Betty or Art? choose both!

Photo Credit: Brian McMillen

Photo Credit: Brian McMillen

after that audition in which Betty hired me and changed my life, i had my 20th birthday in april of 1983, and we began rehearsing. She, Lewis Nash and David Penn were very cool to me, they were treating me as part of the family, although i was failing miserably at getting my ‘profile’ together, let alone any attempt of dressing as classy as Lewis Douglas Nash. i always wanted to belong and feel accepted as a part of this music, and i felt like i especially stood out being ‘white’, that i looked different from the people i wanted to be accepted as a brother to.

incredibly, the night before my very first gig with Betty, which was to be at the Tralfamador Cafe in Buffalo, NY, the switchboard operated ‘house telephone’ in my miniature apartment, #202 in bretton hall at broadway and 86th st., rang with opportunity. i didn’t yet have my new yamaha upright that my father paid for, there was only a single-size cot, a small cube refrigerator, a closet, and i shared a bathroom with other tenants (and cockroaches) down the hall. i didn’t mind these conditions in the least, it was liberating having my own space, my own clubhouse for the first time, plus i was living in New York City, with mighty living giants such as Dexter Gordon walking the streets; everything else was gravy, to say the least!

i answer the very short-corded grimy telephone, and the voice on the other end was Art Blakey’s pianist, my dear friend Johnny O’Neal, phoning long distance. Johnny tells me that 1) he’s ‘stranded’ (always a cliff-hanger with my friend) and 2) Art Blakey and the Messengers are playing at Mikell’s (a 12-15 minute walk at most, from my apartment to 97th st. and columbus) and “i’m gonna need you to ‘fill in’ (his words) for me with Bu tonight. can you do it?”.

mr. nubie here, greener than Green, would you believe that my first thought is: i need to have a good night’s sleep and be sure to be on time tomorrow morning at laguardia airport! i’m not kidding, that is what first went through my young mind. thank goodness Johnny was insistent. ‘benny, i really need you to do this for me. you know all the music, and you’ve been wanting to play in the Messengers, and i can’t be there, i need you to do this for me, please benny — i’m begging you” it was sweet of Johnny to throw that in there for good measure, and the man is calling me with a blessing and i’m so wet behind the ears that i’m thinking of being responsible and surprisingly i’m not literally bouncing off the walls that i have a shot to play with Art and Terrence Blanchard and Donald Harrison and Jean Toussaint and Charles Fambrough. instead, i’m thinking of being a good choirboy for my morning flight with Betty. where’s the odds in that? the best odds, i was soon to learn, the best of both worlds…

‘Johnny, you know i want to play with Art. it’s my dream, but i have a gig with Betty tomorrow, and Art might not even want me doing the gig.’

‘benny, i need you to do me this favor (favor?! hahahaha), i’m here in detroit and i need someone to cover for me, and you can do it – you know all the music. you’ll still be able to’ – then i interrupted, i was starting to come to my senses and become excited at the thought of playing with Art and the band. ‘Johnny, can you please call Art and see if it’s alright with him? because i don’t want to show up and then have him not wanting me to play with him, when i should have been in bed getting ‘a good night’s sleep’ haha. this is all real.

‘yes, i’ll call him’ says Johnny. ‘then will you please call me right back to tell me what he says?’ i say. ‘yes i’ll call you right back, benny. now stay near your phone, all right?’ what an angel. and poor johnny was probably running out of quarters, dimes and nickels; there is a strong likelihood that he was calling from a payphone.

ring… Johnny is affecting his most convincing maternal sales-pitch manner ‘benny, i talked with Art and he said he’d love to have you — he said it will probably be a real kick for you! you will have fun, benny!’

OKEY-DOKEY! i shower, gently pushing roach carcasses away with my brown flip-flops, jump into my one suit and tie, and walk briskly 11 blocks uptown and two long blocks east to Mikell’s. I’m going to play with Art! i arrive around 35-40 minutes before showtime, walk past the bar to the elevated stage in the back, where i’ve listened and watched the Messengers playing countless times before, where they were soon to record the album ‘new york scene’ with the great Mulgrew Miller playing the piano. Art is the only one onstage, he’s fine-tuning the positioning of his drums and no one in the club is bothering him. a record is playing quietly in the background, and some folks are just doing their thing at the bar and there are a few people dining in the other adjoining room on the 97th st. side with a huge glass window front. i walk towards Art, but i’m still standing on the floor level, and i just sort of plant myself there and wait for a directive from the man: Abdullah Ibn Buhaina.

he (who could read you like a book in i would say half-a-second) sees my position and demeanor, and gestures with a rather brisk but graceful easy swinging motion of his right arm and hand back to the piano (it’s sort of mounted flush against the back wall on it’s left, flat side and Art’s full drum set is basically in the middle of the small stage, with room for the three horns in front of him and for the bassist to stand sort of between us in the curve of the right side of the piano. Art simply and beautifully says ‘it’s all yours tonight!’ with a big, warm smile!


well, i did know the entire book, but outside of knowing all the arrangements and piano parts in my sleep, i didn’t really know what i was doing or have a clue in terms of comping. i would just sort of try to imitate things i’d heard James Williams and Donald Brown and Johnny do, and hoped it would fit while ‘Duck’ (Donald Harrison) and Terrence and Jean improvised, with mixed interactive results at best, i’d have to say. but just to feel that molten lava all over us and somehow within all of us coming through Art’s drums (he’d be inside you, as i’ve always felt from the records of the band with Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merrit. Art would be playing YOU, he’s coming through every instrument in the band), Charles Fambrough’s (‘brosky’, although i never once called him by his nickname) powerful bass with his amp ‘cranked’, and the comet-like energy coming through the air from these three horn soloists — i was elated. all the guys were cool to me, they really were mature about the whole thing and no one ‘vibed’ me out that night, thank goodness.

dear and kind Donald Harrison actually had the thought to lean into the curve of the piano say to me ‘you’re a messenger now, baby’. what a gracious, big thing for him to do for me. thank you Donald.

at the end of this magical night in my life, Art’s wife, Ann Arnold, came to pay me $100, and she said ‘would you like to join the band?’


i swear on my life, hand-to-God, it did not take me a full two seconds to take in that i’d just been offered to join THE band I’ve always wanted to play with, but that i had not only a commitment, but by now although we had yet to perform publicly, i felt a loving, familial relationship with Betty Carter. all in this split second i felt the miracle of maternal musical Love which Betty had shown my life in the past weeks of rehearsals. ‘thank you’, i say say calmly looking Ann straight in her eyes, ‘there is nothing i want more than to play with Art, but the thing is, i’ve been rehearsing with Betty Carter and tomorrow we’re going to Buffalo and then to Rochester. i’m playing with Betty now, and i can’t do it. but this is what i’ve always wanted, THANK YOU for asking me.’

Ann seemed taken aback, ‘this is the MESSENGERS. i’m offering you the job with Art and the MESSENGERS!’

‘i know’, i said to Ann, ‘but i must go with Betty tomorrow. thank you Ann. this is actually what i’ve always wanted’. ‘well, okay’ she conceded without further urging.

now most importantly i want to say, had i been like the proverbial dog with a bone in his mouth, who drops the bone to attempt to pick up its reflection he’s seeing in the pond below and winds up with no bone, that clearly, had i done the wrong thing and been greedy to play with Art when it was not truly yet my time, and effectively screwed Betty over in the process, i would have wound up with neither gig. instead, first things first and do the right thing, in the time and place intended for my life, i eventually got to play and tour with both incomparable great leaders, and more than just that i got to play with them, i got to learn, lessons which i am barely beginning to realize today in my life, human as well as precious musical examples, 30-plus years later, from both of two of the greatest leaders of young musicians in the history of Jazz.

all i had going for me at this time with Art, was merely that i knew the band’s book. i was not musically ready to be playing with Art, or Terrence, or Donald. i would have ‘covered’ until Johnny came back, been subsequently characterized, ‘photographed’ by my musical adolescence in the moment by Art and the guys, have utterly burned my bridge with Betty, become rather a laughingstock in New York, and i would not be writing this now.

life blessed me with opportunity, i did work hard from my heart for this, but everything we’re living is spiritual, and there is clearly something bigger and more interconnected going on than can be seen with the naked eye – music proves this to be so to me in my life. years later, during a moment when there were rumors during my 2 1/2 year tenure with Art that he was going to fire me, it was Betty Carter who came down to sweet basil’s on 7th avenue in the west village where we were performing, to get ‘up’ in Art’s face and tell him he’d be crazy to fire me. and indeed Art kept me in the band for a good year after that. thank you Betty.

by not being greedy, i got to play and be trained (and paid!) by miss Betty Carter for four glorious, challenging, calorie burning years, and then i got to play with Art. first things first.


Walter Bishop

my favorite records in the world are the classic era Blue Note records, with the instrumentation of trumpet-saxophone-piano-bass and drums, recorded between the mid-late 1950’s, basically beginning with ‘Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers’, going through around 1968, with what was about the last gasp of this Blue Note quintet era, Lee Morgan’s ‘Caramba’. it’s perfect music for me. when i compose this is often the palette which serves as my muse, imagining Hank Mobley and Lee Morgan in the front line for example, with Billy Higgins’ sizzle cymbal, as my inspiration. it’s reverberating inside me, you are what you eat, and i want to get closer to being inside of this feeling and sound as i grow.

one of these albums i listened to as a teenager in Berkeley was Jackie McLean’s ‘Capuchin Swing’, with Walter Bishop, Jr. playing the piano, contributing two swinging originals for the date. as Miles had done by featuring Red Garland in trio interpreting Ahmad Jamal arrangements, without his trumpet present for tracks on his own trumpet-led recordings, with ‘Ahmad’s Blues’ on ‘Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet’ and ‘Billy Boy’ on the ‘Milestones’ album, Jackie featured ‘Bish’ playing his own trio version of ‘Don’t Blame Me’ at the close of side one of the l.p., with no horns — the ultimate show of respect from a horn player on their own date, to their pianist.

i love that track, and i began to consider Walter as a link to Charlie Parker, Miles and Jackie, that he actually comped for them on their records. he was one of the real cats, but he wasn’t coming to California to perform at that time, i couldn’t go hear him at the Keystone Korner in S.F. as i could Cedar Walton and Horace Silver, also living piano exponents of the Blue Note era and sound.

so when i would fantasize about moving back to my hometown of New York City, prior to hearing Art Blakey at the Keystone and instantly KNOWING i’d be moving, i’d imagine looking Walter up somehow, going to hear him play live in a club, meeting him and asking him for piano lessons.

well, fast forward to the late spring of 1982 in New York, at the Jazz Forum, a loft on the corner of Broadway and Bleeker, where my saint of a big brother, the bassist John Donnelly, and i eventually became two-thirds of the house rhythm section for the tuesday jam sessions hosted by Jo Jones, Jr.. Art Blakey, to whom i was soon to be introduced at this club by his pianist, the incomparably gifted Johnny O’Neal, lived around the corner in a building called the ‘bleeker courts’. here it was! my first chance to hear Walter Bishop, Jr. live — my self-slated present link to the past when i had sat in the sun on the grass lawn behind our family’s home in Berkeley, with my walkman headphones on, dreaming of New York back in the day. Walter was playing the piano with the Bill Hardman-Junior Cook quintet, with Paul Brown (‘Bish’ interpreted his initials as ‘perfectly beautiful’) and the drummer was the son of trumpeter Ray Copeland, Keith Copeland; a sweetheart of a gentle soul.

wow, Walter had this big spread to his chord voicings, the very same chords i’d heard him play on Charlie Parker’s ‘My Little Suede Shoes’ — but i was hearing the sound bouncing of the wooden floored, brick-walled loft LIVE, in person! wow wow wow! NEW YORK! BEBOP! HEAVEN! i actually felt so much pure Love for Bish’s piano playing, that i was for once NOT shy to meet someone! i introduced myself during the intermission. Walter was so personable and i immediately wanted to learn to speak just like him. honestly, to this day, people try to ‘place’ my accent, and no one gets it right. in New Orleans, they think i have a Brooklyn accent. in New York, they think i have a New Orleans accent. time to set the record straight: Walter’s West-Indian, Sugar Hill Harlem accent has had more influence on the sound of my speaking voice as a man than my own parents’.

he was agreeable to lessons, and handed me an old-school New York business calling card. i phoned and made an appointment. he said the lesson would be $30, but that he would not watch the clock, that the money would be sufficient re-numeration regardless of how long our lesson became. the day came, and i arrived. Bish lived in the manhattan plaza twin apartment complex’s; his building was the 9th ave. one, at west 43rd st. in hell’s kitchen. his apartment was 33Q. he greeting me at the door, a warm smile but also with a serious vibe. he simply gestured to his upright grand piano, and said ‘play something’.

what in the world ELSE was i going to play BUT his arrangement of ‘Don’t Blame Me’ from ‘Capuchin Swing’. in a much softer, higher pitched voice, he leans over my shoulder,’that’s -‘ ‘i know’, i interrupt his voice, ‘it’s YOUR arrangement, from Jackie’s record’. ‘man, you listen to that?’ he seemed mildly incredulous (i imagined it was because i didn’t play something like ‘maiden voyage’, as much as i showed him instantly more than told him, that i was quite sincere in my interest in HIS music, if you dig me). the lesson sort of flew by. it was in fact the beginning of a loving father-son relationship. he eventually would introduce himself by saying ‘i’m his new york father’ wherever we went clubbing together in new york. Bish.

at the close of my following lesson, when i reached into my right front jeans pocket and pulled out my neatly folded $10 and $20 bill and handed it to him, he gently pushed my hand away, ‘let’s not keep it on this level’, he said. huh? what does that mean, i thought? i don’t understand his syntax here at all, so, i hand it to him again and, my voice shaking a little because i simply don’t comprehend the communication. now Bish looks a bit disturbed, and he raises his voice in slight but distinct first-level anger, ‘I SAID, let’s Not keep it on This Level!’. he refused money from me after our first meeting. he was indeed my link to Bebop and the days when Jazz was the mainstream music of New York. he was my friend and my first living hero after my own biological father. he Loved me, and i Love him. i wish i’d spent more time with Bish once my ‘career’ moved into high gear by the mid ’80’s. i loved Bish and we had the best hangs, but i had not yet lost a beloved friend, and didn’t quite grasp that he’d eventually die. i miss how he treated me. it was pure love. writing this now reminds me to do better with the living angels in my life. i Love You Bish.


Art Blakey

my first time hearing Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in New York was in the early summer of 1982, at the Jazz Forum. the place was jam packed with hipsters and elegantly attired folks who seemed so exclusively ‘inside’. a new arrival amidst such established community, i felt quite alone within myself, but i KNEW that just as with putting on a good record at home, as soon as the band started playing, i’d feel connected and that my soul would instantly feel every bit as welcome here as the insiders and musicians in the audience who all seemed to recognize and acknowledge one another conspicuously, making sure everyone could see that THEY were upper crust, and if not onstage with Art, still somehow ‘important’. you could not help but want Art to think you were cool, or at least have everyone believe you were part of his inner circle. if you knew you didn’t have it goin’ on like that, you’d try to stay in the periphery of this strongest of auras. as always at a Messengers show, there was a buzz of unparalleled anticipation throughout the room. it was ALIVE, it was SO alive and potent, this presence, this wholly Jazz atmosphere. oh boy it was a deep thing to be around Art Blakey. there is nothing else like this; i want to say to anyone reading this who wasn’t around in those days, you can trust what i’m saying, it was just about surreal, the vibe in the room before Art even showed up, every time. now when he got there, well, it was ON, everyone knew this; everyone. somehow, every time Art was playing, there was such an unspeakably strong communal feeling in the room, it was somehow collectively felt, understood, that everyone was in store for some mighty powerful magic. no one in the audience seemed to have a particularly casual attitude — it was an event — i swear, there was this anticipation in the air that you immediately submitted to and became a part of. i can honestly say there was an air of Jazz history about to take place, and we were all going to receive this wave of sunlight and be left with a sense of profundity.

when Art would enter the venue, the smell of his ‘Grey Flannel’ cologne would literally fill the air, but you DUG it, you wanted it to overwhelm you, you were there to FEEL something. and there you are, you’re in the magic. you are in the right place at the right time for Jazz. ‘they see you before they hear you’? well, with Art, you’d smell that Grey Flannel and of course it would draw your attention to Art’s dominant presence, but even more than that, if you were at all hip and therefore it was NOT your first time hearing Art live, sense of smell being such an associative memory catalyst, you’d be awakened and even MORE vividly reminded of the truly timeless, thriving Jazz atmosphere you’d been blessed by through Art and the Messengers before, and believe me it was a continuing saga being represented by the Jazz Messengers; you’d feel Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan in the ROOM, man. Art was SO deep. one could fascinate in his most colorful, charismatic personality there ever was, but the MUSIC — with Art and the Messengers, you felt so utterly connected to the greatness of the past as well as witnessing yourself submitting to the unmistakable sense that THIS, the music played tonight, what the cats WITH Art were puttin’ down, was where Jazz was truly happening on the planet tonight. the Messengers show was the ONLY place to be, or you were kind of a loser, Jazz-wise, at least that’s how it was for THIS messenger. playing with Art, you were driven to reach so much deeper to project your sound than you’d thought you had it in you to do with any other drummer, and all the while Art was giving shape and sweeping, glorious dynamics to the tag-team sequence of one soloist’s closing statement giving way to a clarion entrance of the next cat. Art said that our improvised solos should, as in writing a letter, have a declarative opening statement of some sort; a greeting or salutation, this becomes a main body or the core, and then a strong closing which the next cat gets right up in and takes charge from. the thing is this: you’re SAYING something — it’s a MESSAGE. and dare i explain how it swung? Please listen to a Messengers record, listen to “Free For All”, as Art said on more than one occassion, ‘seeing is believing, but HEARING is a M.F.’

somehow i’d arranged with the club owner, Mark Morganelli, that if i stood and left the seating at tables and what i remember as being a particularly long bar (where i’d eventually be introduced to the man himself by his pianist the great Johnny O’Neal – thank you, dear old friend, for this) open for paying customers, i could attend shows at the Forum for free. and you know what? it was always real Jazz in there, Mark actually had exceptional taste in the real deal he brought in the Jazz Forum; strictly the greatest Jazz musicians he could afford, all i would say were branches of the Thelonious Monk-Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker-Bud Powell tree. i arrived early and took my place, a perfect view of the piano keyboard (my appointed eventual destination, that was where my head was already at). oh yeah i was just a punk kid shabbily dressed with no hairstyle or swagger whatsoever, but i tell you i REALLY, really was committed to the marrow of my bones that i would be a messenger one day. so i was there, with my sony walkman bulging out of my down jacket pocket, ready to check and do my homework — profile was not an issue, i was there to be invisible and receive what was for my own self the gospel truth. in hindsight, i will now say that i was already a messenger in my heart, i felt and was deadly serious, yet i was green as a baby tree frog.

there was space for me just past the far end of the bar from the elevator entrance. the Messengers began to show up, mostly individually, maybe there’d be two cats together, but it was pretty much a ‘One By One’ procession of the best dressed young brothers you ever saw. three piece suits, pocket squares, tie bars, italian shoes… what’s funny now as i write this 30 years later, is that us young folks who were showing up to listen and marveling at the entire oeuvre of the Messengers with Art as the generator of this fire, this sophistication, would speak in hushed tones, ‘those cats have $400 suits; they got it like THAT!’.