Benny Benack III is young in life and in his career- but already world-traveled and admittedly born with an “old soul.” Which is why he appreciates all the skilled, story-telling crooners of our mid-century history.
A guy whose jazz takes a big, hearty bite of the Big Apple, Benny practices diligently, tours near to exhaustion (while loving it), and dedicates his all to being a lifelong learner.
At what age did you realize you wanted to become a career musician?
I consider myself very fortunate to have grown up in such a musical household, since both parents are musicians. I’ve only ever known jazz music to be my true love, and even from my first days of performing with my father’s big band at five years old, almost ironically, I’ve always felt most comfortable and myself in front of an audience performing. I’ve never had any doubts or second thoughts about another career path, so for better or worse, it’s jazz or bust!
Has your family been supportive of your music?
Unequivocally – I can’t overstate enough the importance of growing up in such a pro-arts environment. Having spent my entire life surrounded by fellow young aspiring jazz musicians and peers, I’ve seen parents on both sides of the gamut – from your overbearing “stage parents” that can burn a prodigy out by the time they’re 18, to dismissive and even disproving parents, who refused to support their child by attending their final senior recital in college, out of protest for the career they’ve chosen for themselves. I was lucky to have parents right in the middle, who were very knowledgeable and supportive of my passions, but never applied pressure one way or another. Whether it was jazz, classical brass ensemble rehearsals, or a travel-baseball tournament, they were supportive the same way across the board.
Singer and trumpet player- how do you take care of both your embouchure and your voice?
It’s funny because while in many respects the two disciplines occupy an equal space in my artistic endeavors, I treat them radically differently in the way I maintain them.
Maintenance, development and troubleshooting my trumpet “chops” has always been the chief obsession and driving force of my life, whereas I’ve always viewed my singing and my voice as a fun escape and release from the maniacal grip the trumpet has on my attention at all times.
I recall a moment backstage at the finals of a Vocal Jazz Competition (Manchester Craftmen’s Guild’s “Gentlemen Sing” Competition in 2014), as I paced in the dressing room awaiting my turn on stage, I was reflexively and nervously running scales and lip slurs on the trumpet as I would before any big performance, before it dawned on me “Oh right, this is a VOCAL competition…shouldn’t I be warming up with arpeggios or something?” As vocal performers age however, there’s an increased urgency to take care of their instrument the way any horn player would, so I need to find a balance of my attention as the years go on.
How long do you typically practice?
On days where I don’t have any performances, I will practice for a minimum of 2-3 hours, which ensures I can get through enough of my “maintenance routine” to not have my facilities erode for the next day. Optimally, I’m able to set aside four or five hours to fully exhaust my chops with exercises designed to strengthen their stamina, range and flexibility. Considering I religiously practice in front of the TV, you can imagine how accomplished my Netflix repertoire is after many long nights of practice!
How did you become interested in the music of the classic jazz crooners?
Even as a young kid, I was drawn to the crooner mystique, not only for the melodic vocalizing, but also for the carefree, charming spirit these figures seemed to ooze without any effort at all. Above all else, these gentlemen made it very apparent they loved what they do, and wanted to share that joy with all who lent their ears. These guys were just so cool and they did it sharply dressed, with a strong cocktail and quick wit – for a portly band geek, it was almost a fantasy to imagine myself rubbing elbows with the Rat Pack in Vegas, or dancing alongside Bing Crosby or Donald O’Connor! The music was also a large part what I fell in love with, but I’ve tried to embody the crooner spirit as well over the years.
What was it like to win the Carmine Caruso competition?
Prior to the Caruso Competition, I had already competed and won a number of jazz trumpet competitions, including the International Trumpet Guild Competition and the National Trumpet Competition (Jazz Division), so I was no stranger to the nerves and high stakes of competitions.
However, this particular one had special sentimental value to me, because the namesake of the competition was the mentor of my mentor at the time: the late, great Laurie Frink. I was so thrilled to tell Laurie I had made the finals of the competition, and knowing she was rooting for me made me want to win it for her twice as badly.
Many docile musicians will rattle off cliché sentiments about how “Music isn’t a competition!” or “You can’t judge art, man” – as for me, I’m about as ruthlessly competitive as a person can be, and I relished the opportunity to vanquish my opponents. It was especially sweet to win, as the worthy competitor who placed second (a magnificent German trumpeter named Magnus Schriefl) actually placed first to my second at the National Trumpet Competition the year prior.
When they announced my name backstage as the winner, I can’t remember many other times in my life where I felt such supreme elation and joy. I personally believe competition and the cutthroat nature of trying to make a living as a jazz musician is what drives the best to be the best, and if I didn’t want to be the best at what I do, I’d probably have way less sleep debt than I do now!
Young and with so much international exposure already. How did these outstanding opportunities present themselves?
I’m blessed to live in the undisputed jazz capital of the world: New York City! As a result, many great musicians from around the world all visit NYC to take part in the scene here, and network with musicians they know from far and wide.
When I’m home and not performing myself, I always try to hang out at other people’s shows, and when you’re out in the jazz clubs night after night, you invariably meet people from all over. There are ample opportunities abroad in Europe, Asia and South America, but as with any extended touring, the traveling can be quite grueling and demanding.
I’d like to think I’ve built a reputation as someone who brings positive energy to those sometimes-adverse conditions, which ultimately can be just as pertinent as one’s musical ability when you think about spending nearly 24 hours a day with someone for weeks on end!
I’m thankful for the great friends I’ve made from around the world, and grateful for their efforts to expand my audience, and bring jazz to as many cultures as possible.
What do you love best about performing?
I feel a rush unlike no other when I’m on stage. I’m convinced there’s no better feeling alive than the energy that is created by a captive audience and willing band working together to make magical memories that last a lifetime.
I’m a musician who isn’t afraid to also call himself an “entertainer,” and I believe it’s entirely possible to captivate listeners with your music while still creating art of the highest caliber without sacrificing musical integrity. I genuinely say this without hubris, but I have noticed my entire career, I have always garnered an exceptional amount of applause and attention from the audience, relative to other performers in whatever context. I’d like to think this is because the audience can see and feel how much energy I exhaust and how deeply I throw myself into every note I play, and they are able to sense how honestly I’m trying to reach them.
All of the greatest musical moments I’ve ever had have come in tandem with superb audiences, and in many cases I think we as musicians have only reached our highest heights because the crowds spurred us on so.
The best compliment you ever received?
The greatest type of compliment I love to hear is from people who aren’t necessarily diehard jazz listeners, who may’ve stumbled into a club on a Google search or recommendation for cocktails, and might not understand all of the subtleties of the music happening on stage, but nonetheless walk away from my performance with a newfound appreciation for jazz music and how it’s performed. People often say they can tell how much I love what I do, or that by seeing the effusive manner in which I interact with my band mates, they were drawn to smile and feel the same kind of unabashed joy I displayed on stage.
My New York bias continues to dominate the conversation, but I have to go with Jazz @ Lincoln Center, located atop the Time Warner Building in Columbus Circle. Whether it’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, or the Appel [spelled correctly] Room amphitheater across the hall, the backdrop behind the stage being ceiling-to-floor glass overlooking the corner entrance to Central Park and the middle of Manhattan is truly breathtaking and inspires chills in me every time the sun sets on the stage and the skyline lights up.
There is definitely magic in the many iconic basement clubs of the West Village, and there’s a specific energy to cramming into a dungeon-like space with your fellow concert-goers, but call me old-fashioned – I like to play dress up and pretend we’re all living in the Golden Era of Hollywood sometimes, and stretching out your feet in the luxurious space at Dizzy’s often has me saying to folks who are visiting the club for the first time: “This just feels like New York, doesn’t it!”
The annual Vail Jazz Party in Vail, CO will always hold a special place in my heart, because of the impact it had on me as a young, aspiring jazz musician in high school. I first attended the festival as a selected member of the Vail Jazz Workshop, after being nominated by my band director and trumpet teacher Frank Eisenreich, and spent the week working one-on-one with the world-class faculty of the Clayton Brothers band, led by bassist John Clayton. We were treated as peers by the faculty despite our young age, and the festival staff and host families we all stayed with created a real sense of community.
I returned back to the festival last summer as a member of their yearly Workshop Alumni All-Stars, where we were given top-billing performances on the main stage of the festival, and also selected to play alongside many of our heroes in various formations. I love how this festival takes the bands of the different acts, and mixes and matches the personnel for different groups, in the true spirit of the jazz jam session.
Place you always wanted to play?
For any aspiring jazz musician living in New York City, the most sacred bastion of all clubs is the Village Vanguard. Its stage is the most exclusive and elusive to stand on in the world, and you know that if you’re performing there, you’ve truly “made it.”
Some iconic venues will hire jazz luminaries ten months out of the year, and fill their remaining calendar with pop acts to sell tickets, but the Vanguard stays true to its musical integrity almost to a fault, allowing only truly accomplished and learned jazz artists to grace its hallowed stage.
Favorite collaborations and why?
Vocally, I would say I love the intimacy and exposed nature of the Tony Bennett/Bill Evans duo albums, and I adore Sinatra’s imperfect-yet-elegant renditions of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s music on their studio recording together. On the trumpet, I love the romantic whims of Clifford Brown With Strings, and the child-like playful ebullience brought out by Oscar Peterson’s “Trio +1” album featuring the inimitable Clark Terry.
Where do you teach and what age groups?
Aside from the private studio I maintain of students of all ages from around the world (hooray Skype lessons!), I am approaching my fourth season as a Teaching Artist for Jazz @ Lincoln Center’s “Jazz For Young People” program, and I often tell people there is no more important concert I will ever play than the ones I do at schools in the Greater NY area for this education initiative.
Funded by JALC, we travel to schools all over Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, performing themed jazz assembly concerts covering topics such as “Jazz & Democracy,” “Jazz & the Great Migration” and “Jazz & the Civil Rights Movement.”
Oftentimes these schools have cut their music programs, and some students are actually seeing these instruments live for the first time in their lives. It’s incredibly rewarding to see the light bulbs go off for these children when they realize the impact jazz has had in our culture, and also perhaps realize it can be a fun, exhilarating experience to see jazz live – not just something for the dentist’s office or their parent’s dusty old record collection!
What do students ask most about the music industry? About jazz?
I hear most young(er) musicians want to know the secrets to “getting gigs” above all else. It’s not even necessarily their fault, as it’s a valid concern for anyone trying to pay their rent solely playing music, and can be a devastating prospect when trying to break in to an already crowded market.
Ironically, these are the very questions these young players shouldn’t be asking those they look up to, as it gives off the impression they’re more concerned with superficial or commercial success than they are “taking care of business” as it pertains to their craft, and the music. The best advice I ever got from older musicians was to remain humble, always try to learn something on the bandstand, and just chill out and be cool to be around. You can only incriminate yourself in this business, and the more relaxed and quietly confident you carry yourself, the more willing the older established folks who are in a position to give you opportunities will think you’re ready.
What is the key to learning to scat, and, to scat without inhibition?
The most important thing for any vocalist who wants to learn the craft of scat singing is to actually treat it like a craft first and foremost. I hate how “scatting” gets marginalized by vocalists, and is often glossed over in their studying of jazz in a way that other instrumentalists would never do.
For some reason, the bar for vocal improvisation is set far lower than on other instruments, and many vocalists get away “scatting” without actually taking the time to study any meaningful jazz harmony and language whatsoever. Of course one needs to study the GOATs (Greatest of All-Time) like Louis and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as the various other legends of the craft (Mel Tormé, Anita O’Day, Chet Baker, Clark Terry, Jon Hendricks, Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughn, the list goes on & on), but I also urge them to transcribe and study the phrasing and playing of horn players!
For my money, I’d rather hear an instrumentalist, who can barely carry a tune, scat a solo than an accomplished vocalist without the faintest idea of jazz language. My scatting is 100% influenced by my studies learning jazz vocabulary on the trumpet, and I would say the same about many of the best scatters in history – they all studied instrumentalists as well as just vocalists.
What is the difference in the feel of performing for a big band versus a small ensemble?
Standing in a section, there’s truly no feeling in jazz like a cohesive, swinging big band! As a vocalist, it’s the biggest thrill you’ll ever have.
As someone who frequently does both, the responsibilities couldn’t be more different. Usually I play one of the inner, supportive voices in the trumpet section – the 2nd or 3rd chair. Your entire responsibility is to listen to your lead trumpet, give him support, and try to coalesce your sound to his. You’re the definition of a team player, and you operate as one cog in a machine designed to swing, with no one widget more important than the other!
As a vocalist standing in front of that outfit, you have to try and match the intensity a band of that size puts out. You’re truly out on an island, and in a section of one, your responsibility is to keep things in motion and be the fuse that lights up the explosion of sound!
What’s the backstory to “One of a Kind”- what inspired it, went into its production, and its challenges?
Leading up to my debut release, all I heard from those in the music industry was how I needed to market myself one way or another – trumpet player or vocalist. There was simply no way to present both in a cohesive manner. However, as I began performing more as a headliner in clubs around the world, I saw how audiences reacted to my “variety show” that blended together familiar elements of jazz and pop, with vocals and instrumentals side-by-side in a set-list, with the only thing tying them together being the same group of guys on stage!
I found overwhelmingly that rather than be confused or flummoxed by the contrasting styles, audiences enjoyed the roller coaster ride, and left the performance feeling as though they had really just experienced a musical journey, not just a collection of good individual songs. With that in mind, I felt confident presenting all facets of my musical personality together as one, and I feel like that’s the path less traveled – a “One of a Kind” route, if you will. As a wordsmith, I couldn’t resist the irony of calling myself “One of a Kind” when I’m very clearly one of three. Perhaps a bit on the nose, but I think “corny” and “charming” make cozy neighbors…
Also doing double-duty with singing and playing trumpet. Do you do that with many songs, and how do you mentally switch from one to the other?
For me, oscillating back and forth isn’t as daunting as it might sound, as both instruments are coming from the same source. It’s really a musical stream of conscious, and my vocabulary remains the same on both (though I might have a couple extra octaves in my vocal chords). I’m constantly inspired by the ingenious arrangements of Louis Armstrong, who over and over again found different interesting ways to organize his singing and his playing on the same song. Sometimes it’s less complicated than it sounds – let the two take turns!
It’s still early but how is the single being received?
There’s a certain angst that every artist has when making the leap to presenting their musical identity to the world as a solo artist, for all to judge.
I’ve been incredibly encouraged by the positive response thus far for my album and also my compositions, be it the music or lyrics. At the end of the day, every artist has to come to terms with their own music first and foremost, but anyone who tells you they don’t care what others think, or aren’t concerned with how it’s received, is either lying, or probably out of work!
Do you consciously try to capture the classic 50’s phrasing and sound or is it natural for you?
Unlike many young artists who torture themselves trying to re-invent the wheel or create something “new” that’s never been done before, I was never concerned with being the “Next Great Innovator” on my instrument. I simply wanted to play great music, greatly.
I have always been an old soul, and thus gravitated to the music of prior generations, be it “Classic Crooners” or Hard Bop trumpeters. That’s not to say I haven’t also spent time listening to and learning how to communicate in more modern and contemporary jazz contexts (If I had a dollar for every time I played a classmate’s original composition in odd meter time, I might be able to afford real health insurance!).
In fact I made it a goal of mine early on to be versatile and well-versed in every style of jazz music, from its inception to the cutting edge. However, in my heart of hearts, I suppose I’m most at home swingin’ and singin’ away on something tuneful with a pretty melody, that everyone in the room can bob their head to and smile! In this way, I suppose whatever “classic phrasing” is elicited in my interpretations, is unintentional and entirely natural.
Talk about your band- the personnel; and how long does it take to work on meshing so well together?
The band on my debut album “One of a Kind” is unique in that it features many musicians who are also notable as bandleaders in their own right. It was great to have that collective experience in the room as I embarked on my first album, knowing many of them were sympathetic to the spot I had put myself in (12 hours in the studio to record 12 tunes…we barely had time to call and order Thai delivery for dinner!).
That day in the studio was actually the first time that combination of musicians had all played together, which sounds insane before you realize that’s par for the course for a jazz musician.
Every time you step on stage at a jam session, you’re tasked with making passable music with people you’ve likely never met before, and in many cases don’t even speak the same language (although the language of jazz is universal). As such, with willing contributors, these musical bonds form very quickly, and when everyone is listening to each other trying to make one another sound better, you can find musical euphoria incredibly quickly!
When it comes to the long car-rides and seedy motels of touring together, a bandleader really must surround himself with allies who are down with the cause, and are willing to put the music first, above the other various pleasantries life has to offer. As a result, I want to be “in the trenches” on the road with close friends, who can make those long drives seem like a breeze, who embrace the incredibly late night post-gig diner meals followed immediately by the incredibly-early-morning lobby calls, who look the adversity of being a jazz musician dead in the eye and say, “Yep, I’m game!” I’m lucky to have found a loyal stable of musical brothers and peers, whom I wouldn’t trade for the world. Those experiences we share off the stage help make our on-stage chemistry even tighter.
Touring during the rest of 2017?
One of my biggest goals moving forward now that the album is out is to share that music with audiences around the world. I’m actively trying to reach every corner of the country, and I’m energized every time I make a new fan from any market.
In October and November, we’ll be all over Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as the Midwest (Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis). My goals for 2018 are to set up a tour along the West Coast, and also link up with some friends in Canada. All tour dates are announced on my website www.bennybenackjazz.com – head there to see if we’ll be in a city near you!
New projects in the works?
I’ve been fortunate to work alongside some big names in jazz and pop circles alike, and I’ve put some thought into how cool it would be to bring those unique voices together in one project. While a “Duets” project usually falls in one’s discography a little ways down the line, I’d love to collaborate with friends like Ann Hampton Callaway, Josh Groban, Isaac Mizrahi and Lea DeLaria and really have some fun in the studio, the way Louis and Ella used to do!
If you enjoyed the new album, or have an idea of a venue near you that might be a good fit for my show, I’d love to hear from you! My website www.bennybenackjazz.com has a “Guestbook” page that is designed to keep me in touch with new friends and fans…I hope you’ll stay in touch!
For more information, visit as above.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017