musician can walk up to him and ask him anything about anything and he'll give you a good, clear answer. (Just don't walk up to him with any nonsense.) Jazz musicians, the good ones, are very giving. I don't know if their reason is the same as mine, but when older guys would give me these answers, I'd say, "Thank you so much. Can I pay you something?" They'd said, "No. When the situation is reversed, you do the same thing for a younger guy. That's the payment that I want."

I guess Lionel Hampton was your first big-time gig. How did you join him?

Well, this has to do with Oklahoma, too. It seems like, in retrospect, I was pretty much at the right place at the right time, because I was in Tulsa and Lionel Hampton's band came through. Now the day previous to this, one of his trombone players, Chips Outcalt, had quit. So Lionel Hampton was short one trombone player when he got to Tulsa.

Betty Carter was with the band at this time and Hamp depended upon her expertise with younger musicians, depended upon her to tell him who the beboppers, or potential beboppers, were. I didn't find this out 'til way later. She was at a performance a few years ago and told one of my nieces that Hamp came to her and asked, "Well, what do you think of this guy?" And she gave me thumbs up. That's the way I joined Hamp's band. But I don't think, before or since, any name band has gone to Tulsa looking for a trombone player. I happened to be in the right spot at the right time.

You joined Count Basie in a more conventional way.

Well, I had been living in Canada for a while and when I came back to New York in 1951, I was around town just looking for a job. Frankly, I wanted to go with Charlie Ventura's band. [Trombonist] Bennie Green had just been with the band and I would have loved to have been in that position, because that would be a small band and I would get a chance to develop as a trombone player. I also wanted to join Illinois Jacquet's band because he was using trombone. So I actually wanted to play with a small band.

At any rate, in the interim I was working at the Apollo Theatre, playing for the acts and so forth, and one of the saxophone players with this particular band, Charlie Fowlkes, told me that Basie was reorganizing a big band. At the time, Basie had a small group with Clark Terry and Buddy DeFranco.

Wardell Grey was in that small band, too.

Yes. A fine band. But I think as great as it was, Basie was used to having all that power behind him. So Charlie Fowlkes told me where they were rehearsing and suggested I come there. I did and stayed 12 years!

But you never really got hired officially, did you?

Oh, yeah. I always tell a story about "Base" having a little pixie side of his character. He would sort of toy with you. If he had something that you wanted, he would eventually give it to you, but he would dangle it in front of you for a long time.

When I first joined his band, we began playing just weekends out from New York. The first weekend we played in Boston, I remember it was October 11. When we came back to New York he gave us the dates for the next weekend. This happened for a couple of weekends. But since I had my name on file, so to speak, with Illinois Jacquet, I kept trying to get Basie to tell me, "Benny, you're hired. You got a job." Then I wouldn't have to pursue these other things. I just wanted a job with somebody with whom I could further my career or learn something.

Mind you, I'm a kid of 21 and I'm talking to Count Basie. So I'd ask him, "Mr. Basie, how do like the trombone section?" He'd say, "It's OK, kid," and that sort of ended the conversation, you know? Then the next time I'd ask him. "Well, Mr. Basie, do the trombones sound all right?" He'd say, "They sound great, kid." So it went on like this for weeks, me trying to get him to say, "Benny, you're hired." The most I got out of him was, maybe after asking him about six or seven times, he'd say, "You're here, aren't you, kid?"

I just wanted him to say, "Benny, you're hired. You got a job." He never did. And after about two or three years it finally dawned on me, "Well, Benny, you are here, you must have the job. So accept that."

Why did you finally leave Basie?

Well, after 12 years I felt it was time to grow, time for me to stretch out. Basie was such a beautiful guy, I could tell him that and I left with his blessings. And he told me if there was anything at all he could help me with, don't hesitate to come back and ask him.

It seems like no matter how long you've been out of the band, you're still thought of as a Basie-ite.

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." So it's always stood me in good stead. But once you were with Basie, you're with the Basie family. Basie always stressed, "This is a family," and he always treated it as such.

I'm wondering if one of the reasons you left Basie was that, as a trombonist in a big band, you didn't get a lot of chances to solo.

That's correct. Traditionally, we've been stepchildren. When the trumpet player finishes playing, then the tenor player plays, and after that comes the drum solo. In the meantime, the trombone player has had eight bars in the whole arrangement. The thing I was most remembered for with Basie was the little melody that I played in the bridge to "April in Paris." I knew that, no matter what, I would get a chance to play that because it was a hit for Basie's band.

But we all have to eventually leave big bands if we want to be soloists. I wanted to develop and with big bands you get a chance to play very few solos. Plus with Basie's band, if you weren't careful you could develop a formula solo. That meant you played the same solo every night and the rhythm section sort of built their responses to your solo. 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.

And then, too, Al Grey was with the band. And Al Grey was a bit older than me, much more experienced and so forth, also a very fine trombone player, and he got most of the solo space, much to the detriment of Henry Coker and myself. Henry Coker was a fine trombonist, but Al was a bit more aggressive. Anyway, Al got the large share of the solo space, deservedly so, and Henry Coker got a great part of it, too. I was, I guess, kind of the third soloist, in a sense-certainly in my mind, because those guys were more experienced. And I didn't feel badly because of it. I learned from them. But there was a time, after 12 years, when I needed to split just to develop my own career and my own capacity to be a trombonist.

I have a philosophy. If you want to do anything, of course, you should study towards that. But you should sort of act as if you're there already. For instance, I wanted to be an out-front guy with my own band. So I had to start preparing myself for it, find out what it takes to make a bandleader. And also I had to start carrying myself like a bandleader.

I'll tell you a for-instance. When I first started leading my own band, I had been a sideman for many years. Well before, when I would get a gig in a club as a sideman, during the break I'd sit around until somebody came and got me and said, "Benny, it's time to go on." When I became a leader, I found myself still sitting there, waiting for somebody to tell me to go on. Then it would occur to me, "There's nobody who's gonna tell you to go on now, Benny. You're it. You have to tell the other guys to go on." So you have to break old habits. I had to start acting like a bandleader.

When you are on the bandstand, how do you go about creating a favorable impression with the audience?

Well, first of all, I think the bandstand should be treated with the same sanctity you'd treat an altar. You don't deface it. You don't get on the bandstand with a cigarette and a glass of whisky in your hands. While you're there, you only concentrate on the music or music-related things. You don't talk to anybody off the bandstand. You have very little time to be up there, so devote all your time to the task at hand. People have paid good money to come and see you. They didn't pay money to see you talk to your friends or crack jokes and all of that. I'm not saying be stiff, but by all means focus on the reason you're up there and know that people are looking at you. You are on stage, so your demeanor is supposed to reflect this.

And by all means, focus on the music and focus on being creative with it. If you're with a group that really doesn't have written music-or even has written music-try and make each tune creative. I mean, even if you're doing standards, if you're doing "All the Things You Are" or "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," try and do something different with it. Don't just do the intro, the head, blowing, and out. That's predictable. If the audience hears you do that, maybe, two or three times, pretty soon they can just about predict what you're going to play.

So the thing is to create at the moment. That's why you have to listen to what everybody else is playing, because something you hear coming from the piano or the drums might spark an idea in you and you go off that. That's why your concentration has to be on the bandstand.

And plan what you're going to do before you get on the bandstand. You can always change it. Even when you go to jam sessions, have a couple of tunes when somebody says, "What are we gonna play?" Have two or three tunes that you think everybody knows. So this avoids all of that stuff. "What are we gonna play?" "Oh, I don't know, man. What you wanna to play?" I think that hurts a lot of musicians more so than they realize.

I'm glad you brought that up, since you've been hosting a weekly jam session at the musicians' union in New York. I'd like to hear your feelings about jam sessions.

Well, older musicians taught me that when you join anything or when you go anywhere, keep your mouth shut and find out what you're joining first. See, being a musician is such a thing of talent and ego, you have to keep both in balance, ego especially, because when people are telling you that you sound good and all that, you start to believe that you're the latest hot thing. And once you start believing that, then you stop growing.

Well, for jam sessions, the same thing applies. When you go to a jam session, have a tune, have two or three tunes, and when anybody asks you what you want to play, name those two or three tunes. But you'd more or less be on the money if you go to that jam session before and listen to what the other guys are playing. The first time you go to the session you can take your horn, but don't sit in. Listen to see what you're joining first and then have those tunes that you call.

And by all means, jam sessions are not places to practice. In our jam sessions we normally have very good rhythm sections, real experienced guys who have spent many years playing. Now I tell everybody, "When you come up, don't use these guys to get your stuff together. Since you've got fine musicians, this is the time to shoot your best shot and have them make you sound very good." So I look at it as more of a showcase. And that's because most people who are going to jam sessions now haven't the vaguest idea of how jam session were created or what they were created for. They think "jam session" now means that you go and show everybody what you know.

So they play 24 choruses on "Star Eyes."

Yeah. And hopefully somebody's going to say, "You sure sound good," and give you a gig. But if you do that, if you play 24 choruses of anything, chances are you're not going to get a gig, because somebody's going to say, "Well, I don't need that in my band."

Sure, what leader needs a guy who's going to play 24 choruses on his gig?

What leader needs a guy who's going to be dumb enough to play 24 choruses? A leader's looking for somebody who's smart. And brevity is it. You know, say what you got to say in two or three choruses, maybe four. I mean, if you're really hot, stretch out in five. But you don't need more than five choruses to show people what you know.

A lot of times, the older you get in music, the more you'll find out that less is more. Leave spaces and don't play everything you know. As a matter of fact, when I worked with "Sweets," Harry Edison, a couple weeks ago, he was a lesson in that. He knows very well how to use a rhythm section. If he's going to play seven choruses, the first two are kind of sparse. He makes a statement, then gets out of the way and the rhythm section kind of covers. He gradually builds it up. I learned that this was a technique he uses and it's one that we could all benefit from learning, because it gives your solo somewhere to go. I mean, you don't play everything you know in the first two or three bars.

So after more than 50 years as a professional musician, you're still learning on the bandstand?

Oh, yeah. When I worked with Joe Williams recently I thought it was very ironic, because there's a relationship between Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra. I think Sinatra said it was through his relationship with Tommy Dorsey that he began to learn phrasing.

And breath control.

Well, I thought about this, working with Joe Williams. I said, here it is, a singer learning from a trombone player, so why can't a trombone player learn from a singer? Anyway, the main thing that I was trying to learn from Joe is breath control. He'll hold a note or do a phrase for a phenomenally long time and not take a breath. You never see him breathe. So that's why I was looking at him, because if I can find out how to do that, that's useful to me, too.

And I'll tell you, I worked with him a whole week and I sat, oh, maybe no more than two feet from him, because we both had stools on the stand, and I had a chance to watch him up close and I never did find out how he breathed. In fact, I asked him when we went up to the dressing room, I said, "Joe, do you breathe under your armpits or something, 'cause I never saw you take a breath of air? How do you do that?" He said, "I don't know how I do that. I've been doing it so long, I guess I figured it out a long time ago. But if you ask me to analyze it, I can't do that."

Looking back on your 50 years in music, it's been a good life, hasn't it?

Oh, yeah. Still is. For me, I am doubly blessed to be able to make my livelihood for 50 years playing trombone only. I never had any jobs as a waiter, taxi driver, any of that stuff. And this has been one of my most productive years. It's fantastic. I can't believe it myself, because I've had a pretty good run and I keep expecting it to peak and then be on the downhill, but it keeps going up. And I'm more amazed than anybody.

© Bob Bernotas, 1997; revised 1998. Used by permission. All rights reserved.