Benny Green giving new life to legacy of jazz piano in Atlanta show

Green plays at Neranenah, highlights impact of Jews on American music.

When jazz pianist Benny Green talks about the lessons he’s learned from his elders, he sounds like he’s describing a transfusion rather than a graduate course.

Of playing with drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers during the last two years of Blakey’s life, Green said the experience isn’t over, though Blakey died in 1990. “It continues for me,” said Green. “It’s a living vibration, getting to feel that joy, that vitality he put in that music. It’s in my bloodstream now as we speak. It didn’t end with my tenure in the band or with Art’s lifetime.”

There is no doubt that the flavor of grits and gravy — Blakey’s hard bop earthiness — radiates from Green’s propulsive playing. But he has absorbed elements from all his teachers, from Horace Silver to Walter Bishop Jr. to Oscar Peterson to Gene Harris.

Green is a self-contained prodigy, but also a historian of jazz, and he holds that history dear. He was part of that 1980s generation of 20-something traditionalists, such as Wynton Marsalis, who redirected attention to the music’s heritage.

Green and his trio play Thursday, April 28, at the Rich Auditorium in the Woodruff Arts Center in an evening celebrating the great jazz impresario Norman Granz.

Green’s appearance is part of the Neranenah music series (formerly the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival) intended to emphasize the contributions of Jews to modern American music.

In addition to Benny Green, Neranenah hosts the ATL Collective April 23. The Collective will present an evening devoted to the music of Chess Records, a label founded by Polish-Jewish immigrants that pressed some of the finest jazz, blues and R&B sounds from such musicians as Muddy Waters, Etta James, Chuck Berry, Ramsey Lewis and Ahmad Jamal.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Norman Granz was the son of Jewish immigrants from Trans-Dniester, who began producing concerts in his native Los Angeles, often with integrated bandstands.

His Jazz at the Philharmonic shows in Los Angeles became legendary, and he took those shows on the road in U.S., Canada and Europe. Many were recorded, and released, first on Mercury Records, and then on Granz’s own labels (which were, at different times, Clef, Norgran, Down Home, Verve and Pablo).

He had a talent for putting great musicians together, and many of the music’s premier artists were signed to one of Granz’s labels including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz and a host of others.

Granz insisted that the Black musicians performing in his shows be paid the same as white musicians, that audiences be mixed, that green rooms be integrated. He refused to book shows that insisted on segregated facilities.

He was also instrumental in boosting the career of Oscar Peterson, one of the most astonishing pianists born. “Norman Granz was, for all intents and purposes, Oscar Peterson’s closest lifelong friend,” said Green, “as well as being his manager and a business mentor of sorts.”

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Though he never met Granz, Green recorded with Peterson and became Peterson’s protégé, giving Green an inside view of the impact Granz had on jazz.

During a conversation from his California home, Green, 59, spoke about how two of his mentors, Peterson and bassist Ray Brown, teamed up early in their careers

“They toured the U.S. as a duo, playing real dives, places where not all the keys on the pianos were working. Patrons would put them up in their homes because they wouldn’t necessarily have hotels. They talked about how hard they’d be playing. Oscar said back then they’d be sweating so much their feet would be sloshing in their shoes.”

Then Norman Granz stepped in. He paired the duo with Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, and other virtuosos, presented them onstage at the Philharmonic, helped Peterson pick songs to record, particularly those accessible tunes from the American songbook.

“Suddenly this duo that couldn’t get arrested became the Oscar Peterson Trio, and became a household name,” said Green.

Much of the result had to do with the way Peterson was presented, said Green. The pianist’s ability was always monumental, but the setting made a big difference.

Green performs in Atlanta with John Clayton on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums, both of whom are just a few years older than Green. Green has made a career out of learning from his elders, and takes those years seriously.

“I notice, if I’m not being too outspoken about this, that there’s a tendency among millennials who want to neutralize the sense of respect for elders, to play it down and, in a way, to build one’s self up. Myself (I) really like having respect for elders, even if it’s someone two years older than me. My eyes and ears are wide open when I’m around John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton.”


MUSIC PREVIEW

The ATL Collective Relives the Sound of Chess Records

8 p.m. April 23. $25-$45. Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center, Byers Theatre, 1 Galambos Way, Sandy Springs. 770-206-2022, citysprings.com.

Celebrating Norman Granz with Benny Green, John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton

7:30 p.m. April 28, $35-$75. Richard H. Rich Theatre, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-733-4600, neranenaharts.org.