By Len Lear
Virtually every great jazz performer in the U.S. over the last 71 years has performed at Birdland, which opened in December of 1949 at 1678 Broadway in Manhattan, closed in June of 1964 after a bankruptcy and reopened in 1985 at 2745 Broadway in the heart of the New York theater district.
For many years Birdland also became a fashionable place for celebrities to be seen, with Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Gary Cooper, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Sugar Ray Robinson, Marlene Dietrich, Joe Louis, Judy Garland, Marlon Brando and others as regulars.
Now Chestnut Hill native Ben Paterson, who graduated from Germantown Friends School and has been earning rave reviews all over the country for his jazz piano stylings, has joined the list of legends such as Art Blakey, Miles David, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Charlie “Bird” Parker (for whom Birdland was named) who all played at Birdland, arguably the nation’s most iconic jazz venue. Paterson was invited to play at Birdland six months ago, and he is returning there to play Monday, Jan. 27.
“It is a great honor,” said Ben, 37, who has also been the opening act for the legendary B.B. King and for Steely Dan and has played the prestigious Rainbow Room on top of Rockefeller Center several times.
Here are a couple comments that are typical of the encomiums Ben has been getting from critics in recent years: “Ben Paterson is as soulful an electric pianist-organist as exists anywhere,” wrote Frank-John Hadley in Downbeat Magazine.
“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. “His playing is always where it needs to be: one minute sensitive and relaxed, at another moment explosive and muscular and always musical.”
And in addition to his extraordinary musical talent, according to a family friend, Margie Gleit, of Ambler, who brought him to our attention, “Ben is a genuinely kind, fine, bright, awesome young man.”
The jazz master grew up on Mermaid Lane just a couple blocks west of Germantown Avenue. “It was a great place to grow up,” Ben told us in an earlier interview, “having Germantown Avenue close by but also being able to bike down to the Wissahickon or over to Pastorius Park.
“Having all of that to explore was pretty special. I don’t think most kids growing up in an urban environment are fortunate enough to have all that. I think my three favorite places to go on Germantown Avenue were Zatzman’s Music, Chestnut Hill Hobbies and TLA Video, all gone now unfortunately. The neighborhood is still beautiful, though! I come back several times a year to visit my parents, who still live in East Mt. Airy.” (Ben’s father and step-mother, Morton Paterson and Susan Blair, are actors who perform regularly in area community theaters.)
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 some 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 many nights, sitting in at jam sessions and getting to know some players on the scene.
By his last year of college, Ben was playing pretty consistently at jazz jam sessions around Chicago and was starting to get called for gigs. Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson were the first pianists Ben was into; then came other jazz legends like Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, etc. He also listened often to Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. “I have to thank my older brother John for introducing me to a lot of that stuff,” he said.
How does one embark on a career in music, knowing that most musicians, especially jazz players, struggle just to pay the rent? “First,” Ben replied, “you really have to love it. Going into music for the sake of anything other than the sheer love of playing isn’t a great idea. It’s certainly not an easy road as far as making a living.”
Ben usually only practices one or two hours a day, but he is out gigging/playing just about every night, so he still gets four or five hours of playing most days. 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.”
Paterson, who is single but engaged and planning to get married this September, now plays often at Mezzrow in New York’s West Village and Smoke in the Upper West Side.
For more information, visit www.benpaterson.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org