George Benson: Detroit Jazz Master

George Benson was a respected figure on the Detroit jazz scene for seventy years. When he passed on March 9 at age 90, he left behind numerous friends, family members and music fans in deep grief. Benson had a sure sense of right and wrong, and his music overflowed with confidence and feeling.

A product of the Detroit Public School system, Benson was the oldest of nine children, and is the only one of his siblings who chose music as a profession. While still in elementary school, Benson spied his late uncle’s C-melody saxophone and band uniform in the family attic one day and was very impressed by the flashy uniform but was told that if he wanted to wear the uniform, he had to learn the saxophone first. He took lessons through school, and once his father saw young George was serious, he bought him an alto saxophone. By his thirteenth birthday, Benson was a proficient reader and he was playing regularly in his school’s band.

Benson was determined to earn his living as a musician, and at the age of 16 he began rehearsing with a twelve-piece band led by “Geechie” Robinson at the Twelve Horsemen club. He dropped out of Northwestern High school during his junior year in order to pursue a career in music. His first paying gig was at the Three Star Bar on Hastings and Brewster, followed by a gig with a big band led by Ray Thompson.

Benson’s early inspirations were Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, and their imprint was discernable whenever he played ballads. Unlike most alto saxophonists of his generation, Benson did not immediately fall under the spell of Charlie Parker and did not think of himself as a bebopper. It was only later, after repeated hearing of recordings by Stan Getz and others that George understood bebop.

Benson began to develop his improvisational skills while playing with trumpeter/vocalist King Porter in 1950. Porter’s group featured a horn-driven brand of rhythm and blues sometimes dubbed Jump Blues. Benson learned to “walk the bar” while playing his instrument, which he found was an easy way to supplement his bare-bones sideman salary. “All the guys used to do that sort of thing, people would fill up the horn with money,’” George remembered in a 1991 interview with us.

Benson’s next stop after Porter’s group was a quartet, his first band, which he put together for a series of jobs in Toledo, Ohio. For one engagement George’s band included a young Tommy Flanagan on piano and blues guitarist Calvin Frazier.

In February 1951, Benson recorded four numbers with his combo for Detroit record store owner / entrepreneur Joe Von Battle in Von Battle’s makeshift studio in the back of his store on Hastings St. One side of the 78 featured “The Nearness of You,” which became a hit of sorts.

George was drafted in 1951 and spent two years stationed in Hawaii in the 64th Army Headquarters band sitting alongside tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin. After his discharge, George worked with pianist Willie Anderson, whom Benson considered “as good as any piano player in the country…the man was just fantastic. Listening to him six nights a week, I learned how to improvise.”
A number of changes to the music scene occurred during the 1950’s and 1960s. The rise of TV hit the clubs hard, and many discontinued live music altogether. These changes forced more musicians to seek employment in non-music fields. A sideman in the late forties could live off of a six-nights-per-week gig, but the responsibilities of marriage and family caused Benson to reevaluate his priorities and shelve plans for a move to New York City. “I wanted my kids to have all the things that the other kids had. After I got my day job, I didn’t have to worry because I had money coming in.” He continued to work full time until 1998, when he retired from the U.S. Postal Service after thirty years employment.

Benson also led the last band at Detroit’s fabled Flame Show Bar, in 1962 – 63, a trio with Motown mainstay Earl Van Dyke on organ and drummer “Big Mike” Lawton. Benson’s group worked six nights per week and backed up many great singers, including Dinah Washington.

Van Dyke was part of the Motown rhythm section the Funk Brothers, and Benson was part of a second circle of Detroit jazzmen around Motown in the 1960s who were called for specific recordings calling for horns or woodwinds.

After his 1951 record debut, it was until 1986 that Benson had an opportunity to record again under his own name. Detroit’s George Benson Swings & Swings & Swings on the Parkwood label (owned by guitarist Hugh Leal in Windsor, Ontario) gave him a chance to stretch out on his own. The date features two of his own compositions: “Jack’s Place” and “Fuchsia Moods.” He had already appeared as a sideman to drummer J.C. Heard on The Detroit Jazz Tradition — Alive & Well, another album on the same label three years earlier.

His George Benson—Sax Master recording on the Alembic Arts label (owned by the late Jim Ruffner) in 1999 received many well-deserved accolades. The recording was seen as the Outstanding Jazz Recording by the 2000 Detroit Music Awards, at which he also was given awards for Outstanding Jazz — Traditional and Outstanding Jazz Instrumentalist. The 2001 CD version of the recording was placed in the Detroit Time Capsule to be opened in 2101 as a sample of what jazz was like in the year 2001.

Sax Master features Benson with Gary Schunk on piano, Don Mayberry on bass, and Tom Brown on drums. The mix of material is typical of Benson’s repertoire and ranges from early jazz and pop standards to 1940’s Ellingtonia to a beautiful reading of Thad Jones’ “A Child Is Born.” Benson’s work on tenor sax, an instrument which he added to his music arsenal in the mid-fifties, is especially fine. On tenor he mustered what Detroit Free Press columnist Mark Stryker in 1999 called a “chest-first swagger and an every-lick-is-a-party effervescence.”

Benson’s last recording was a duo with pianist Glenn Tucker dubbed Dreamers (PKO Records, 2017). Tucker is several generations younger than Benson, but the two have an obvious rapport. They first played together in 2011 at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit followed by other gigs. Tucker was always impressed with the connection that George established with an audience by the end of a set, just by playing his instrument; no vocals or “showmanship”. Dreamers is unique since it features all Benson compositions, including the two on his 1986 release.

In addition to his own recordings, Benson appeared as a sideman to fellow Detroiters like Earl Van Dyke, the New McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Austin Moro Big Band, J.C. Heard, Bess Bonnier, Matt Michaels Trio, and Dennis Tini.

Benson worked as a mentor of younger musicians for a number of years, including tenorists Rick Margitza and Chris Collins. His long experience as a musician in a variety of musical contexts, his deep knowledge jazz traditions, and his gentle manner has made him a much loved Jazz Master. We are privileged to have had the chance to know him.

George Benson’s funeral was held on March 16 at the Rock of Ages Christian Ministries in Detroit and included a musical tribute and testimonies from friends and family. The musical tribute was held together by pianist Buddy Budson and featured a line of Detroit musicians who played with Benson: saxophonists Russ Miller, Vincent Bowens and Steve Wood; trumpeters Walter White and Don Swindell; trombonist Ed Gooch; guitarist Ron English; pianist Gary Schunk; bassists Dan Kolton, Marion Hayden and Ralphe Armstrong; drummers George Davidson, Jerry McKenzie and Gayelynn McKinney; vocalists Ursula Walker, Shahida Nurullah, and Angie Smith. The group played some of George’s compositions, like “Kaylani’s Song” (for his granddaughter) and “Jack’s Place.” “Danny Boy” was a wonderful feature for Walter White; we also heard “The Nearness of You” and a blues in Benson’s favorite key of D. Benson’s son Michael and daughter Kimberly spoke eloquently about their father. His wife, LaJune preceded him in death.

ABOVE: George Benson’s funeral, March 16 in Detroit

photograph by Lars Bjorn