Obituary: Benny Green
Wednesday 24 June 1998
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.
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.
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