i was playing with a singer at a club in seaport, long island in february of 1983. she had her very cute daughter in tow. i remember that the girl was named Arlen after the great songwriter, she was just maybe a year younger than i, but she was quite precocious i’m certain of that. as was consistently the case back then, i in fact missed her every clear cue to me. i was a 19-year-old piano nerd, studying with Walter Bishop, Jr. (‘Bish’) and Walter Davis, Jr. (‘Humphrey’) both during the same time frame. how about that? a kid could have piano lessons with some actual beboppers back then, and i DID realize that this was a magical time in my life, i DID pay attention and knew intuitively that i would remember as much about their playing and attitudes, personal style, speech and mannerisms forever. the club was called ‘sonny’s place’.
completely out-of-the-way locale, right? well, somehow, of all things, Betty Carter, who lived on st. felix st. in the ft. greene neighborhood of brooklyn, across the street from the brooklyn academy of music, just happened, miraculously for me, to be hanging out with some friends, driving, and they saw the ‘Live Jazz’ sign on the marquee, and decided to come in, have a couple drinks (i suppose someone other than Betty was the designated driver), and check out the music.
it was a rather modestly-sized, narrow club, with a good vibe; a real ‘joint’, and the small stage had about three wooden steps you had to climb to mount it. they had a pretty fair small brown grand piano; it had a heart to it, and i was having a good time playing with the cats, who happened to be my two roommates in an east greenwich village 6th floor (i believe) walk-up apartment at 13th st. & avenue A. my ‘big brother’ of a friend and such a patient and tolerant person to me, the bassist John Donnelly, had driven me and himself across the country to both move to new york city from berkeley the previous spring. and our illustrious drummer and roomie was Jo Jones, Jr., the son of ‘Papa’ Jo Jones, who virtually invented the hi-hat in Jazz and is the trunk of the tree in the pantheon of playing Jazz brushes. Jo was something; he had been to prison and been a heroin addict and had the best stories and knew ALL the real cats in town and would try to ‘school’ me about how to carry myself on the street, and how to be ‘cool’ with the older cats and not too geeky. all sorts of things Joe tried to help me with, probably as much not to dilute his own profile for associating with me, as to help my ‘game’.
someone definitely came halfway up those steps and leaned in to tell us that Miss Betty Carter was in the audience. as with fair Arlen, i was actually oblivious to this exchange, i was surely making like ‘schroeder’ in the peanuts-charlie brown cartoon; the self-absorbed piano playing kid with the bust of beethoven on his piano with Lucy would constantly break while trying to distract his music passion for amorous endeavor, and never losing the battle to the siren. i had absolute tunnel vision. sometimes i wish i had maintained a bit more of that discipline. but again; hadn’t bitten the apple yet so it was easy, it was just how i was.
but somehow, after we played the next tune, the last of the first set, i did think to make a bee-line for the dressing room sofa and to lock myself in there. i was quite frightened to meet her. finally, someone came and got me; it was time for the second set. i did my best to robotically make a straight and uninterrupted line to those steps, if i could just do that, i figured, i’d be safe. between the second stair step and the stage floor (i’m sure i skipped the top step to get back ‘home’ to the piano bench, someone tapped me on my back, firmly and pointedly enough that i couldn’t play it off.
i turn around, and Betty is behind me (now i’m facing her, having turned around) on the club floor level. i think i can remember verbatum: “hello young man, i’m Betty Carter”. my turn; ‘hello Miss Carter, it’s an honor to meet you. thank you for coming to hear us play’. heart is fluttering. “you sound pretty good. do you have a phone number?”. ‘yes, i obediently replied. i was kind of excited and as well trying to appear professionally poised (in my blue jeans and sneakers!). i actually had business cards which my mother had encouraged me to get and had ordered and paid for before i moved back east, with ‘BENNY GREEN piano’ written on them, allowing me to write in a current number, in a small soft brown leather card case which she had also bought me. can’t attribute any lack of professional appearance on my part to my mother whatsoever; she has always done her best with her unruly, gotta-do-it-my-own-way son, and is herself a classically stylish dresser. “my secretary will be in touch with you soon. i’ll be auditioning for a new piano player”. wow. i suddenly felt more confident about my playing, and it was an exciting second set for me! don’t remember what became of Arlen that night, but she gave me at least one more chance to at least be a ‘mannish boy’ with her a month later or so, but i only knew how to mess up with girls, never could i even quite figure out how to let a sweet vibe ride its course with the girls back then, only how to broadcast that the piano was my girlfriend.
her secretary phoned and set a date two weeks hence for me to come to Betty’s home in brooklyn. her (maiden) name was Gayle Curry. Gayle was such a stunning knockout and she knew it. she was a year older than me but she was quite a woman. i had a mad crush on her and later on a few occasions she would accompany me to bradley’s to bug the great piano players to let me sit in. and i did get respect from the brothers for her being by my side (b.g. MUST be a bad m.f. for this woman to be giving him the time of day, i liked to imagine the cats were thinking). but she dug Lewis Nash, Betty’s drummer who was soon turning the ripe old, worldly age of 25. with his smooth, vegetarian, eastern meditative ways, vintage tweed jackets, francincense oil and a very masculine confidence unmistakable within his peaceful, gentle demeanor, he was, and IS, so cool. so i suppose i couldn’t blame her. we all dug Gayle, she was a sweet and sexy girl, Betty’s ‘secret weapon’.
i now had two weeks to pool my financial resources of around $50-$60 (which could certainly buy more than half a dozen used l.p.’s in 1983), scout out Betty Carter records, LISTEN and PLAY ALONG. i wanted to do my good work and land the gig. and i had already groomed myself to prioritize and practice with records by then, as i was preparing for my long-term goal of being a Jazz Messenger.
i bought ‘The Audience with Betty Carter’, ‘Whatever Happened to Love’, ‘The Betty Carter Album’, ‘Now It’s MyTurn’ and ‘Inside Betty Carter’. i immediately sensed a powerful energetic battery in the axis of Betty and the very, very great pianist John Hicks on a few of the records. somehow between Betty and John, there was an undeniable spark. ah so — this is the vibe, this is the world i want to enter to connect with Betty musically, i was positive.
the magical day arrived, i took either the #2 or #3 train from 14th street in manhattan to the big hub which includes the long island railroad, the atlantic st. station in brooklyn with the huge clock tower you can see for miles, and walked the block-and-a-half to her brownstone. her music room and piano were on the second floor, you would walk up this beautiful long, creaky brown wood staircase, then make a semicircle to the left, and then you were there. she introduced me to Lewis, who i was already aware of from his great playing on the ‘whatever happened to love?” record, and David Penn, a soft-spoken young gentleman of west indian background i believe. Betty liked her ‘guys’ in the band to dress and behave with dignity. she said ‘why don’t you three play some, i’ll be downstairs making some chicken.’ Lewis soon turned me onto vegetarianism and while Betty accepted his not eating the chicken she would occasionally make at home for rehearsals, she would truly read me the riot act, loudly and dramatically, if i was refraining from meat. i would basically have to eat some bird for fear she’d one day actually hit me.
oh, was it fun jamming with Lewis and David; i had never played with such a hip and crisp rhythm section — they made me wanna PLAY. i think we played Herbie Hancock’s ‘The Eye Of The Hurricane’ from the ‘maiden voyage’ blue note record. my teacher and self-proclaimed ‘new york father’, Walter Bishop, Jr., had a photocopy of Herbie’s original chart for the bright F minor blues, which i had memorized. we played at least one more tune if not two, then Miss B.C. appeared in the room. ‘you guys sound like you’re having fun’ she said, with measured enthusiasm; so far, so good, i thought to myself. i felt that i still had a shot, but of course i’d yet to accompany her for one bar of actual her singing.
‘let’s try reading some things’, she said, and we proceeded. she scoped me out on ‘Tight’ and another tune, then said it was time for a ballad. ‘gentlemen, when we play this next tune, i want you to think about the last time you made luuuuuuv…’ she purred. she turned in my direction, looked me squarely in the eyes, and said ‘You… just use your imagination’!!!!!!!!
after the ballad in which i imagined how it would feel to make love and tried to channel this into the accompaniment, Betty said ‘okay, i’m satisfied. would you like to join the band?’ and that’s when my life truly began.