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How Benson changed course and did the same for jazz; arts & entertainment Grammy Award-winner George Benson upset the jazz world when he adopted a different style. But, as he prepares for a gig in Wales, he tells Gavin Allen why he's never been afraid to compromise.

Byline: Gavin Allen

"NO ONE ever does anything different without being criticised for it," says jazz and R'n'B luminary George Benson

"Even Einstein was called a fool in his lifetime because he was thinking outside of the box."

In moments of musical history, it isn't quite Bob Dylan being called "Judas" for swapping acoustic for electric, but the day George Benson "sold out" that has always left a mark on his distinguished career.

In the mid-'70s, Benson was a very successful jazz guitarist who, as well as playing with the likes of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, enjoyed a widely-respected solo career.

But when he released the album Breezin' (1976), the 23rd of a prolific career, everything changed for him.

Led by the instrumental single of the same name, Breezin' became an unexpected smash hit and was the first jazz album to hit No 1 on the US chart - a historic breakthrough for jazz in the mainstream - and it has sold tens of millions.

"My life changed, collaterally," says Benson from his home in Arizona.

"And it swept jazz along on a vibe that didn't exist before."

That album also contained a hit single called This Masquerade, which shocked the jazz world because Benson sang R'n'B-style vocals on the track.

The jazz critics, perceiving him as only as a jazz guitarist, turned on him.

"I expected it," he says.

"I have seen what criticism does to people.

"I saw one great artist, Count Basie, who made one commercial record in his life, it was called Baby Elephant Walk, and regardless of the 500 or more great jazz or swing cuts he made, they slaughtered him for it.

"But when Breezin' came out I was a mature man.

"If I had been a young man I don't think I would have been able to take the criticism."

Benson didn't see singing as abandoning pure jazz, he saw it as thinking creatively.

"I can play swing and jazz and, truth be told, I prefer those, but if you can't get airplay on the radio with those..."he says, the sentence tailing off.

"I changed my way of thinking."

Time has validated Benson's judgement and he is now being re-embraced by the jazz establishment, having been named as one of the 2009 Jazz Masters - America's highest jazz honour - for his remarkable ability to play elaborate guitar lines and scat them simultaneously.

"And that's despite my criticism from the jazz fraternity for my 'crossover status' as they call it," he chuckles.

Benson purrs his words like a real hep cat, drawling some and zipping through others as if his sentences were songs in themselves and he bookends them with the pleasantries of a naturalised southern gentleman.

Throughout our 30-minute phone call he manages to answer and defer three other calls on his mobile-and even answer the door - without ever seeming rude, and he believes his demeanour has helped his career.

"I have always got along with people," says the 65-year-old.

"Ever since I was young I knew you had to compromise. I understood that because I grew up very poor and a poor man can't dictate nothing to nobody.

"He got no leg to stand on."

That attitude illustrates that he came from the opposite side of the tracks to jazz great Miles Davis, with whom Benson often worked.

"Miles came from a family with money and he didn't feel the need to cater to anyone.

"He would always say what was on his mind and he didn't care who heard - and he would never compromise. But he was a great teacher because he knew music was about people.

"So many great musicians came out of his band because he always gave them the freedom to play whatever they wanted."

While Davis' place in the jazz firmament is unshakeable, Benson's profile has suffered because of the criticism and the inevitable commercial tail-off that comes with age.

But Benson says there is another problem in hampering his career in the current market.

"There are no great vocal producers around these days," he opines.

"With Breezin' I had a great instrumental producer, but I also had a great vocal producer in Quincy Jones for This Masquerade, because he had worked with Michael Jackson and Sarah Vaughan.

"But you don't have that these days, and it's a problem."

Regardless, the eight-time Grammy winner manages to maintain an international career by mixing his commercial R'n'B vocal hits, such as Lady Love Me (One More Time), with his ever-evolving guitar virtuosity.

"I wake up every morning and play the guitar," he says, "and I never know how long is passing - half-hour, two hours - because there is always something new to play.

"I think that's why people are still interested to this day."

George Benson is at Cardiff International Arena tomorrow. The box office number is 029 2022 4488


'DIFFERENT' 'I changed my way of thinking,' says George Benson, 'and it swept jazz along on a vibe that didn't exist before'
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jun 30, 2008
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