Yesterday brought the sad news that guitarist Gary Benson, a fixture on Toronto’s jazz scene for many years, died at the age of 75. It was not entirely unexpected as Gary had been very ill for some time, but the news will hit those who knew him in the jazz community hard nonetheless. He was a fine player and an even better person, we’ll all miss his even-keeled, modest personality and sense of humour, his jokes and wonderful impersonations. My thoughts go out to those who were closest to him – his family of course – and his cohorts in The Canadian Jazz Quartet (Frank Wright, Duncan Hopkins and Don Vickery, who played weekly with Gary for many years until his illness struck.)
His passing has hit me very hard as well, because Gary was my first music teacher way back when I was in my early teens, playing guitar instead of bass. It’s no exaggeration to say that Gary taught me most of what I know about music and gave me a great foundation for everything I later learned in playing the bass. Good beginnings are very important and all the riches of the jazz life I’ve enjoyed – the friendships, laughs, stories, the satisfaction of playing, listening to and talking music for so many years – stem from starting out with Gary. It was he who got me interested in jazz in the first place and all the invaluable information he gave me made learning to play it a lot easier.
My parents bought me a little flat-top guitar for Christmas when I was about eleven – it was a Winston, from the budget line at Simpson’s and cost all of $17. I began fooling around with it, buying a beginner’s book of guitar chords, the open “folk” variety. My mother kept after me to take some lessons and one day when I was about thirteen, she took me to a new music store that had opened in the neighbourhood – Stop 8, located at Danforth and Coxwell. There were a couple of guitar teachers with studios there and as fate would have it on the day we went, Gary was on duty and had an opening. It was hands down the best piece of musical luck I’ve ever had.
Even then, music was really important to me, but never having taken a lesson in my life, I was very nervous. Gary, who at the time was sporting a goatee and horned-rim glasses which made him look like a jazz hipster along the lines of Al “Jazzbo” Collins, seemed to sense this and put me at ease with his gentle, welcoming manner. He asked me what kind of music I liked and who I listened to. I said mostly pop and rock, but that recently I’d gotten interested in blues through hearing T-Bone Walker, B.B. King and Johnny Winter, but didn’t really understand much about it. He said that was a good place to start and proceeded to write out the basic three-chord blues chord progressions in a few keys, then had me strum through them as best I could with the limited “cowboy” chords I knew. A big light came on when I heard the seventh chord that comes in bar two, then again in bars five and six, this was the sound that had been fascinating me. Even though I could only play really dumb basic chords, my ear heard the sound of it and I was hooked from that moment on.
Gary had me strum the blues progression, then played some solos over top. What he played astounded my young ears, it didn’t sound like any blues playing I’d heard. He was playing more notes in lines and wasn’t doing a lot of string bending like the guys I’d listened to. I shyly mentioned this and Gary explained there were different styles and ways of playing the blues, all using the same basic progression, but sometimes expanding on it with more chords. He said what he was doing was more of a bebop, jazz style of playing and that he didn’t like a lot of string bending because it could become a crutch and put the guitar strings out of tune.
He explained some other stuff about the blues, like how the twelve-bar structure was divided into three four-bar phrases and that maybe what I liked about the sound of the blues was that it had both major and minor harmony mixed together in a unique way – major underneath and minor on top. This confused me, but became clearer when he showed me the blues scale, with the minor third, lowered seventh and flatted fifth, each of them what he called “blue notes”. This kind of blew my mind, especially the flatted-fifth bit, and I was a little overwhelmed. Gary sensed this and said not to worry about it because this was just the first lesson and I’d get it over time. He told me to just go home and practice playing over these blues changes in the few different keys he’d showed me, till I got comfortable with them and had them in my ear.
That first lesson set the pattern for weekly lessons over the next couple of years. Gary always sent me away with something written out to work on, some musical concept or idea to think about and chew on, which fired my curiosity and always led to questions at the next lesson, which he always did his best to answer without any short-cuts. Lord knows why, but he must have sensed some musical ability in me, because he started gently steering me in a jazz direction without me really being aware of it at first. I was getting some basic music theory at high school, but he augmented this by teaching me about intervals and how they sounded, the Greek modes and other scales that were useful for improvisation, like the major and minor pentatonic scales.
When my fingers got stronger, he started showing me closed voicings of chords on the top four strings, starting with major-sixth chords, in all four inversions. When I had a grip on those and he was satisfied I knew them, he went on to minor-sixth chords, again with all four inversions, this was a lot of work and information. Then he showed me how you could take the top note of a chord on the high E string and drop it down to the low E string without too much trouble. This was a major breakthrough, as the chords now had a bass note and were more spread out and useful as rhythm chords, I could now move chords around with bass lines. This was eye-opening, or more importantly, ear-opening. Then he showed me how the major- and minor-sixth chords became other chords if you used the sixth as a root – for example, C major-sixth became A minor 7 and C minor-sixth became A min 7 b5, which blew my mind; I now knew all those chords too, it was like two for the price of one. Sorry for overdoing the chord theory here, it’s just to show what a brilliant teacher he was. I spent weeks working on this stuff without really knowing what it was in aid of and all of a sudden he showed me in a few short strokes, I was on my way.
Now I was ready to start putting this new knowledge to use in a real way, by learning songs. Gary started showing me the chord changes to some jazz tunes – “Take the A Train”, “Perdido”, “Georgia”, “How High the Moon”, “Satin Doll” and others. From a Stan Getz/Charlie Byrd record my parents had, I got interested in bossa nova, which was fun to play on guitar, so he taught me some Brazilian tunes like “Corcovado”, “Morning Of the Carnival” and “Wave”. It was immensely satisfying to just be able to play through the chords of these songs, but then Gary showed me how to play the melodies on top of chords in melody-chord voicings, another big breakthrough. He also encouraged me to try to improvise solos while he played the chords, which was terrifying, but he kept after me till I could do it a little without feeling totally lost. Gradually through all this my musical tastes began to change and my ears opened up a lot. At first I’d worked on the stuff he showed me out of a sense of duty and because I sort of enjoyed it, even though it didn’t have much to do with the music I was listening to. But after a while, I started getting interested in jazz, which led me to do some listening and Gary gave me some great pointers about this too, recommending I check out Charlie Christian and Jim Hall, a favourite of his whom he had studied with. Hearing both was a major turn-on.
The one thing that impeded my progress as a guitarist certainly had nothing to do with Gary’s teaching. The problem was that I never played guitar in a band, which is where you really learn by applying things and playing with others. The main reason was that I never had an electric guitar, though I did manage to jam a little acoustically with a couple of friends who played guitar. Oddly, when I first switched to the bass I was already in a band – John MacLeod’s Dixieland band at our high school – even though I didn’t know the first thing about playing bass. It was then that everything Gary had taught me really came to the fore. I didn’t know the bass at all, but even without any technique, what I’d learned about chords, songs and music from Gary really paid off instantly and forever. This was just great, because when I began taking bass lessons and really practicing the instrument I had a leg up, I could focus on learning the technique of bass playing while already having some idea about playing music in general, so I wasn’t drowning. Everything Gary taught me suddenly applied almost magically – knowing chord progressions helped me to play by ear and gave me some insight into playing bass lines and the right notes and so on. The result was I made much faster progress than I would have otherwise.
When I started playing bass, I wasn’t looking forward to telling Gary that I’d made a switch and would have to stop taking lessons with him so I could take some bass lessons. I felt like I was betraying him, but much to my surprise, he was quite delighted. He told me that he always had a feeling I might become a bass player because I always seemed to have an ear for root motion and that my sense of time and the quarter-note were my biggest strengths. He also said it was a good move because bass players always worked and there were fewer of them and he hooked me up with a bass teacher he’d played with often and who taught out of the same store – Lenny Boyd, who also turned out to be a very good teacher. I said I would miss him and the lessons and thanked him for all that he’d taught me. He said we’d see each other and not to be a stranger, to come by and visit him, which I did once in a while.
I have some good memories of playing with Gary, though I wish we’d played together more. He hired me for some good jobbing gigs and I remember some out-of-town gigs I played with him and Frank Wright in a trio, the two of them were very close and loved playing together. I always thought Gary was at his best in a trio like this without drums, the quietness and space relaxed him and allowed the many subtleties in his playing to come through, it also highlighted his strength as a great rhythm-guitarist and his sensitivity as an accompanist. I also remember a one-off gig in Belleville on a Sunday afternoon years ago. I was on my way back from a week-long gig in Montreal and stopped off on the way home to play this matinee in a little club with Frank, Gary and a drummer named Paul Leger. I was really tired from all the driving but I remember really enjoying that gig – everyone played really well and made it easy, especially Gary.
The qualities that made Gary such a good teacher were also what made him such a good guy – he was smart, organized, conscientious, thorough, honest, caring, upbeat and above all, generous – he was a very giving person and I really benefitted from this. Gary was one of the nice guys.
I saw Gary for the last time in August of 2013, on a Sunday night at the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival. I was playing a concert in the theatre and had a quick dinner beforehand with some friends at a nearby restaurant. I was leaving and felt a tug at my sleeve and a voice said “Hi Steve” – it was Gary, seated at a booth. It had been a while and as always, I was so glad to see him, but it became very clear that something was wrong, badly wrong. He didn’t look quite right, didn’t seem himself. We chatted for a minute and later I found out he was seriously ill with a degenerative disease that was affecting the nervous system. It wasn’t entirely clear just what it was, but the outlook was not good.
It’s to my eternal shame and regret that I didn’t make the effort to see Gary in the last few months. There are a lot of reasons – I’m really busy with a full-time job, a lot of gigging, trying to write, kids, grand-kids, some health concerns among those close to me, the whole nine yards – but all these excuses seem lame to me now. The biggest reason I didn’t go see him was I just didn’t have the guts to face seeing him so diminished, didn’t think I’d be able to take it. I wish to hell I’d seen more of him in recent years and had gone to visit him before he went, if only to say goodbye and thank him for all that he did for me and how much it’s meant. Writing this is a poor substitute for telling him in person, but now that he’s gone, it’s all I can do.
I’d like to leave you with my favourite memory of Gary Benson. I was playing a jazz gig somewhere and didn’t realize Gary was in the room. As I was playing a solo with my eyes closed (as I often do), Gary approached the bandstand, leaned in to me and said in his patented impersonation of Walter Brennan, “Well, I’ll be a son-of-a-gun, you can play jazz on that there thing, boy.” I liked to have wet my pants laughing.
Thank you for everything Gary. You’ll be greatly missed and rest in peace.
© 2014, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.