Born April 4, 1963, in New York, NY; raised in Berkeley, CA; son of Bert Green (a saxophonist). Addresses: Record company--The Blue Note Labels, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, 35th Flr., New York, NY, 10104.
Dubbed the "prototypical modern jazzman" by Leonard Feather in the Los Angeles Times, Benny Green became one of the most acclaimed of the "baby boomer" jazz pianists during the early 1990s. He has been especially praised for his musical efforts in a trio format, as well as for his knowledge of jazz history. Martin Johnson wrote in Down Beat that Green "takes his mission of keeping the jazz flame alive with enormous conviction, and he is a man who is devoted to his elders." Among the mentors who have greatly influenced Green's playing are Bud Powell, Errol Garner, and Horace Silver.
In his acclaimed trio recordings Green strives to keep all his instruments in the foreground. "He regards his trio as a congregation of equals, rather than an individual piano performance with bass and drum backing," noted Feather. Green's versatility at the keyboard was summed up by Mike Fish in The Wire, who commented, "Green has a strong touch, a hard-hitting command, yet plays with a somewhat unexpected tenderness on ballads, and seems to orchestrate all his phrases for their inner voicings."
Lessons in classical piano starting at age seven formed the background for Green's piano artistry as he was growing up in Berkeley, California. He developed an early interest in jazz from his father, Bert Green, a saxophonist in the style of Lester Young. Green immersed himself in his father's vast record collection as a youth. "He [Green's father] not only taught me a lot of standards, but he really pointed me in the direction of the right guys to listen to," said Green in a Blue Note press kit. According to the Los Angeles Times, Green claims that hearing the true jazz masters "really put me in my place--but it also inspired me to keep on pushing ahead." Green became an avid student of the work of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and other jazz greats. At a young age he was able to improvise many of the songs he had heard on his family's record player.
In the San Francisco Bay area in the 1970s, Green studied with pianists Ed Kelly, Bill Bell, Dick Whittington, and Smith Dobson. As a teenager he began playing in a quintet co-led by trumpeter Eddie Henderson and sax player Hadley Caliman. By this time he was experimenting with trio formats that would later become his passion. He also began to realize that New York City was the place to be if he were serious about jazz. "I free-lanced for a year in San Francisco, but when I heard these great musicians from New York visiting the local clubs, I realized that I was only becoming a big fish in a little pond," he told Feather. "New York was the mecca where I could feel comfortable in a humbling atmosphere and meet a real challenge."
Green switched coasts in 1982 and furthered his musical training with Walter Bishop, Jr., Walter Davis, and Larry Willis. He also began playing with saxophonist Bobby Watson and sat in with young jazz pianist Mulgrew Miller. While he was playing a gig with a singer at Sonny's Place in Seaport, Long Island, in 1983, singer Betty Carter heard him. Carter was looking for a new accompanist, and Green auditioned for her. He landed the job and continued to play for Carter until 1987.
Green's time with Carter in the mid-1980s proved to be an important developmental period for the young pianist, who before this time had had little experience as an accompanist. As he told Fish in The Wire: "She [Carter] helped me be myself, get my own sound.... And she taught me never to underestimate an audience." In a 1993 Down Beat interview with Johnson, he added, "She paid a lot of attention to the lyrics in the song and would remind us not only to think about the chord changes and the harmonic changes, but also to really relate the story the song told to our own personal experiences and deliver that through the music."
Green had been keeping track of the Jazz Messengers since watching them perform at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco, and in 1987 he joined the group. He was very inspired by Art Blakey, the leader of the group. "Art Blakey taught me some of the responsibilities of the jazz musician," he said in The Wire. "He'd say that music would wash away the dust of everyday life, and that the bandstand was sacred ground. Whatever troubles we'd be undergoing, they'd be left aside. Nobody lifted the spirits better than Art Blakey."
Blakey replaced Green with pianist Geoff Keezer in 1989. From there Green hooked up with Freddie Hubbard's quintet, which featured future Green trio mates Christian McBride on bass and Carl Allen on drums. The Hubbard affiliation also helped propel Green's performing skills forward. "Conceptually and stylistically ... nobody's kicked me in the behind like Freddie Hubbard," Green acknowledged in The Wire. "In one way, he's deeply rooted in the blues. At the same time, he's very advanced harmonically, and I'd never know how he'd approach the music on any given night."
As the 1980s ended, Green really focused his attention on the trio format. "I began listening more analytically to some of the records by the Nat King Cole trio, the mother of all trios, and Oscar's [Oscar Peterson's] first trio and Ahmad Jamal's trio with guitar," he said in Down Beat. "I filled in the gaps with later developments like Red Garland's trio with Paul Chambers and Art Taylor, and Bob Belden turned me on to the Three Sounds led by Gene Harris, which blew me away just in terms of their sympathy."
Green's first trio recording, Lineage, was released in 1990 on the Blue Note label and featured Ray Drummond and Victor Lewis. He followed this release with four more recordings in the next four years. In her review of Green's 1991 effort, Greens, in People, Lisa Shea wrote, "Green's high regard for melody helps him avoid some of the pitfalls of hard bopping--nothing here is done too long or indulgently."
The pianist's fifth Blue Note release, 1994's The Place to Be, featured deviations from his standard trio configuration--including some solo pieces and occasional accompaniment by a six-piece horn section. "I feel I'm expressing and communicating more emotions and experiences here than I have in the past," Green commented in the Blue Note press release.
Since a lot of his experience is with larger groups, Green has often had to scale down his musical concept of a piece for his trio. "A lot of the tunes I hear in my head are played by a quintet, sextet or big band," he said in the Blue Note press kit. "I then condense them to a trio format." His arrangements have made him a popular performer on the club circuit. As Johnson noted in Down Beat, "His romantic style, chock full of rococo runs and florid exhibitionism is a guaranteed crowd pleaser." Green commented in the same article, "I want to play music that speaks clearly to people. I want people to hear our music and get a warm feeling inside."
by Ed Decker
Benny Green's Career
Learned to play classical piano as a child; studied with Ed Kelly, Bill Bell, Dick Whittington, and Smith Dobson in California; played in quintet with trumpeter Eddie Henderson and saxophonist Hadley Caliman, c. late 1970s and early 1980s; went to New York City and began studying with Walter Bishop, Jr., Walter Davis, and Larry Willis, 1982; served as accompanist for singer Betty Carter, 1982-87; played with Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, 1987-89; began playing with Freddie Hubbard's quintet, 1989; released debut album, Lineage, in trio format with Ray Drummond and Victor Lewis on Blue Note label, 1990; has performed often at the Village Vanguard and other top jazz clubs in New York City, 1990s.
Benny Green's Awards
Glenn Gould International Protege Prize in Music and Communication, 1993; first place, piano category, Jazz Times readers' poll, 1993.
- Selective Works
- Lineage, Blue Note, 1990.
- Greens, Blue Note, 1991.
- Testifyin', Blue Note, 1992.
- The Place to Be, Blue Note, 1994.
- That's Right!, Blue Note.
- Down Beat, August 1991, p. 52; November 1993, pp. 21-24; December 1994, pp. 52-53.
- Los Angeles Times, November 3, 1991.
- New York, November 11, 1991.
- New York Times, November 7, 1991.
- People, December 2, 1991.
- The Wire, December 1991/January 1992.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Blue Note publicity materials.