In the age before a young Elvis Presley thrust rock ’n’ roll from his loins, or Little Richard and Jerry Lee hammered at the ivories — or Chuck was doing his duck walk in diapers — jazz musicians were the raucous rebels, the punks if you will, of the music scene.
These were the guys being sexually evocative and ingesting ridiculous amounts of drugs, getting all of the girls and dying young. Jazz was exciting and fueled by debauchery. After rock ’n’ roll, people’s perceptions started shifting.
For a long time now, the everyman’s feeling toward jazz has been a notion of two prototypical fans: old geezers or pretentious fuckwits, wearing berets and smoking clove cigarettes. No longer considered rebellious, jazz morphed into a watermark, demonstrating one’s highbrow tastes to feel superior. Thanks to musicians like Dave Bennett and his label, Mack Avenue Records, the people are starting to take jazz back.
Don’t get angry, jazz-heads; we are well aware how popular perceptions are often wrong. Jazz didn’t ever go away and, if you ask the musicians, it was never taken away from the people. But, for whatever reason, many have felt that jazz simply wasn’t for them, much like opera and classical music.
Bennett wants to change that. The multi-instrumentalist is best known for his work with the clarinet, which he picked up at 10 years old, and at the same time discovering the brilliance of Benny Goodman.
“That was pretty much it,” he says. “I knew what I wanted to do at that point. I just flipped out over the sound, the way it was played. It was really an impact moment.”
Becoming enamored of jazz at such a young age is not to be sniffed at, even if, as Bennett points out, it was listener-friendly big band and swing sounds that drew him in. He was soaking up the music of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller while, ironically enough, Bennett’s parents were encouraging him to listen to rock ’n’ roll. Eventually, Bennett relented.
“I dug out an Elvis Presley record and then flipped out over that, so I had to teach myself to play guitar,” he says. “The year after that, I heard Jerry Lee Lewis and had to teach myself to play piano. A couple of years later, I heard Phil Collins, so I wanted to go play the drums.
“I’ve been blessed with an ability and it doesn’t come easy by any means, but if I wanted to do something like learn a new instrument, and if I put enough hard work into it, I would manage to get presentable enough,” Bennett explains. “I’ve been able to perform different types of music — a lot of rockabilly stuff — and have had a fair amount of success.”
That’s certainly true given that Bennett has made a fulltime living from music since age 13; and that’s a true story.
The man has two bands that perform rockabilly music as well as his jazz project, proving his ability to play just about anything, any style he puts his mind to. They’re not mutually exclusive either. Bennett will find ways to incorporate rockabilly into his jazz shows and vice versa.
“When people come to one of our shows, it’s not going to be strictly a jazz concert,” he says. “We might do something by Benny Goodman but then do something by Jerry Lee. To me, it’s just playing music. So I just do what I do. I have one band called the Memphis Boys and that’s all the music of the mid-’50s — Sun Records rockabilly.
“I have another group called Rockin’ the ’50s, which is a little more straight-ahead ’50s rock. I play a guitar and that’s a three-piece,” Bennett explains. “Fortunately, we’ve been getting work around the country doing that sort of thing too.”
Bennett also has a new solo record out through local jazz label Mack Avenue Records called Don’t be That Way. The musician extols the latitude Mack Avenue executives grant their signed artists, allowing them a creative freedom to explore whichever avenues they desire.
“I’ve never been signed to any other label so I don’t know how other record companies would treat their musicians, but they’ve been great,” Bennett says. “I think it’s a good fit. On the record that we did, they gave me a lot of breathing room. We did different styles. It was originally going to be a straight ahead swing record, and it turned into more than that.”
Bennett is easy company. With his all-American good looks and leather Superman jacket, his maturity belies his young age. At 29, he’s already accomplished much, including as a member of acclaimed local jazz troupe the Hot Club of Detroit. So why is he no longer in that band?
“… I was already doing my own thing at the same time that I joined the band,” he says of his subsequent departure from Hot Club. “I would have gigs of my own and they would have gigs. They’d call me and I would have to turn them down. I think we just drifted away. … I’d work with them again if they wanted me to. They really stretched me at the time. It was a type of music that I hadn’t played before so it really made me get on top of my game. They really gave me a good push.”
Bennett prides himself on his ability to put jazz in front of any audience, to “de-snob” the art form. “One of the compliments we receive is that people will say they don’t like jazz, but they love my band,” he says. “Apparently, whatever we’re doing, we must be doing something right. I think that everybody wants to present to an audience what they feel passionate about. We just like to have a good time and interact with the audience.”
On Saturday, Bennett will be performing a local show at Peabody’s in Birmingham. He’ll warm up for that set by performing with the New York Pops at Carnegie Hall.
“I’ve been to New York but this is my first time playing Carnegie Hall, and I’m kinda nervous about it,” he says. “I have nothing planned for the Peabody’s show. That’s a very loose gig. I’ve been playing there since I was 17. It’s like the home base gig. We pretty much do whatever we want. As for Carnegie, from day one you hope to play there someday. It’s like this distant dream. I keep telling myself to just go out there and do my thing. Have fun. But it’s easy to let the pressure get to you.”
You’ll do just fine, sir.
Dave Bennett plays at Peabody’s Dining & Spirits on Saturday, Nov. 9; 34965 Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-5222.
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