Obituary: Benny Green

BENNY GREEN did much to unlock the mystery of musical creation for the layman. An enthusiastic jazz saxophonist as well as a witty and versatile writer and broadcaster, he was able to write lucidly about the problems facing composers and performers. He knew that the musician "is a hired hand pledged to making the fortune of the bandleader with whom he is expected to reach a relationship of grovelling servitude".

To many he was the quintessential Londoner but by birth Green was a Yorkshireman. He was born Bernard Green in Leeds in 1927, the son of a musician; at the age of 14 his father taught him to play the soprano saxophone. Years later he dedicated a book to "my father, easily the best musician in the family". Having mastered the rudiments of the instrument he continued his studies with a private tutor and it was then that he switched to the tenor sax.

He studied for a while at the Royal College of Music, but the hankering to become a full-time musician was strong and in the summer of 1952 he joined the pianist Ralph Sharon's short-lived big band. Later that same year a dispute within the ranks of Jack Parnell's Orchestra caused half a dozen key players to leave, including Ronnie Scott, Jimmy Deuchar and Phil Seaman. Scott decided to form a nine-piece band of his own and Green joined this group of young hopefuls on baritone sax.

In later years he wrote amusingly of Scott's strategy "to get booked into the dance halls, and then play uncompromising jazz when we got there". The music was exciting, the returns minimal and Green recalled (perhaps not with perfect truth) "trying to work out how many times nine went into pounds 14 6s 5d at the end of the gig".

By now he had another string to his bow and was writing a weekly column for the New Musical Express, the beginning of a new career which was to give him more prominence than he might have achieved as a working musician.

The Ronnie Scott nine-piece band was replaced by Scott's big band, still with Benny Green in the sax section. In February 1956 Stan Kenton brought his orchestra to Britain as part of an exchange negotiated by the American and British unions. For non-musical reasons two of Kenton's saxophonists returned home during the tour and for two nights Green was called upon to play baritone in the American band, an event which provided him with material for more amusing tales.

He played in a quintet with the trumpeter Dizzy Reece in 1957 but by now his various writing commitments were taking precedence. In the early Sixties he and I judged some of the Inter University Jazz contests, assessing the musical achievements of burgeoning players such as Dave Gelly, Art Themen and Bill Ashton. In the mid-Sixties he chaired BBC radio's Jazz Club, taking over from Steve Race.

In 1962 he published The Reluctant Art: five studies in the growth of jazz, lucid essays on style setters such as Lester Young and Billie Holiday. Many more books were to come including two novels with a musical bias, Blame it on My Youth (1967) and 58 Minutes to London (1969), and works of music criticism including Drums in My Ears (1973).

Green's literary talents were wide: in 1964 he wrote the book and lyrics for the opera-ballet Lysistrata (music by John Dankworth), which was performed at that year's Bath Festival with Cleo Laine in the starring role; he had his own late-night talk show on Rediffusion TV in 1966 and also produced three documentaries about London for them. In 1968, again working with John Dankworth, he wrote the book and lyrics for Boots And Strawberry Jam, a musical biography based on the life of George Bernard Shaw and starring Cleo Laine and John Neville. The show was staged at Nottingham Playhouse and received good reviews, but failed to achieve a London booking.

In 1970 Green took over as literary critic for the Spectator and about the same time started writing film reviews for Punch. He wrote the libretto for the London revival of Showboat, which opened at the Adelphi Theatre in July 1971, again with Cleo Laine.

From his earliest days Benny Green was fascinated by the music of Broadway and Hollywood and the Great American Song-Book was a topic to which he returned again and again. In collaboration with Alan Strachan he devised a Cole Porter review entitled Cole which opened at the Mermaid Theatre in July 1974 with a cast including Una Stubbs, Bill Kerr and Julia McKenzie.

The music of masters such as Porter, Kern, Berlin, Rodgers and Gershwin provided Green with ample opportunities to present fascinating programmes on his long-running Sunday afternoon show on BBC Radio 2 as well as introducing obscure or forgotten works by lesser-known composers. He also fostered friendships with craftsmen such as Johnny Mercer, Michael Feinstein and Alan J. Lerner. On the first anniversary of Lerner's death, in June 1987, Green provided the introductions for the Drury Lane presentation of An Evening with Alan J. Lerner with artistes such as Elaine Paige, Tim Rice and Andre Previn. (This was a charity event to raise funds for research into lung cancer at the Royal Marsden Hospital.) He later compiled a book of Lerner's lyrics under the title A Hymn To Him.

Benny Green was a true professional in the writing field. He wrote prolifically on cricket and edited several anthologies from Wisden. He produced most of the liner-notes for Norman Granz's Pablo series of jazz albums and succeeded in reducing over 40 hours of interview material into the scripts for 13 one-hour shows devoted to the work of Fred Astaire for television.

Last year he played the central role in a memorial service for Ronnie Scott held at St Martin-in-the-Fields. He bought humour to a potentially sad occasion, for despite all his achievements in the literary field, he remained at heart a musician.

Alun Morgan

I have to declare an interest - or, more accurately, a disinterest: I know nothing about music and musicians, writes Jack Rosenthal. On the other hand, I do know a character when I see one. And this one, driven by a blazing passion for a world that had always left me only tepid, was a joy to know.

I don't think Benny Green did a day's work in his life. For over half a century all he did was play jazz-saxophone, write lyrics for musicals, books about musicians, books about cricket and broadcast hundreds of analyses of songwriters and their songs. In other words, all he ever did was enjoy himself doing the things he loved. Boy, how he loved them. And talking about them . . .

Two years ago Benny did a stint on the QE2's "Jazz Cruise" to New York, playing the sax with his son Dominic, and lecturing on Gershwin with his wife, Toni. It so happened that Annie Ross was on the same trip doing a spot, and Maureen Lipman doing excerpts from her stage show. I went along in my official capacity as hanger-on and Maureen's husband.

Each mealtime the five of us shared a table. We'd open our menus and Toni would say perhaps: "Smoked salmon, Benny?" Whereupon Benny would close his menu, let his head drop onto his chest as though addressing his cutlery and pronounce: "Talking of smoked salmon, Tommy Dorsey was once doing a gig in Chicago, he was 24 at the time, no, sorry 25, and halfway through his trombone solo which, as you know, would usually have called for a bucket-mute . . ." And the entertainment would begin. Whatever subject we blithely though we were discussing - and this with one of the most well-read men I've ever met - Benny always managed, within seconds, to be reminded of an anecdote. About Tommy Dorsey. Or Jimmy. Or George Gershwin. Or Ira. Or Cole Porter. Or Irving Berlin. Or - for a little variation - Denis Compton. Or Leslie. Or any of his heroes. If not all.

Compared to Benny, Schehera-zade hardly opened her mouth. So many stories, all delivered in that distinctive voice that seemed to be wisely nodding its head, or winking or raising one eyebrow. At the end of the meal, Toni might ask: "Tea or coffee?" To which the response was conceivably: "Talking of coffee, when Lorenz Hart was working on the lyric of `Blue Moon', he had a call from Johnny Mercer, who, as everyone knows . . ."

A few years ago, when Benny was in the early, ominous stages of his illness and undergoing chemotherapy, he slipped into an understandable but, for him, uncharacteristic depression. The most telling symptom of this was his loss of any desire to play his saxophone. For weeks it stayed in its case, and Benny seemed locked away with it. One Sunday afternoon, some friends called round to our house. One was the composer Denis King; another was Gerry Hjert, whose hobby was collecting old musical instruments. And yes, he had with him one he'd picked up that day. And yes again, it was a saxophone. We called Benny and Toni to come and join us.

They arrived, but Benny declined the next invitation - to "try out" Jerry's sax. Extreme measures seemed called for. While Denis sat innocuously tinkling the piano keys, I got out my violin and two books of sheet music - songs of the Thirties and Forties. If I have one fairly noticeable failing in my violin-playing, it's my total inability to play one, single correct note. Sharps and flats pass me by without a backward glance. Minims, crotchets and whatever the others are called are wasting their time. Denis accompanied my recital manfully, if wincingly.

And Benny began to laugh. There were always two pleasures in watching Benny laugh. One was the childlike sense of approval you felt. The other was that when he laughed - he laughed till he cried. That afternoon he cried a lot. Finally he wiped his eyes, asked to borrow Gerry's saxophone and - in a last-ditch defence of the precious music I was mangling - he played. Beautifully.

Benny Green was largely self- educated. (In his School Certificate he got 0 per cent in Physics. Apparently writing nothing more than "B. Green - Physics" at the top of the page wasn't enough.) His reading became, like his cricket and music, not just something to enjoy - but to argue about. Criticise his beloved George Bernard Shaw and you were in danger of having a book (or cricket-bat or saxophone) thrown at you. I think he'd insist with pride that he wasn't the most un-opinionated of men. He didn't suffer fools at all, gladly or otherwise.

But he was a man of great, giving warmth. With his love for music came a ferocious love of life. I don't think I know of a closer family than his: his adored and adoring Toni, his loving and beloved Justin, Dominic, Leo and Natasha. He fought courageously against his illness for 15 years. He may have finally lost his battle, but he won his war - his messianic passion to make as many people as possible enjoy what he did. Well, passion is catching. By the end, passion - and mission - accomplished.

Talking of Chinese horticulture, there was once this slip of a lad, 15 he was, no 14, when he first got up in his Youth Club and played his saxophone in public. Went by the name of Benny Green . . .

Bernard (Benny) Green, saxophonist, writer and broadcaster: born Leeds 9 December 1927; married 1962 Antoinette Kanal (three sons, one daughter); died London 22 June 1998.

Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Reach for the sky: there are around 250 new buildings of 20-plus storeys planned for London alone, some 80 per cent of them residential
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
filmReview: The ingenious film will intrigue, puzzle and trouble audiences by turns
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower