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Singing Pays Bills, but He's Jazzed Jamming : Interview: George Benson considers himself more entertainer than musician, but he also loves improvising on his guitar. He's at the Cerritos Center tonight.

September 17, 1993|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HOLLYWOOD — George Benson will tell you straight out that traditional mainstream jazz is his favorite music.

"I think it always will be, because of the improvisational aspect. You can do anything you want," the guitarist-singer said as he relaxed in the afternoon shade on the patio of the Hotel Mondrian recently.

Benson plays a lot of jazz these days. He sat in with piano giant McCoy Tyner at the Blue Note club in New York a couple of weeks ago. "We played pure jazz," Benson said, obviously delighted at the memory. "And we burnt the joint to the ground ."

You won't hear much, if any, pure jazz at Benson's own performances--he plays tonight and Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts--or if you listen to his albums, including his latest, "Love Remembers."

That's because Benson wants to please his audiences.

"I think I'm more entertainer than musician. I like to get with the crowd, make this night special for them," he said as he sipped a glass of Chardonnay.

"The jazz rhythm," he said, snapping his fingers to indicate a pulse, "won't be understood by the bulk of my audience. That's the problem. We can get away with maybe one tune a night. It depends on where we place it. A song like 'Beyond the Sea,' " and again he snapped his fingers in rhythm, "the fans love that. It's fresh."

Instead, Benson relies on "a lot of vocal hits," he said, citing three of his that made Billboard's Top 10--"This Masquerade," "Give Me the Night" and "Turn Your Love Around."

Doing a lot of singing is just fine with Benson, he said. "After all, my professional career started as a pop and R & B singer."

Benson played ukulele and sang on street corners in his hometown of Pittsburgh from the time he was 8 until he was 11. "(Singer) Billy Eckstine, who was also from Pittsburgh, told me he used to hear me and put 50-cent pieces in the hat I had on the ground," Benson recalled with a smile.

At age 15 Benson joined the Altairs, a five-man singing group that played clubs in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. "I found out then what worked with an audience and we killed every night," he said with a low, rumbling laugh.

Benson then seesawed between styles, playing R & B guitar, then jazz with organist Jack McDuff. It was later, in the '70s, that he found out how tough the jazz business was when he'd sometimes only draw 25 people on a Friday night, even though he had several solid-selling albums out on the CTI and Columbia labels.

It was producer Tommy LiPuma who brought Benson back into the vocal genre with "Breezin'," Benson's 1975 debut album for Warner Bros.

"Tommy told me, 'I can't believe no one has exploited you as a singer,' " Benson said. "Breezin,' " which has now sold 8 million copies, included Benson's Grammy-winning treatment of Leon Russell's "This Masquerade."

The singer estimates he's sung "Masquerade" about 2,000 times now.

"It's one of the finest tunes of our time, with a beautiful melody, great story," he said. "It's based on the jazz standard, 'Angel Eyes.' That's why so many jazz musicians like to play it. Leon did us a great favor when he wrote that."

These days, Benson said he's injecting a little more instrumental flavor into his show by playing his guitar more. "I even do it a little bit behind the vocals," he said. "The fans have asked me to. It's funny, I didn't really know I had a reputation with my pop audience as a guitar player."

Doesn't Benson miss playing jazz regularly?

"I miss it a lot," he said quickly, and with directness.

Then why not pursue jazz music from a career standpoint?

"Life isn't all me," Benson began. "I have a family to support. I can't rob them of a good life simply because I want to play something. I have six other people depending on me."

Benson said he is very satisfied with his career, and is philosophical about his pursuit of financial success by appealing to a mass audience.

"We don't live in a jazz world, unfortunately," he said. "I think if I had lived in a jazz world, I would have done OK. I'm not sure I would have done great. I'm a lover of jazz music, so I would have been happy , don't get me wrong. I go to jazz concerts like the biggest jazz fan in world. The drag is that I don't play jazz for a living."

* George Benson and singer Dianne Reeves play tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m., at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. $25 to $35. (310) 916-6500.

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