It is the second week of our Artist Interview Series and we are talking to Musician, Writer and Producer, Ben Sidran.
Ben Sidran has been a major force in the modern day history of jazz and rock & roll having played keyboards with or produced such artists as Steve Miller, Mose Allison, Diana Ross, Boz Scaggs, Phil Upchurch, Tony Williams, Jon Hendricks, Richie Cole and Van Morrison. It’s been a long and varied journey for Ben Sidran — from playing boogie woogie piano as a six year old in Racine, Wisconsin, leaning into his jazz records, listening to a Blue Mitchell solo “literally like an Eskimo huddled around a fire”, to growing up to play boogie woogie piano around the world and, eventually, recording with Blue Mitchell on his first solo album. Ben has also recorded over 60 interviews for NPR on his radio show, “Talking Jazz”. He’s interviewed jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Herbie Hancock. Sidran’s career has spanned both multiple music genres and decades alike.
Ben, what is your earliest memory playing an instrument?
Sitting at an old upright piano playing from a small kids music book, something like “Here we go, up a row, to a birthday party”
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Hard to say. When I was 13 I wrote that I wanted to be an electrical engineer. But what I loved doing was playing boogie-woogie on that old upright piano. I don’t think being a musician was seen as an option when and where I was growing up.
When did you first fall in love with music?
I have a distinct memory of listening to Buddy Morrow’s band playing “Night Train” when I was a kid and running around the house like a lunatic. I must have been five or six.
Did you have important teachers along the way that helped shape your musical exploration, if so how did they help you?
From the ages of 12 through 17 I had a wonderful teacher who was very patient with me, who made special arrangements of jazz standards that I could cover with my small hands, and that impressed my friends. As I grew older and started to get little gigs, he helped me figure out what the job was.
How has learning an instrument helped you in your life, besides obviously giving you a hugely successful career? In other words, what are some of the positive side-effects you see in your life because of music?
Being an improvising musician has given me a taste for improvisation in all aspects of life – in fact, I can’t do the same thing twice at the piano and I resent having to repeat myself in most areas of self expression. Music has allowed me to keep an eye out for any other ways I can hang with people and groove – the idea of a groove, an emotional, rhythmic premise that can happen spontaneously, has become an important part of my life. And music has given me a deeper appreciation for our moral obligation to truth telling and to lightening the burden of people’s suffering. Finally, being a musician has nourished my sense of humor and my sense of the absurd.
How has playing music influenced you as a parent?
The playfulness of music has given me a grammar with which to hang out with children. I am also often amazed at the ingenious, lyrical and / or funny things kids come up with at the piano which puts us more on the same level, giving me a chance to really “be there” with a child.
Did you ever want to give up playing? How did you overcome that?
I did stop playing once for six months. I was in graduate school in England, studying History and Sociology and it was 1967 and I had been listening to a lot of Coltrane and McCoy Tyner and I had this overwhelming feeling that it was time to move on. Then one day I passed a piano in the lounge and sat down and discovered that it was fun to press the keys down and that I missed it and that it didn’t matter if I would never be as good as McCoy Tyner. It didn’t matter at all.
What advice would you give to parents and students who play an instrument, or who are thinking about learning to play?
Learning to play an instrument is a great paradigm for life. The kinds of problems you confront, the places it takes you in your psyche, the social connections it helps you make, the personal space it can create in your mind, all these things are available to you on a daily and hourly basis when you sit with an instrument. And in the end, the instrument won’t change but you will be totally transformed.
And for all of our 3 year old readers, if you could turn yourself into an instrument, what would you be and why?
A guitar because it would feel so good to have my strings strummed!
We hope you enjoyed this interview with Ben Sidran. If you would like learn more about Ben, check out his latest album, Picture Him Happy or read his latest book: There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream.
Please join us again next week when we will be chatting with Jazz Vocalist, Kurt Elling.