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2019 Chicago Jazz Festival Preview: A Chat with Ben Sidran

By Jeff Cebulski

Ben Sidran performs at the Chicago Jazz Festival August 31, 2019
Ben Sidran

Jazz/blues performer and advocate Ben Sidran, who resides in Madison, Wisconsin when he isn’t on the road—which is often—has been around long enough to have witnessed and participated in the late twentieth-century blues culture renaissance that influenced guitar bands in the United Kingdom, informed folk artists like Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan, and sifted into the rock era in the ’60s and ’70s. His insatiable curiosity for the roots of modern American jazz ultimately led to the development of Sidran on Record, the NPR program that spawned a large multi-CD release, Talking Jazz: An Oral History, featuring sixty conversations with classic jazz personalities, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey, Don Cherry, Phil Woods, Freddie Hubbard, Jackie McLean, Max Roach, Johnny Griffin, David Murray, Betty Carter, Ken Nordine, Mose Allison, and Rudy Van Gelder—a virtual narrative encyclopedia of the art.

Since then, Sidran has written four well-received books and has spent a goodly portion of the twenty-first century passing on the tradition, keeping in mind lessons he learned from the masters. Often a visitor at Chicago’s famed Green Mill, he and his band will display an array of styles at the festival Sunday afternoon at the Jazz and Heritage Pavilion.

JC: What kind of show will you be performing for those who attend in Chicago, and who is playing with you?

Ben: We play groove, rap, bebop, and boogie, original-musical premises fitted out with dance grooves and burning solos. The band is Will Bernard on guitar, Billy Peterson on bass, Leo Sidran on drums, and me on vocals and piano.

JC: Your writing/broadcast career is well known. I wonder, of all the people you have interviewed, which ones have resonated with you the most?

Ben: Talking with Miles or Sonny Rollins was a rush, but so was Art Blakey and Horace Silver. Getting to know these people, even a little bit, was an honor and also a responsibility because they let me know they were counting on me to carry this tradition forward. This is true for all the players I’ve met. Phil Woods called it being a “jazz warrior,” and I’m with Phil.

JC: An impressive thing about your Talking Jazz conversations is the intelligent way the interviews went. I mean, stuff like getting Keith Jarrett to wax on the conditions of improvisation was very cool. Reading about him, I get the sense he doesn’t suffer fools, and you were no fool. Did these people respond to you because you had a musician’s ethos and/or did your ethos continue to rise with every interview you did?

Ben: I don’t really know the answer to that and I’ve been asked often if I think my being a musician affected the interviews. On the one hand, it’s who I am and so I had some real ground to stand on and on the other hand, often the less you know the better when doing interviews.

JC: Are there people you wished you could have talked with but couldn’t because they passed away or were not available?

Ben: Oh yes, many. Elvin Jones, Pharoah Sanders, Duke Ellington, Joe Henderson . . . I mean, it’s a very long list.

JC: My personal observation is that part of the “warrior” tradition you refer to is a connection to a blues consciousness that seems to pervade your music. Am I close to being right here? Do we still have that consciousness today or is it fading away?

Ben: If you mean by a “blues consciousness” the importance of telling a story, a human-scale truth, with an open heart and a sense of humor—“in spite of conditions”—then absolutely.

JC: To expand on the blues question, in the context of people like Mose, you, and other such artists, will the blues and its assorted forms begin to die off when our generation does? I don’t think blues as a way of thinking or performing has much presence in the current younger generation. Maybe I am wrong, but I would like your view.

Ben: The blues isn’t a form, it’s a feeling . . . and it’s been with us for thousands of years and it ain’t going nowhere. I hear some younger musicians think it’s not essential or even necessary. I feel sorry for them. They are missing the main meal.

JC: When I listen to you sing, I hear echoes of Mose Allison, Bob Dorough, and perhaps Dr. John. Were these people influences? Are there others?

Ben: Sure, I like those three, and Jon Hendricks, Louis Jordan, Randy Newman, King Pleasure, and Bobby Blue Bland.

JC: You mentioned rap as one style of your performance. In Montreal I was at a performance by Erik Truffaz [who has played live with Sidran in Europe]. He had a rapper—who waxed more philosophical than anything else—with him on stage. The crowd there was totally into that. What is your view of how any attempted amalgam of rap/hip-hop and jazz has gone so far?

Ben: Well I’ve been speaking philosophically on top of grooves for years, inserting various hooks and choruses, and I think it’s absolutely a legitimate way to go and generally the crowds everywhere enjoy being talked to like adults about what’s happening in the world. As long as it swings.

JC: As a musicologist, how are you interpreting, observing jazz these days? Positive, negative?

Ben: Jazz goes the way of the world. How would you sum up the way of the world these days? Depends on your point of view. Some folks are in hog heaven. Some folks are just barely getting by.

JC: If you had your Sidran on Record/Talking Jazz program going today, which artists would you be interested in talking with, and why?

Ben: I don’t think I could do that program today because that world, the one I was interested in, is gone as are the people who populated it. The show wasn’t just about jazz. It was about a way of life, a much larger discussion than “who do you dig.”

JC: You are basically a Wisconsin homeboy who has crafted a career playing in venues domestic and overseas. Why did you decide to stay in Madison? Have you ever been tempted to move elsewhere, especially since you seem to be a bigger name outside the United States?

Ben: I lived in England in 1967 through 1970 and in Los Angeles 1970 and ’71, and for the last fifty years I have been on the road twenty-five of them . . . so Madison is the coolest B&B I know. Good folks, good food, good memories.

JC: What was it like to be in England during those years, attending Sussex and being able to play with people like Clapton and the Stones?

Ben: England in 1967—not just London but Brighton, too, where I went to the university—was still one foot in the ’50s and one in the ’60s. Coming from the intense U.S. anti-war, crazed bebop, radical history point of view, it was like a nice warm bath. Great hanging out, terrible food, fun times; got to play Meters tunes with Peter Frampton.

JC: I am old enough to remember, as a fan, your contributions to the Steve Miller Band. What did that experience contribute to you as an artist and observer of modern music?

Ben: Playing with Steve gave me recording studio experience, helped me find my feet as a record producer, and exposed me to aspects of the music business I never would have run into. All in all, a great education.

JC: Looking back, do you listen to those Miller tracks anymore? What do you think about what you achieved, musically, back then?

Ben: I never listen to the Miller tracks. They were interesting for what they were but don’t really need to hear them again.

JC: If the Miller music doesn’t rank well or appeal to you anymore, is there any portion of your recordings you are most pleased with and, perhaps, would direct new listeners to?

Ben: I am happiest with my newer recordings starting with Nick’s Bump and going on up through Dylan Different, Don’t Cry for No Hipster, Blue Camus, and Picture Him Happy. That’s who I am today. That’s the best of me anyway.

JC: What about your live recordings? I think Cien Noches is pretty cool.

Ben: Yeah, I’m with you. Also, I can recommend Ben There, Done That, a three-CD box set of live gigs covering forty years that just came out this year. That has some absolutely great moments from clubs in Tokyo, Paris, Milan, New York—all over.

JC: Your treatments of Dylan songs sound like it was a lot of fun in the process. I like the versions of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” especially. Was it?

Ben: Great experience in a recording studio set up in a barn in Alsace-Lorraine, France, with some wild-card European musicians and a haunted atmosphere for three days. It really flattered the material. That arrangement of “Subterranean” was the first thing I came up with when trying to get a personal handle on doing Dylan tunes, and it kind of led the way.

JC: Any idea if Dylan has heard them?

Ben: I think maybe he has.

JC: Is it a costly proposition to do a bunch of someone else’s material?

Ben: Not really. It’s like anything else, there is a standard mechanical royalty fee you have to pay to record anybody’s song. The rate is set by Congress.

JC: You’ve been at this performing thing for a long time. Do you see an end to it?

Ben: It just gets better and better.

JC: You have performed often at the Green Mill. I presume this is a favored venue. Do you have other favored places to visit and perform?

Ben Sidran at the Green Mill in Chicago
Ben Sidran at the Green Mill in Chicago

Ben: Yes, I love the Green Mill. The audience is fantastic and so is the club owner. You couldn’t ask for a better place to have a good time. Some other favorite clubs are the Café Central in Madrid, the Sunset/Sunside in Paris, and Mezzrow in New York City. Likewise, great folks, great scene, good possibility that everybody’s gonna have a good time.

JC: Finally, I refer to your song, “On the Cool Side,” which reflects that blues attitude “in spite of conditions.” Would that be sort of a personal anthem that lives on?

Ben: Well, it’s something I got from the great Chicago tenor player Johnny Griffin. He said, “Jazz is music made by and for people who have chosen to feel good in spite of conditions.” I really try to keep that in mind.

Ben Sidran performs Sunday, September 1, at 3 p.m. at the Jazz and Heritage Pavilion.

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