On Tuesday April 30, International Jazz Day, I joined the Benny Benack Quartet at Jazz at Lincoln Center Shanghai for a special celebration of jazz from the 1920s to 1950s. No, I wasn’t a guest musician—my chops aren’t nearly good enough for that! Instead, I contributed to the evening’s entertainment by giving a talk on the history of jazz and the special role of the trumpet in its development over time.
The collaboration began a month ago, when I was asked by the club manager Monika to choose some songs for the band to play and give some brief introductions to the audience. Naturally, Benny and the band had their own ideas about what they wanted to perform on that evening. They planned to focus on the hard bob/Blue Note trumpeters of the 1950-1960s, who played in Art Blakey’s band The Jazz Messengers.
I decided to give a more general talk on the history of jazz from the 1920s leading up to the hard bop years of the 1950s, and let Benny and the band do the rest. So over WeChat, we came up with a list together that included some older tunes and sounds to round out the story of jazz’s development between the 1920s and 1950s. I suggested they play “What Is This Thing Called Love”, the classic Cole Porter tune which was transformed by bebop into the more rollicking “Hot House”. Benny came up with the idea of adding a Louis Armstrong tune exemplifying the Dixieland New Orleans jazz tradition.
After my brief lecture on the history of jazz, which lasted around 20 minutes and included some of the musicians who came to Shanghai in the 1920s-1930s, the band started their set.
The quartet features Benny Benack on trumpet, Keelan Dimick on piano, Raviv Markovitz on bass and Joe Peri on drums. They opened with “What Is This Thing/Hot House” which showcases the transformation of jazz in the 1940s under the influence of bebop. They followed that song with the soulful “Ceora” by Lee Morgan. Then they performed “Blue Moon,” the old show tune which Art Blakey and Freddie Hubbard had reworked into a bluesy jazz standard.
Benny sings as well as playing trumpet, showcasing his talent as a jazz artist and reinforcing the point I made in my lecture that many of the great jazz trumpeters were also innovative vocalists. He also brought this up during his intro to the song “Blue Moon”, when he told the audience that the trumpet uses wind and air like a voice, and produces “tides and ebbs and flows like a vocalist”—thus putting it far more poetically and succinctly than I did in my lecture.
This was followed by Kenny Dorham’s tune “Escapade,” originally performed with Joe Henderson. For this classic tune, Benny performed a duet with in-house saxophonist Walter Blanding, which was absolutely beautiful. Benny introed the song by saying that it puts “tenor sax and trumpet in a very romantic tango,” and that was a fitting description for it all right.
The band closed the set with Louis Armstrong’s “Bourbon Street Parade”, starting with a march by Joe Peri on drums and building into what sounded like a rousing big band performance of this classic Dixieland tune.
During the set, Benny described Shanghai as a “great jazz town” with a “thriving local scene.” Certainly the presence of Jazz at Lincoln Center has added a wonderful new dimension to our local scene. I only wish that the world-class talents who come to play in this club, like Benny and his band, Wynton Marsalis, Aaron Goldberg and Joshua Redman would stay a bit longer in town and lend even more vitality to our jazz scene here in Shanghai.