Recording period between
Benny Powell was a journeyman trombonist whose bold sound bridged bebop and swing. His work employed the vocal color of great swing trombonists and the technical fluidity of bop practitioners. Powell played both tenor trombone and the bigger-bored bass trombone, broadening the colors he brought to an ensemble. Known nearly exclusively as a sideman, he made valuable contributions to several notable bands, ranging from the rocking swing of Lionel Hampton to the roots-informed avant-garde of John Carter.
A native of New Orleans, Powell started performing professionally at 14. By age 18, he had joined Lionel Hampton, and three years later he left to join the Count Basie Orchestra just as Basie was reestablishing his band as one of the benchmarks of the field. Powell's horn played the bridge on Basie's biggest hit, "April in Paris." He stayed with Basie through 1963, making small-band sessions with a number of leaders, most often fellow members of Basie's orchestra. From 1963, he first worked as a session man in New York, notably with the band for The Merv Griffin Show. He moved to California with the show and continued to be in demand with rehearsal big bands in which studio players got a chance to exercise their jazz chops. Prominent among these was the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Powell recorded one session with the group, taking the highly charged and characteristic solo on "Fingers." That swaggering solo style combined with a studio player's dependability landed him stints with Abdullah Ibrahim, John Carter (contributing to all five recordings that comprise Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music), and Randy Weston. Weston's big bands proved especially fitting showcases for the range of Powell's work.
Powell's first recording under his own name was 1982's Coast to Coast, released on the Trident label, and it would be nearly a full decade before the trombonist recorded his second session as a leader, the 1991 Inspire Productions release Why Don't You Say Yes Sometime?, featuring a number of his own compositions -- "Aunt Babe," "Found," "Pow-Wee," "Spiral," and "Ceah the Wizard," all arranged by John Stubblefield -- that drew on a variety of styles and proved apt vehicles for his expressive horn. The Gift of Love followed on the Japanese Faith label in 2003, and Powell released his fourth album, Nextep on Origin, in 2008. While his widely spaced recordings as a leader might suggest to the casual observer that Powell was less than fully active from the '80s through into the new millennium, the trombonist in fact remained quite busy as a sideman throughout this period, and he was also committed to education, teaching young people about jazz and the roots of African-American music, including work with the Jazzmobile in New York City. Benny Powell died in Manhattan on June 26, 2010 following back surgery; he was 80 years old. ~ David Dupont