Benny Powell dies at 80; veteran jazz trombonist played with Count Basie

Benny Powell dies at 80; veteran jazz trombonist played with Count Basie
July 10, 2010
By Claire Noland
Los Angeles Times

Benny Powell, a veteran jazz trombonist who played with Count Basie from the early 1950s to the early 1960s, taking a solo turn in the band's 1955 recording of "April in Paris," has died. He was 80.

Powell died June 26 at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City after undergoing back surgery, said publicist Devra Hall Levy. The cause has not been determined.

A native of New Orleans, Powell had a varied career that ranged from Lionel Hampton's big band in the late 1940s to modern jazz with pianist Randy Weston and his African Rhythms ensemble for the last quarter-century. In between he had a steady gig in "The Merv Griffin Show" band, studio session jobs and work on Broadway musicals and touring shows.

"I used to use trumpet in my quintet, but when I started using Benny, I fell in love with the trombone," Weston said in a 2004 interview with jazz writer Zan Stewart for New Jersey's Star-Ledger newspaper. "He has such a big, rich sound. We call Benny Powell 'ultra man.' He's the most incredible, spiritual person I know. … And absolutely fun to make music with."

The first instrument Benjamin Gordon Powell picked up in New Orleans, where he was born March 1, 1930, was a parade drum. His mother, who worked as a maid in the French Quarter, played the piano. She encouraged his interest in the trombone, and he had his first professional band gig at 14.

"The thing I most love about it is how expressive it is," Powell said of the brass instrument in an interview with the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2001. "It's like a voice. It can go from a whisper to a roar."

He played with bands in Texas and Oklahoma before touring with Hampton beginning in 1948.

From 1951 to 1963, he recorded and toured with Basie's band; one of his personal highlights was playing at President Kennedy's inauguration in 1961.

He played with smaller groups on the side before leaving Basie in 1963 to lead his own ensemble. He also played and recorded with the Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and others in the '60s.

In 1970, Powell began an eight-year run with Merv Griffin's TV talk show and moved with it to Los Angeles. He occasionally rejoined the Basie band, including for a brief scene in Mel Brooks' 1974 comedy "Blazing Saddles," and eventually returned to New York.

He began playing with Weston in the early '80s and in recent years taught at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Survivors include his daughter, Demitra Powell Clay; two grandchildren; and his sister, Elizabeth Powell McCrowey.
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