by Len Lear
Ben Paterson grew up on Mermaid Lane and Navajo Street in Chestnut Hill, a pebble’s throw from the CVS store on Germantown Avenue. “I can remember walking down to the Night Kitchen for sticky buns on Saturday mornings,” said the 2000 Germantown Friends School graduate. “After I went off to college, my parents moved to East Allens Lane in Mt. Airy, so when I come back to Philly now, that’s where I go. The two houses aren’t more than a 15 or 20-minute walk from each other, and both are beautiful neighborhoods.”
Ben’s 36th birthday was Saturday, June 23, and there is probably no one on earth who received a better birthday present that day! On June 22 and 23, Ben, a jazz pianist with energy tightly coiled like that of a racehorse restless in the starting gate, was competing in the Ellis Marsalis International Jazz Piano Competition in Huntington, West Virginia. More than 150 jazz pianists from many countries, including Russia and China, competed, and Ben won first prize on his birthday! In addition to a $25,000 prize, he won other significant benefits such as assistance with booking, management and social media promotion. (Five of the seven finalists were from the U.S. One was from Japan, and one was from Honduras.)
“Winning the competition was a huge honor,” Ben told us last week. “The judges included Ellis Marsalis himself, his son Branford Marsalis, Arturo O’Farrill and Jon Batiste, all world class musicians at the top of their field. The other finalists were also tremendous musicians with a wide range of unique and distinct styles, so I feel very fortunate to have been selected as the first prize winner.
“I’m hoping that the increased publicity and booking opportunities that come with this prize can help me reach some of the premier jazz venues and festivals around the world and help me continue to build my audience and refine my craft.”
Ben took classical piano lessons from age 6 until the end of high school, most notably at Settlement Music School in Germantown, where his piano teacher was Linda Reichert. He also took jazz lessons from a pianist named Jim Dell’Orefice.
After graduating from GFS, Ben went to the University of Chicago from 2000 to 2004, earning a Political Science degree. But being there also put Ben right on the south side of Chicago, a rich area for jazz and blues, and Ben soon found himself sneaking away every night he could, sitting in on jam sessions and getting to know some players on the scene there.
By his last year of college, Ben was playing consistently at jazz jam sessions around Chicago. “While I didn’t study music in school,” he recalled, “I was able to get into the surrounding area to play gigs and jam sessions often. When I graduated, I said to myself, ‘Now’s the time to give this a shot!’ So I found a cheap apartment and put myself out there as a full-time freelance jazz pianist. I’d already built up a decent network of contacts, and my rent was cheap, so right away I was able to support myself just by playing music, which I thought was pretty terrific at the time.”
Ben has played at festivals before thousands of people and for a half-dozen people in a basement dive. “Either way,” he said, “the feeling you get after creating something beautiful with other musicians and connecting with an audience is pretty amazing.”
Reviews for Ben’s playing in jazz publications have been consistently laudatory. “On first listen, you can hear why so many people on the jazz scene are singing Paterson’s praises,” wrote Paul Abella in Chicago Jazz Magazine in a typical review. “His playing is always where it needs to be: one minute sensitive and relaxed, at another moment explosive and muscular, and always musical.”
Paterson has played widely in Europe as well as the U.S. “Jazz audiences in Europe can sometimes be a bit more reserved than American ones,” he said, “but they generally do have a very good appreciation for the arts over there. When you do get a great crowd in the U.S., though, there’s a great feeling of energy.”
One powerful influence on Ben has been a great pianist and singer named Johnny O’Neal. “He’s been a huge influence on me since I moved to New York about five years ago, and he continues to teach me something new every time I see him.”
Ben has a trio that will play at Paris Bistro in Chestnut Hill on Thursday, July 5, 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.benpaterson.com