Famed jazz guitarist George Benson’s new autobiography Benson — written with prolific local author Alan Goldsher (Paul is Undead: The British Zombie Invasion and My Favorite Fangs: The Story of the Von Trapp Family Vampires, among many others) and intro’d by legendary actor/comedian Bill Cosby — includes a portion about Benson’s gig with jazz great Benny Goodman for a 1975 PBS Soundstage taping in Chicago. It was done, Benson recollects, as a tribute to celebrated music producer John Hammond. Here’s a bit about how the memorable jam session went down:
I’d played with some heavy cats, but those cats were my contemporaries, guys my own age who spoke my language, both verbally and musically. Put me on Soundstage with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane, and I’d be cool. But with the likes of [sax player/clarinetist/trumpeter] Benny Carter, [pianist] Teddy Wilson, and [drummer] Papa Jo Jones, I was out of my element. Not only that, but I was an outsider — those guys had known one another for years, and I was the new kid in class. I prayed the music would bring us together.
It did. From the get-go, there was no attitude, no drama, and no discomfort — only a mutual respect and a shared desire to pay proper homage to John, a gentleman whom we all loved and revered.
Okay, maybe there was a little bit of drama.
Benny Goodman had a well-earned reputation as a musical tyrant, a man who ruled his band — and every band with whom he performed — with an iron fist. Even though this was a one-off TV show, and even though the show was meant to honor a mutual friend and respected colleague, the other cats in the group were frightened to make any decisions, to do anything on their own. During rehearsal, they all stood there quietly, waiting until Benny told them what to do, waiting for the infamous Benny Goodman Signal. (Sometimes Benny liked to go off-script, meaning that if he wanted to take an unscheduled solo, he’d chop his hand like Bruce Lee, and when he made that gesture, you’d better shut up, get low, and stay in the background, because it was Benny Goodman time. But I didn’t know the law.) Me, once I saw the lights, the cameras, and John Hammond, I got over my nerves.