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.