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Barry Benson has undeniable passion for jazz

By Imani Tate, Staff Writer for the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

Barry Benson, 45, wasn’t initially given a choice about whether he listened to or played jazz.

He recently rode on the crest of screaming applause as 20,000 fans joyfully erupted after hearing the distinctively different sounds of Naturally 7, the hands-down favorite at the 32nd annual Playboy Jazz Festival.

Benson, the founder/chief executive officer of Stratus Digital and the man who has been handling Naturally 7’s online marketing on an international scale, just smiled quietly and confidently when every conversation in the Hollywood Bowl revolved around the ensemble that is much more than an a cappella group.

The seven young men – brothers Roger and Warren Thomas, “Hops” Hutton, Garfield Buckley, Rod Eldridge, Jamal Reed and Dwight Stewart – are not voices singing without music. They are voices amazingly sounding like instruments, even arranging themselves on stage as if they were a jazz combo of drums, trumpet, saxophones, guitar, clarinet and harmonica to musically translate rhythm-and-blues, Beatles songs, hip-hop, urban rap and other secular sounds into jazz melodies and rhythms.

Benson is the son of jazz saxophonist James Benson, co-founder of the Gow Dow Experience with saxophonist Leon Williams and the retired Palomares Middle School teacher who has enjoyed a dual career as a musician for five decades.

“At 11, I was placed in my dad’s jazz group because he needed a drummer. I didn’t think I was qualified to be
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playing with such world-class musicians as Harold Land Jr., Wayne Henderson, Ed Pratt and Bob “Yarb” Bray, but my dad didn’t give me a choice,” Barry said.

It didn’t take long for Barry to do more than simply “beat” on the drums. He became an expert timekeeper maintaining the pace and momentum of ensembles led by his father. Exposed to everything from Miles to Marley, he also developed a lifetime passion for music.

“My father exposed me first to jazz, then opened the door to every genre of music available. This allowed me to have a broader knowledge and scope of music,” said the Claremont High School and UC Riverside graduate. “I was a political science major in college, but music was and is my passion.

“Music is my spirit. It moves my soul and defines my existence quite honestly. As my dad said a long time ago, music is my life. It has the power to move and inspire people. It keeps my sanity and has the power to keep the world sane.”

Benson wore a Miles Davis Live T-shirt that was obviously more than a fashion statement. Standing along a walkway, he was still within hearing distance of the action on stage. The fact he was dually tuned into the music and the questions being tossed at him became obvious when he suddenly stopped in mid-sentence.

“Oh, oh. That’s `Tutu’ and that’s Marcus Miller playing it,” he said, his head bobbing in sync with the recognizable Miles Davis classic. “Marcus wrote and produced that song for Miles years ago and now he’s playing it here. Amazing. Mmmmmm.”

Benson has the same musical and teaching blood in him that flows through his father’s body and mind.

“I brought a friend to Playboy Jazz Festival last year. All he’d known before was smooth jazz which isn’t jazz. It’s pop. He begged me to come back this year to hear more of the master artists, the real deal,” Benson said, chuckling.

Accepting James’ premise that “jazz comes in many forms. It depends on how you listen to the music,” Benson did a Black History Month assembly at his daughter’s Westside Neighborhood School in Los Angeles.

“We started by showing Julie Andrews singing `My Favorite Things’ in `The Sound of Music’ movie,” he said. “Then we showed John Coltrane playing the same song. The kids didn’t realize that could be played as a jazz song, too. It’s all the same. It’s music. Good music.

“I like being a teacher, too,” he said. “It’s like being a track star who passes the baton. It makes me feel good when young people understand what good music really is.”

James Benson, now 77, was a Toledo, Ohio, adolescent being classically trained in music when Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Powell, Kenny Clark and Max Roach pioneered bebop jazz. He instantly shifted to the new sound and became a “bebop baby.”

James’ one-word reaction to bebop was “wow!” with an exclamation point.

“I was instantly in love with it,” James said. “That love has never left me. I still love it. No one can imagine how blessed I feel to have a son who has the same passion for it and all music.”

Barry didn’t go with his father for concerts in Africa, but he did go when Gow Dow Experience performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival in the 1970s and toured California. He was also there for the performance on Tony Brown’s “Take Back Your Mind” special.

Both Bensons expressed appreciation for America’s original music and value jazz as the nation’s cultural contribution to the world. There are many imitators, they said, but jazz musicians are unique in the fact they can play the same song repeatedly, but never play it the same way. Each presentation is unique and special because of the improvisational nature of jazz and the freedom found in expressing it, they agreed.

Barry served as music director and on-air host for KUCR, UC Riverside’s radio station, during his four years there. He discovered music was a great way to establish new relationships and bridge generational and cultural gaps. After graduating, he worked for Disney Corp. for several years until he established Stratus Digital in 2008.

“My company is the only urban online and digital marketing company. Urban meaning black. No one’s been able to question that assertion yet,” Barry proudly said. “My job is to expose eclectic black music artists to the worldwide Web community. This is extremely important because of the deterioration of physical retail outlets and the growth of digital sales.

“Most people are buying music online now, but blacks haven’t made the transition from the traditional side to online as executives in the music world,” Barry continued, noting the necessity of tapping into new possibilities.

Barry and his wife, Velma, are also passing on their love of the performance arts to their daughter, Sasha, 8.

“Although theater is more her thing, she gets jazz. I mean understands it,” he said, admittedly amazed. “We dance to Coltrane and Miles and she’s beginning to recognize and like certain signature songs by jazz masters.”

Article originally featured in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

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