Music Makes Me Feel Alive Essays

benny green and bert green

my Father introduced me to this music. his name is Bert Green, he was born in pittsburgh, pennsylvania, in 1928. he played the tenor saxophone with all his heart, and while he consistently showed me throughout my precious time with him a selfless admiration for any cat who could really play the horn, his musical hero and prime inspiration was unquestionably Lester Willis Young, ‘Prez’. recordings like the 1936 Count Basie small group session with ‘shoe shine boy’ and ‘lady be good’, his solos with the Basie orchestra in the late 1930’s into the early ’40’s, and most of all the dreamworld realm of Prez’s recordings with Billie Holiday, formed the core foundation for my Father as a tenor player. you could hear and feel it whenever he put that 1938 lacquer-barren selmer balanced-action tenor in his mouth. my Dad. pretty much my Father’s last words to me years later as he was dying in his bed at home, were ‘you’re a beautiful cat’. that’s what my Dad was; a beautiful cat.

he seemed to understand musical expression profoundly as a listener, be it Bartok or Slim and Slam, and as a player he swung and played the blues. he made no secret that he expected authenticity from me as a Jazz musician, as his ‘son-of-the-righthand-man’, which he explained to me is what my name, Benjamin, means.

he always wanted the very best for me. ‘in our household, music comes before medicine’, i clearly remember him telling me when i was around ten years old. he made sure i understood the importance of being able to read music. years later, in 1984 when i was 21 and on my first commercial recording session, i was thanking my Dad silently in my heart for what he’d shown me. i still thank him inside wherever i go to play or teach, he is right inside of me, more than ever before.

when i kept repeatedly coming back to the garage behind our house at the age of 8 or 9, to sit quietly with my dad as he sculpted and listened with an ear-to-ear grin to his Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Ray Charles l.p.’s on his portable phonograph, he and i both realized that i was fast getting the ‘bug’. once you have it, nothing can quite get inside you like the feeling of real Jazz, meaning that the improvisation truly swings and has some authentic blues feeling to it, as well as taking chances and spontaneously executing them with virtuosity. there is infinitely more to Jazz than i will ever begin to ‘know’, but i will and DO put my life on the line that with the removal of these essential vertebrae, calling something ‘jazz’ does NOT make it so.

one day, my dear Dad, with such a careful and caring tone which he maintained to me as a musician to the day he died, and honestly i still hear his voice inside me in each day of my life, told me ‘if you’re really interested in this music we’ve been listening to, you should understand that it’s a black people’s music. other people can play it and enjoy it; i do as you can see, but you need to know where it’s coming from’.

Betty Carter is in all truthfulness, whether i remember it in each day or not, effectively my musical mother. Art Blakey, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, Milt Jackson and Freddie Hubbard all blessed my life by inviting me to participate in their music, included me on their recordings and live shows, and Art, Ray and Freddie even recorded my original tunes on their records. i have something to share today because i got to play with the hardest swinging bassist and drummer in the history of Jazz; i got to feel this!

i have always wanted to belong and be included and be a part of The Music, black-american music, Jazz. anyone who has ever gotten to know me or been in my home, knows exactly what i’m about. i love classic Blue Note quintet records, and the sound and feeling of a trumpet-saxophone front line like Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley or Kenny Dorham and Jackie McLean, is what i love, and it inspires the music i write. i am a Jazz Messenger, my life is dedicated to Jazz.

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After 60 plus years of composing and performing, I believe more than ever in the extraordinary power of music.

In this day of fast information and communication, music nourishes our inner souls. As tensions between nations continue, music reaches beyond borders. At weddings, funerals, inaugurations and parades, music gives us public permission to feel and share things. In fact, music has always been a shared thing — between the creator, the performer and the audience. Music connects me to people I don't even know.

Strong music puts you in a space where you forget about yourself. It's like a good movie. It's an escape. You lose yourself. It's a license to feel, sing, shout and to dance.

Do you remember when you first fell in love? Was there a song associated with that love? When you hear that song now, don't you think of that person and actually remember what you felt? Maybe you even cry.

When I was growing up, my life largely centered around boys and sex. I was into music, but music didn't always give me the nourishment that boys did. It takes time and patience to be nourished by music. Now, I can say, without music I would be lost.

A conductor once told me that music had kept him off the streets and even out of jail. Music became a kind of "survival" phenomena for him (and for me, too). It is our drug of choice because it has given us the extraordinary lasting inner experience that has even replaced real drugs, vacations, money, fame and all the things we associate with pleasure and excitement. A friend of mine who happens to be an extraordinary pianist and still practices up to five hours a day once said to me, "The piano is my best friend. I can't think of anyone better to spend my time with."

I feel the same way about composing. I'm in the studio from 1:00 to 5:30 religiously, every day. I used to run from the studio — I'd tell myself I had to clean or make a telephone call, anything to get out of there. Now I look forward to these hours.

Music is not just my most trusted friend. It makes me come alive, to show strength and passion and to feel useful. Music makes me feel like I'm doing something terribly important. I believe that with music I can help to change the world around me — if just a little bit.

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