R.I.P. Benny Powell

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Benny Powell
Amid the bounty of great music in New York over the last two weeks, jazz has suffered three big losses: Bill Dixon (84-years-old, June 16), Fred Anderson (81-years-old, June 24), and now Benny Powell (80-years-old), whose death was announced on Saturday. I never heard Bill Dixon or Fred Anderson play, but I knew Powell's music well. His passing hits me with a more audible silence.

In August 2001, I saw Powell's friend and longtime employer Randy Weston perform at the Caramoor Jazz Festival in Katonah, NY. I'd never heard Weston's music before that day and discovering it was one of the most magical moments of my jazz life. Within two months of jumping out of my seat to Weston's mesmerizing “Blue Moses," I'd called the great man at his Brooklyn home and booked him and his trio to perform at my high school. Benny Powell didn't play with Weston that day (nor at the 9 a.m. high-school-assembly gig), but I heard him plenty over the following years when he performed with Weston's larger ensembles. Powell was an impressive soloist and a remarkably sensitive sideman—a cool, understated anchor in Weston's often molten-hot African Rhythms Quintet. He wasn't an innovator like Dixon or Anderson, so his death isn't getting a lot of press, but Benny Powell was the kind of consummate professional that has long made jazz hum—playing everything with everybody, and, up until the very end, bringing to the music an encyclopedia of experience and a sound, patient, generous, and wise.

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This story appears courtesy of Inverted Garden by Eric Benson.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved.

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