Q&A with Jazz musician and philosopher Ben Sidran - A Life in the Music and the American Dream

"Be yourself. Trust the inner voice. Listen closely. Be kind."

Ben Sidran: An American Success Story

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. Despite the reality that Sidran is better known in Europe and Japan than in America—a fact of life for most jazz musicians—Ben Sidran is an American success story.                          (Ben Sidran / Photo by Pierre Darmon)

Ben Sidran is widely recognized as the host of National Public Radio’s landmark jazz series “Jazz Alive”, which received a Peabody Award, and as the host of VH-1 television’s “New Visions” series, which received the Ace Award for best music series. Some of his works include the book "The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma", the memoir "A Life in the Music" and the groundbreaking text "There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream", along with the recording "Ben There, Done That: Ben Sidran Live Around The World (1975-2015), 27 tracks of previously unissued live performances. His new full EP titled WHO’S THE OLD GUY NOW” (2020). Ben says: “I don’t know I'm any wiser but I definitely am older. And that’s the good news. There are advantages to being the Old Guy. Especially now. A developed sense of humor and a deeper historical vision come to mind. My son Leo and I went into the studio in Madison for a couple of days in August of 2020. I have the good fortune to work with this man who can play any instrument and play it well and who understands both song writing and record production. So all I had to do was be myself and carry some water; Leo dug the well, filled the bucket and brought it up to the surface. Dig the well.”

Interview by Michael Limnios                  Ben Sidran, 2015 Interview @ blues.gr

How has the Jazz and Blues music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Ever since discovering the music, I have thought about it every day and considered how this music makes us human. I am sure, that I am physically and emotionally a different person because of the all the music I have listened to. For example, even as a young boy, it was clear to me that all people are related – we are one big family.

How do you describe WHO’S THE OLD GUY NOW sound? What do you love most from this recording?

My favorite song is the title song because it has a deeply authentic simplicity and message. The collection of songs captures the feeling of life in America in the year 2020, the need for people to pull their lives together and get on with the greater journey. It is a recording that only an older guy could have made.

"Music is the language of the soul. It is the first language we learn in our mother’s womb. Her heart beat is the original rhythm of our lives. From this all things flow. How we are affected by music shapes every aspect of our personal and social experience. Really the only thing people need to do is listen." (Photo: Ben Sidran / EP Cover "Who's The Old Guy Now", 2020)

Where does your creative drive come from? Do you consider the Jazz a specific music genre or it’s a state of mind?

Jazz is not a specific kind of music but an approach to life. It’s an attitude and a way of interacting with the world, using respect for the past, an open-ness to the future and a desire to share the moment with your fellow “musicians”. My creative drive is just a natural response to waking up every day and starting over.

What were the reasons that the Jews musicians in the 60s/70s started Folk/Jazz/Blues researches and experiments?

You will have to read the book THERE WAS A FIRE to know my thoughts on the Jewish impact on popular music in America. The book took seven years to write so it is not possible to sum up the ideas in a few words, but basically, it is about the power of narrative to shape our lives and our social history.

What touched (emotionally) you from F.G. Lorca? What was the hardest part of writing your book A LIFE IN THE MUSIC?

These are two very different questions. I would have to say that playing Garcia Lorca’s piano in his farm house in Granada brought him to life for me in a way I did not expect – to hear the “voice” of the instrument in the room where he played it was emotional and unexpected.

Writing A Life in the Music was something I had been preparing for many years but it was only after experiencing a heart operation that I was able to find the right “voice” to tell the story.  Once I found it – it was there in the first sentence of the book: “In the beginning, you fall in love.” – the rest was not hard, just time consuming.

"Ever since discovering the music, I have thought about it every day and considered how this music makes us human. I am sure, that I am physically and emotionally a different person because of the all the music I have listened to. For example, even as a young boy, it was clear to me that all people are related – we are one big family." (Ben Sidran, Sevilla 2020 / Photo by Amanda Sidran)

Are there any memories from Blue Mitchell, Mose Allison, and Van Morrison which you’d like to share with us?

I have many memories of these musicians: I can see Blue Mitchell doing a hip little dance as he listens to a playback in the studio; I can hear Van’s gruff voice telling me to play the first solo; I can picture Mose sitting next to me in a car in a rainstorm in New Orleans saying “Welcome to the quagmire!”

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Be yourself. Trust the inner voice. Listen closely. Be kind.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

Music is the language of the soul. It is the first language we learn in our mother’s womb. Her heart beat is the original rhythm of our lives. From this all things flow. How we are affected by music shapes every aspect of our personal and social experience. Really the only thing people need to do is listen.

Ben Sidran - Home

(Ben Sidran / Photo by Pierre Darmon)

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