Early on in my friendship with Benny Powell I would often think of the film “My Favorite Year”. It’s about a young writer in an entry level position at a television station that is assigned to take care of an aging, misbehaving movie star during a week of rehearsals for an upcoming appearance on a variety show. While I was not quite Benjy Stone nor Benny a misbehaving drunk as was Peter O’Toole’s character Alan Swann, there were some surface similarities. There was the gap in our ages. When we met I was just turning 40 and he was 72. There was the respectful awe I had for him and the fatherly advise he would give me when we were alone, driving him to a gig or hanging around his apartment on 55th street. There was him up on stage and me sitting in the audience at The Blue Note or The Jazz Standard. I watched from a distance as he interacted with legendary figures of Jazz.

One of the closest parallels to the film was when he brought me along to Rock Hill South Carolina where he was playing a large benefit concert. He was the headliner and since it was a small town in South Carolina he was a pretty big fish that week. I guess that would have been a good time for me to say as Benjy does in the final scene “This is how I like to remember him”.

His sister was active in the local church and had asked him if he would play the concert to benefit the building of a new church. There had apparently been a good deal of publicity around his appearance. He was treated like a star from the moment we arrived. He was there for 4 or 5 days and would direct the band through a series of daily rehearsals, teach a master’s class at the local High School and do a meet and greet at an art gallery opening prior to the big show.

There was no need for babysitting Benny as Benjy had to sit Swann in My Favorite Year. He was a consummate professional in every way. He didn’t drink or get out of hand at all so again, the similarities were limited. But what I experienced was the backstage, uncensored true essence of the man while he dealt with the public, his family and the kind of issues that arise when someone that has been travelling around the world for 50 years comes to a small town. It was delightful.
At the end of each day his nephew Michael would drive us around Rock Hill. We’d try to find a place to eat before going back to the hotel. This wasn’t easy since we were on the late supper schedule and Rock Hill shut down at 9pm. Benny was much younger than his years and in some ways closer to his nephew than with his sisters. He LOVED his sisters, don’t get me wrong, but he was more himself in the car and we would talk about the funny things that happened during the day with the choir director or at the high school. Michael was more like a cousin to him and Benny was like a kid when we got away from the rest of the family.

Sayuri Goto was on the trip too. She’s Benny’s piano player and at the time they were romantically involved as well. This was on the down low in public since Sayuri was in her early thirties and Benny was very conscious of his image. I myself was unaware of their relationship for the first few weeks when I had first met him.

We all each had our own room and I would get up in the morning and walk to a Starbucks for coffee and breakfast. It was the only thing out there that was anything like home. I’d bring it back to the hotel and we’d get together in Benny’s room and have our morning treats and laugh again about the day before. One morning I knocked on his door and he answered it in his briefs striking a superman pose. You have to imagine the physique of a 75 year old man that weighed less than 140lbs in his underwear. I laughed so hard I almost dumped the coffee on the floor and pissed myself.

It might sound strange but by the time I found out Benny and Sayuri were “dating” it didn’t seem strange to me at all. One of my daughters said it best a few years later after they had gotten to know him.

“He doesn’t seem like he’s old at all, I always forget he’s almost as old as pop-pop. He’s more like a kid in an old man suit.”

When Benny told me they were no longer together I actually felt like my parents were breaking up, even though she was younger than me.

“I told her she has to move on because I’m not always going to be able to take care of her.” he told me. “I can’t even take care of her now the way she needs it.”
He was very pragmatic. He thought she should have a younger, more upwardly mobile partner that could buy her a nice house and a car and support her better.
A few years later she was married, living in Westchester and at the time of his funeral she had a pair of twins. She was still his piano player though and they remained very close.

We had so many adventures together since then. There was a family built around him. It consisted of Barry Cooper, a former student that ended up in the same chair Benny had as trombonist in the Count Basie Band, TK Blue, his bandmate in Randy Weston’s band, Sayuri and me. They would play gigs together and I would film them. We’d travel together, hang out in his apartment, go out to eat together, etc. And when we weren’t together he would call us all individually and fill us in on what the others were doing.  He was like a father, an uncle, a brother and a best friend to all of us.

We spoke on the phone so often that there were times that I’d open my cell phone to call him and I’d hear his voice saying “hello?” before I dialed his number. I’d say “I was just about to call you.” and he’d say “Well, I did just call you but you answered before it rang.” I think I miss that the most; being able to just pick up the phone anytime at all (not before noon) and talk about anything under the sun. There is no one else that I call just to say “hi” anymore.

He was so encouraging to me in my work. He’d tell me how important the work I was doing was and that I was touching people’s lives in ways that I didn’t yet understand. Coming from a guy that had played such beautiful music for so many people in his lifetime this was pretty heavy.

Benny represents my largest personal loss to date. I’ll never stop hearing his voice, his advice and his encouragement- but with him gone I can’t help but feel I’ve passed through my favorite years.