The life story of any bassist will inevitably include details of rhythm sections he has been a member of, as if there were any other purpose to the life of a bassist except perhaps depositing checks. In the case of Joe Benjamin, it is pretty hard to own an outstanding jazz collection without at least a few sides featuring this on-the-case bassman. Although he is best known as the kind of intelligent but not showy rhythm section partner that bandleader Duke Ellington was on the prowl for throughout his career, Benjamin was also not strictly a conservative jazzman. When he wanted a push, he went to bandleaders such as Rahsaan Roland Kirk or Hank Garland, while he was also quite capable of swinging at the barely audible dynamic label required by Dave Brubeck. Born Joseph Rupert Benjamin, the bassist worked in the big bands of Artie Shaw, Fletcher Henderson, and Sy Oliver, but was best known as an essential part of various small-combo rhythm section. His wide dynamics allowed him to back up both rowdy horn soloists and subtle vocalists. While working with Louis Armstrong, with whom he recorded prolifically, Benjamin became the butt of a joke when pianist Marian McPartland, working her way toward sitting in with the band, remarked to Satchmo, "Oh, I've never played with Joe Benjamin before." McPartland later recalled, "Armstrong managed to make something suggestive out of that; he had the whole band dying of laughing...."
Those who did play with Benjamin included the absolute cream of the crop in jazz. With the Ellington band, Benjamin's drum partners included the fine Rocky White and the funky Rufus Jones. Ellington always had terrific bassists, including players such as Wellman Braud, Jimmy Blanton, and John Lamb. As a composer he liked to give the low instrument extended feature spots, and these parts of the Benjamin discography are well worth checking out. There are blues numbers on both the Togo Brava and New Orleans Suite albums that provide plenty of space for the bassist to get tasty; a bassist in cyberspace listing great performances raves that Benjamin "...is not flashy, in a totally supportive role just playing the walking line. But does he ever get in the pocket!" The Togo Brava sections featuring drums and bass together have been pilfered heavily by acid jazz and drums'n'bass DJs. There are plenty of classic small-combo lineups that feature Benjamin. One, of course, is the Brubeck quartet with Paul Desmond on alto saxophone and Joe Morello on drums. Far fewer copies were sold of recordings by a Mal Waldron trio with Benjamin and drummer Jo Jones, but it is much better music than anything Brubeck came up with. The same can be said for country & western guitarist Hank Garland, who made only one real jazz album, the auspicious-sounding Jazz Winds from a New Direction. This featured vibraphonist Gary Burton at the ripe age of 17 and the combination of Morello and Benjamin providing swing.
In the '50s, Sarah Vaughan used Benjamin, drummer Roy Haynes, and pianist John Malachi to record classics such as "Shulie a Bop" and "I Cried for You." The relationship with Haynes continued, the snappy drummer using Benjamin as bassist in some of his own combos, a decision that certainly speaks highly of the drummer's opinion of Benjamin's timekeeping. Another great record is the early Kirk's Work by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, featuring Benjamin in a group with organist Brother Jack McDuff and the brilliant drummer Art Taylor. Benjamin died in the early '70s, still based out of New Jersey. Much of his life had been spent on the road, and the best way to describe much of that was to list some of the great groups he was in. Which is probably the way he would have wanted it. ~ Eugene Chadbourne