SALT LAKE CITY — To hear jazz pianist Benny Green tell it, he was destined for music from an early age.
“I didn’t find jazz. Jazz found me," Green said in advance of his Salt Lake City concert this Saturday, April 28, at Capitol Theatre. "My dad played tenor sax with all his heart and when I was little, 5 or 6, I’d go out to the garage where he’d be playing a stack of records of all the greats, rotating them for hours. He’d be studying them and listening to the music with such intensity and admiration. Sometimes he’d close his eyes and swing to the beat. And even at that age, the music did something to me. I could feel something magical going on. I couldn’t put it into words but I was transported out of the garage to someplace else, and the more the music drew me in, the more I fell in love.”
That musical love affair has help Green become one of the world's pre-eminent jazz pianists. He has lectured at the Juilliard School and Berklee College of Music, among other institutions, and is currently on staff in the Department of Jazz and Contemporary Improvisation at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
But after years of playing on the world's stages, Green, 55, still remembers the joy of playing his first piano. His family was living in Oakland, California, when, early one morning, they all packed into the family car and headed to a warehouse that sold used pianos.
“The minute we walked inside I remember walking up to a piano and I started trying to make sense of the keys," he said. "The black keys and white keys were pure magic. I was in love.”
But to Green’s dismay, he was not the first family member to take piano lessons — that privilege went to his older sister. When she would finish with her lessons, Green would slide onto the bench and try to compose his own music and make sense out of the sounds generated from the short black keys and the longer white keys.
“I wanted to know how to make the notes sound longer and sharper or how to soften the sound," he remembered. "I really started to listen carefully to my father’s vinyl in a way I hadn’t before. Particularly the guys that were making it happen like Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and Art Tatum. These players were telling stories and making conversation with each other and I wanted to be part of that. Early on I knew that’s what I wanted to do for a living.”
When Green finally started lessons, he was fortunate to get a teacher who didn't mind that he wanted to play variations on the written music. “She understood what I was trying to do and suggested the name of somebody who would help me move into the world of jazz," he said. In addition to his teacher's support, Green's parents encouraged his love of jazz, sending him to Berkley High School, where he studied with Bay-area jazz musician David Hardiman.
Throughout his career, Green has played with virtually every living jazz musician of note, including Bobby Watson, Freddie Hubbard, Oscar Peterson, Art Blakey and Betty Carter. At the mention of Carter, one of the great jazz vocalists of the 20th century who Green toured with for four years, Green laughed.
“Oh man,” he said, “Betty Carter schooled me in so many ways — as a person and as a musician. You don’t know what a goddess is like until you meet one in person. Betty Carter was my musical mother. No doubt about it. She changed my life.”
These days, Green leads a trio that includes drummer David Alvarez and bassist David Wong. Green’s April 28 concert promises to be a mix of classic jazz tunes punctuated with the hard-swinging and hard-bop sounds that have become his signature. And while local jazz fans (the musical ones) are likely excited to hear the group, Green, who last played in Salt Lake City in 2009, is glad to be coming back to Utah.
"I’m really looking forward to the Salt Lake gig," he said. "It’s always a great crowd, and we’ve got some swinging music.”
If you go …
What: Benny Green Trio
When: Saturday, April 28, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South
How much: $29.50 for adults, $10 for students with ID
Phone: 801-355-2787 or 888-451-2787