Pittsburgh's latest Benack has a passion for the trumpet
Thursday evening's concert with veteran guitarist Joe Negri and young trumpeter Benny Benack III has a legacy that dates to the World Series of 1960.
But it is only a slight rival to the musical history of the Benack family. It is a story that Benny Benack Jr. says has its roots in "passion," a single-minded dedication his father had and his son has.
"If you have the drive and the ability, then go 'head, give it a shot," Benack Jr. says he recently told his son. "If you do it for a few years, and it doesn't work out, you're smart, you can do something else."
The young Benack will be showing off his talent Thursday in a concert designed to display how jazz spans generations, from Negri, 85, to Benack, 21. But jazz connects them in another way, too.
Benack's grandfather, the Dixieland cornetist who made his name a near-trademark in Pittsburgh, is best remembered for the song that became the theme for the dramatic 1960 World Series victory over the Yankees: "The Bucs are going all the way, all the way, all the way ..."
That "Beat 'em Bucs" was written by Negri, who was commissioned by an advertising firm to do a song for an Iron City Beer ad campaign. Negri knew of Benack as the kind of player he needed for the hot, Dixieland song, and he recommended him.
"That song," Negri says with a laugh and a sigh. "It was a big hit for Benny, but I didn't get anything from it. I had my fee for the job and that was it."
That bit of history came as a surprise to Sean Jones, the jazz trumpeter who also teaches at Duquesne University. He organized this week's concert with the age span in mind in a series featuring unlikely duos. He wanted to pair Negri, a guitarist "who has been around forever," with Benack III, a trumpeter and singer "who is the new guy."
Jones admits he didn't know anything of the baseball tune.
"They really should play that song," he says with a laugh.
Benack III agrees.
"How can you have a concert with Benny Benack and Joe Negri and not do that?" he says.
The 'passion' some people have
Although Benack III and his father both are professional musicians, they are playing different songs with their music. "Passion" is the reason, Benack Jr. says. His son has it -- and has had it since he was in elementary school -- and he never has.
Benack Jr., 55, grew up in a home surrounded by music and watched his dad live a life dedicated to it. The fabled Benny Benack (1921-86) taught music at Clairton High School and often did that with a full week of gigs at places like the Penn Sheraton Hotel, now the Omni William Penn.
His trumpet and cornet were a well-known sound in area Dixieland and big-band swing, making him an obvious choice for Negri's "Beat 'em Bucs."
But, even though he was consumed by his passion for music, Benack knew -- a person either has it or doesn't.
"He said, 'Music education is life education,' " Benack Jr. says of his father. " 'When you learn music, you learn the discipline that will help you in anything you do the rest of your life.' "
He told Benack Jr. if he was not totally convinced he want to spend his life in music, it would be better to go in a different direction.
"So, I went to Duquesne, studied business and played in all the bands I wanted to," Benack Jr. says.
He earned an MBA at the University of Pittsburgh and now is a vice president for Dollar Bank, Downtown. But he stays busy as a jazz reed player who also plays some trumpet. He adds his talents to projects such as the "Hestia" album of singer-songwriter Heather Knopf.
At one point in his college days, Benack Jr. had the opportunity to go on the road with a version of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. He passed it up with no regrets, and has the same feeling about his career decision.
When his son started playing piano at 4 and seemed to be concerned with "chasing the spotlight," Benack Jr. could see the passion his father talked about.
The call of the trumpet
The young Benack says he knew he wanted to make music his life before he started to play trumpet -- at age 8.
"He said, 'You can stop spending your money on piano lessons,'" Benack Jr. says of his son. "'The trumpet speaks to me.'"
Just as Benack Jr. was advised to follow his heart, he told his son the same thing.
Benack III, who is in his third year at the Manhattan School of Music, says he is open to any sort of musical career. That could be life as a Wynton Marsalis-like star, or blending jazz dates with nights in a Broadway pit band, or mixing teaching and performing, as Sean Jones does.
"He's the gold standard," Benack III says, admiring the work Jones is doing at Duquesne and the freedom the university gives him.
He agrees with is father's recollection about his falling in love with the trumpet. It was only natural for him to focus on jazz, he says, because he was surrounded by that genre as he grew up.
The intense exposure to music goes further than that, Benack Jr. says.
Claudia Benack, his ex-wife and Benack III's mother, is a singer who teachers at Carnegie Mellon University. Naturally, before birth, the young Benack was present for all of her performances and her teaching.
Benack Jr. would play his clarinet to his wife's belly. and they could both feel their son react to the sound.
The dedication to music shows in Benack III's work, Jones and Negri say.
"He just keeps getting better and better," Negri says.
That love for the art is a steady fuel that drives Benack III's work.
"For me, the reward is doing what I love," he says. "I just want to be ready when the time comes."
Generations of Jazz with Benny Benack III and Joe Negri
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: August Wilson Center, Downtown
Details: 412-456-6666 or www.trustarts.org
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