An Interview with Benny Benack

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Benny Benack is a third generation Jazz-head. His grandfather and father (both also named Benny) were a couple of “OG’s” from the long-standing, and criminally-underrated Pittsburg Jazz scene. Now located in New York, Benny III is carrying on the tradition through his work as a trumpeter and crooner with his newest record A Lot of Livin’ to Do, which you can grab via his website here.

Today, I’ve got Benny with us. We talk about his origins as a Jazz artist in Pittsburg, moving to NYC, his new record and building a brand through social media. It’s a good one. Cheers.

Andrew:
Benny, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. It’s been a weird time, hasn’t it? What have you been doing to pass the time?

Benny:
To say 2020/2021 has been a weird time is quite the understatement! Much like all of us, I’ve never experienced anything like it before, artistically or even just the human experience of being so sedentary, and alone in one place for so long. It’s been such an unprecedented ordeal, but one that in a strange way has brought us all together because we’ve all shared this experience. I’ve been very fortunate to have miraculously remained busy with my music, whether through online livestream shows and remote recording opportunities, or as NYC opened up in the summer, outdoor pop-up type concerts. I think I adopted the nickname this summer as “King of the Sidewalk” because of how many gigs I was playing “busk style” – just setting up shop in front of a venue and playing for the people! Those are slowing down now that winter is here and it’s getting colder, but I still have a couple weekly gigs that keep my chops fresh, which I’m very grateful for.

Andrew:
Tell us a but about your backstory. How did you get into music? What was the gateway so to speak?

Benny:
I come from a very musical family, and it is undoubtedly what set me off down the path of being a professional Jazz musician. I’m a third generation Benny Benack, and all of us played Jazz (Benny Sr. was a trumpet star too in his day, and my father Benny Jr. played saxophone). On my mother’s side, my mother Claudia is a vocalist and Professor of Voice at the prestigious Drama School at Carnegie Mellon University in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA. I like to think I got the horn playing from my Dad and the vocal chops from my Mom! I was exposed to Jazz, Classical & Musical Theater music from essentially the womb, so my parents get all the credit in the world for informing my musical tastes. Once they showed me the way, I was off to the races! It’s been an ongoing love affair with Jazz ever since.

Andrew:
As an artist and trumpeter, who were some of your earliest and more important influences?

Benny:
It’s funny to me how our tastes and aesthetics change over time as we mature. As an adolescent, my favorite trumpet players were high-note technicians like Arturo Sandoval & Maynard Ferguson, but as I grew into my teenaged years, I came to love the Bebop/ Hard Bop stylists like Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Dorham and Lee Morgan. Vocally, I was always obsessed with Sinatra, and at that time, Harry Connick Jr. was still putting out albums frequently and touring, so he was also a major influence of mine (and someone I am constantly compared to by fans, which…I don’t mind!). I’ve always been into “crooners,” perhaps as much for the lifestyle and charisma as much as the vocal style.

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Andrew:
You’ve got quite the musical heritage. Your grandfather, Benny Benack, Sr. was a trumpeter and bandleader and your father, Benny Benack, Jr. was a sax and clarinet player, who recorded the famous Pittsburg Pirates theme song, “Beat ‘Em Bucs.” What was it like growing up around them, and how much have they influenced you as a player and artist today?

Benny:
As I mentioned before, I give my parents and my family 100% of the credit for shaping my musical identity. I feel SO fortunate to have been given the enormous “head start” to my career, being exposed to Jazz at such an incredibly young age and falling in love with it. By the time I was 18 and moving to NYC for college at the Manhattan School of Music, I had already been “gigging” professionally around Pittsburgh for years, so I felt less like a scared little lamb and more like a pretty smooth operator. Naturally, New York City’s Jazz scene knocked me down a few pegs when I first arrived, but I still credit my early years of development for giving me such a solid foundation to build upon.

Andrew:
You’ve got a new album out, which is called A Lot of Livin’ to Do. Tell us more about the album. What was your inspiration while recording it? Where can we get the album?

Benny:
As fate would have it, I put out the album just pre-COVID, and was fortunate to have some runway with it to still perform album release shows in NYC at Jazz @ Lincoln Center, and even in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA all in January/February (2020) before things got bad here in the US. I was so excited to get out and tour the music around the world and share it with folks, but even though all of my year’s touring got canceled, I am so heartened to see how many folks have found the music online and through digital streaming platforms like Apple Music, Spotify, etc. I sell hard copies directly through my website www.bennybenackjazz.com for people who really want to support the artists they love, but of course it’s available for free online via all streaming platforms as well as YouTube.

The record is my second self-released album, and features a blend of original compositions, arrangements of Pop favorites, as well as some hard-swinging Jazz for the diehards. I like to say, there’s something for everyone in my music! This album typifies that. My debut record One of a Kind was more of a careful unveiling of my personality, so as not to freak everyone out right out of the gate, whereas with A Lot of Livin’ to Do, I kind of threw up my arms and said, “Well alright, the cat’s out of the bag now, let’s just have some fun and let people see me for the crazy, goofy, joyous guy I am!” The spirit and intention of the music reflects that upbeat, positivity, and also the time in my life as an artist where I have indeed been Living. A. Life. – traveling the world doing what I love…of course I’m in a good mood! It also helps when you have Jazz luminary Christian McBride on bass…it’s impossible not to smile and feel happy when he’s in the band!

Andrew:
What’s changed for you compared to your early days? Are you a better player now than ever? How have you progressed from your debut album, One of a Kind?

Benny:
Apart from the natural maturation process that occurs throughout our 20’s not only as an artist, but as people(!), I think there has been a very natural maturation to my musicianship as well. Vocally, throughout this second album, I felt much more settled and comfortable with my own instrument; that familiarity only comes from experience that you can’t manufacture that as a young person! As a trumpet player, I put in countless hours every single day and night practicing to improve my technique and facility, and I like to think that with each recording, I sound a little better at my craft.

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Andrew:
You’re also the front man of Postmodern Jukebox, which for those that don’t know, is a vintage music collective which performs old-school styled covers of modern Pop. Tell us more about this group and how it got started.

Benny:
PMJ has been a global sensation now for at least 7 or 8 years, and while I only recently became involved directly with their universe, I’ve had close friends play in their bands and sing as featured artists in the past and always thought highly of their concept. Pianist/Arranger Scott Bradlee is the brainchild who came up with the idea to meld modern Top-40 hits with Jazz, and it opened up a whole new generation of folks to Swing music in the process. How cool is that! They first really hit it big on YouTube, and now their new cover videos routinely garner tens of millions of views, and their fanbase is enormous worldwide. Some of my greatest thrills as a performer have come onstage with PMJ playing to arenas packed with thousands of screaming fans, most of them younger than me! Did I ever think that was possible with bonafide Jazz music in 2021? I had my hopes, but PMJ has confirmed for me that with a little creative “paint job,” you can convince audiences of any ages that JAZZ IS FUN! That’s important, as we try to cultivate the Jazz audience of tomorrow.

Andrew:
Let’s talk about the state of music in general a bit. In your opinion, what’s the state of the music industry these days? What are some things that need to change?

Benny:
For starters, I see a lot of artists complaining about the paltry royalties that come from digital streaming platforms, feeling like they’re being take advantage of. While I see their concerns as valid and very current, I also think that there has never been a better time in the history of music to share your brand with the world. We can go “live” on Instagram or Facebook and immediately be directly engaging our fans from around the world in real time. How cool is that!? The music I’ve released online via Spotify and Apple Music has been played in over 88 countries, most of which I’ve gone in-person to tour at and had folks buy CDs and pay for tickets to shows just because some algorithm had my album “pop up” on one of their playlists. I’m not saying the system is perfect by any means, but there are definitely advantages to the way the industry works now, too.

The biggest change is that labels have never mattered less. Being an independent artist is not a death-sentence or something to be looked down on these days; it’s actually in many cases the most viable way to recoup your costs to produce albums, as you own everything and you can get it out to the world so easily and directly now. Don’t get me wrong – I still very much have my childhood dreams of walking into Verve or Blue Note Records and walking out with a big “record deal,” but I think less and less of those contracts exist today, and artists need to stop pretending that’s the holy grail. Sometimes ya gotta just roll up your sleeves and do the dirty work yourself!

Andrew:
In the world we live in today, we are more or less dominated by the never-ending barrage of social media. How has this effected music as an artform? Is an artist’s ability to get their music out there hindered by all this, or helped?

Benny:
Ha, I feel like you read my last answer and then asked this question, instead of them being sent to me in advance! Social Media is the single greatest tool any artist has at their disposal today, and it’s never been easier to grow your audience and communicate with them. Is social media exhausting? Can it be excessive? Is it potentially dangerous in the wrong hands? Does it reward artists who spend more time on their posts than their musicianship? The answer to all of those questions is probably, unfortunately yes, BUT there are also a thousand more good reasons than bad to maintain an active presence on social media if you’re an artist today. Like anything else, moderation is key, but if you want to make a name for yourself today, and you don’t have an Instagram? Oh man, get with the program!

Andrew:
Who are a few underrated artists, past or present that mean a lot to you?

Andrew:
I’m always inspired by my friends first and foremost. I believe in the saying that, “A rising tide lifts all boats” and when one of my friends gets a milestone or does something awesome, our whole community is lifted up! I get such a sense of pride and happiness to see friends gracing the cover of Downbeat Magazine (hey Veronica Swift!), or leading their own band at the hallowed Village Vanguard (yo Emmet Cohen!), or being nominated for Grammys, Tonys, etc. (Charlie Rosen, Christian Sands, & more!). The current crop of young artists coming up in Jazz music is one of the most talented ever (not that I’m biased or anything), and I can’t wait to see what we do next!

Andrew:
Aside from music, what else are you most passionate about and why? How do your other passions inform and inspire your music?

Benny:
Growing up in Pittsburgh, you’re born into deep roots as a sports town. I am fervently obsessed with sports – the Steelers, Pirates, Penguins all take top billing in my brain, but I also follow the NBA and am a huge fan of LeBron James (if you want to waste an hour of your life, start arguing with me about why I think LeBron is better than Michael Jordan at basketball!). My favorite sport to play is Golf, probably because it’s impossibly hard to master, just like the trumpet! What can I say…I’m a glutton for punishment! I have always applied an athlete’s mindset to music, and while some people say, “Music isn’t a sport!” and competitions are silly for music, I disagree! Any Jazz musician who shows up to a jam session and goes to play their instrument in a roomful of other musicians and doesn’t have at least a tinge of their ego telling them to blow everyone away, is LYING TO YOU! Maybe that’s just me, but I’ve always thought of honing my craft the same way an athlete takes care of their body. For me, practicing the trumpet daily is like lifting weights and running, and when I perform, I am doing it to be the very best! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with acknowledging the elephant in the room – all of us Jazz musicians are competing for very few gigs and a very small slice of the same pie…not everyone is going to get a bite – why be bashful about your intentions? I want my damn slice! It doesn’t mean you have to act like a jerk or disparage your colleagues, but anyone who knows me knows that I play to win. That kind of hustle and ambition is what helps drive me to always be getting better.

Andrew:
Are you into vinyl? Tapes? CDs? Or are you all digital now? Where do you like to shop for music?

Benny:
I have friends who are major, major audiophiles and if I want a pristine aural experience, I go to their place to listen to records on the best speakers, with the best needle, the best pre-amps, etc. Otherwise, I’m listening to MP3’s on my phone at the gym like most everybody else. I have a huge collection of records that I inherited when my Grandmother passed away this past summer, and my next goal is to find a record player that does that vinyl collection justice!

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Image Credit: Rachel Rodgers Photography

Andrew:
What’s next for you once COVID-19 calms down?

Benny:
I hope to be back out on the road touring and promoting my last album as soon as possible! I’ve been lucky to stay busy in NYC playing for my culture-starved brethren in 2020/2021, but the rest of the world needs that too! I am already fielding some offers for touring in the spring (Mexico in April 2021???), and hoping that with the vaccines here, things can snap back to their former form sooner rather than later. Rest assured, the moment musicians can be back on tour safely, I’ll be the first one in line!

Andrew:
Last question. In a world that’s been so confined by the constraints of big business and the alienation caused due to the internet age, how do artists find their footing these days? What advice would you have for younger artists?

Benny:
As I mentioned before, I think the dreaded “Social Media Monster” can actually be an up-and coming-artist’s best friend! Not everyone has the personality to run their Instagram like an infomercial, but I believe everyone can connect with their intended audience by just being genuine and being themselves on their social media. People want to see “behind the curtain” and feel like they “know” their favorite artists. Why not give folks a little look? I’ve never been shy about being my own biggest fan and being a salesman when it comes to my brand, and I think it’s served me quite well. That kind of shameless self-promotion might be distasteful to some, but in a landscape where it’s increasingly hard to have your voice heard over the din of the crowd, every bit helps! Get out there!

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Interested in learning more about artistry of Benny Benack? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full archives of Vinyl Writer Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interview

Published by Andrew Daly

Since he was a young child growing up on Long Island, NY, Andrew has always loved writing and collecting physical music. After losing his life-long vinyl collection in 2014, Andrew began his vinyl collection from scratch again when he met his future wife Angela in 2015. Andrew’s love of music only further blossomed as his collection spanned all genres possible. After amassing 5,000 albums, Andrew knew it was time to finally follow his dream, and thus, Vinyl Writer Music was born. Present-day, Andrew is proud to share his love of music with the world through his writing, and the result is nothing short of beautiful: articles and interviews written by a music addict, for fellow music addicts. Andrew lives on Long Island with his wife Angela and their four cats, Oliver, Patrick, Charlie, and Kevin. Andrew works as a Horticultural Operations Manager by day and runs the Vinyl Writer Music website by night. Andrew is also the admin of several Facebook groups dedicated to music.

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