Sathima Bea Benjamin: Song Without End
AAJ: In 1963 while Duke Ellington was playing Zurich. You caught his eye and managed to meet him. You were able to persuade him to see Abdullah Ibrahim who was by now your husband, perform with his trio at Club Africana. Duke Ellington insisted on also hearing you sing. So impressed was he by what he had heard, he flew you both to Paris to record separate albums. This all must have seemed as if something out of a storybook, do you recall how you felt?
SBB: Duke Ellington came in to town so I said "OK I am going to try to go to this concert because I wanted to tell him about how much we in South Africa love him and to see if he would come back to the club before they closed (everything closed at ten minutes to twelve in Zurich).
I got myself to the Duke Ellington concert, I don't quite remember how I got backstage and there were so many people standing outside Duke Ellington's dressing room door. Every time the door would open he would say "Let so and so in," and at one point he caught my eye and said "let her in." And then I was standing there and he said "So who are you?" I said "Sir, well I am here I am just trying to see if after the show, if you could come with me to this club and listen to my boyfriend..." (we weren't married yet). I had heard that Duke Ellington could record people for Reprise records, Frank Sinatra's label. He was their A&R man at that time and he could record six projects...
After the show he came out he said "Oh my goodness you are still here" and I said "Sir, but you said you would come with me," and he said "Do you mind if I bring my barber?" because he didn't know me from anywhere... And as we got to the club, the owner was turning the key in the door. It was like ten minutes before midnight. But then he saw me get out of the cab with Duke Ellington and he of course, he put the key back in.
We went in and Abdullah didn't know what to think. I introduced them and the owner reopened the club. I explained that I wanted just a few minutes for him to hear Abdullah. And while listening to Abdullah he asked "how old are you?" and I was twenty-three and I said so. He said "What do you do? You cannot be a manager you are too young. Just a little girl." And I said "Well sir, sometimes I sing." And he said, "Oh OK, so go up there." I don't know what I sang, it was not a Duke Ellington song maybe it was "I'm Glad There Was You" or something. He said "My goodness, listen. I have to leave tomorrow because I am doing a European tour. If you two guys will be at the Baur Au Lac Hotel (which was the grandest hotel in Zurich) at 10:30 in the morning we will talk." I'm telling you it was February, it was freezing cold, it was snowing ...Abdullah and I, we did not sleep that night. We could not wait for 10:30 the next morning.
We went to that hotel and Duke Ellington had us sit down in his room. He said, "Look, I will be in Paris in 4 days time at the Barclay studios. When you leave my room now I am going to put you in touch with my accountant, he will give you some money to take a train and I will see you at the Barclay studios in Paris, in four days time." And that was how it happened.
When we got to Paris and got to the Barclay studios... he also put us up in... I have never... been treated so royally in my life. We were not used to this. We were really poor. We were struggling with the music, we were struggling financially...
So we got ourselves to the studio and then Duke walked in with a very beautiful lady whom he called the Countess, and she really looked like a countess. She didn't stay but he introduced her to us and he also had Billy Strayhorn with him. He said to Billy Strayhorn, "Billy this is Bea and Bea this is Billy. Now I want you to go over to this piano. I know you can do wonderful things together." Well I had never met Billy and he had never met me, but I know why they called him Sweetpea...
He had his highball and he had his cigar. We went over to the piano and he said, "What are we going to do?" Stupid me, of course not thinking, to talk about an Ellington song or something, I said "Well, I think I'd like to sing "A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square." He said "What's that? I don't know that but sing it for me." So I started singing, he said "My goodness this is a beautiful song." Duke came running into the studio and said "Who wrote that song? Did you write it?" I said "No sir! I don't write songs...." It has the most gorgeous verse. I had gotten all these things together, with Abdullah while we were living in Zurich...
AAJ: Your album A Morning In Paris (Ekapa Records, 2008) was produced by Duke Ellington and featured both he and Billy Strayhorn on several tracks. Did Duke have any advice or directions in regards to your singing?
SBB: When we got into that studio he said OK... and went into the booth. I said I want to sing "A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square..." Abdullah had charted all these things so when Strayhorn was struggling Ellington said "Dollar Brand you know this song? Then you go show Billy the changes." And he did. Billy Strayhorn then insisted on playing it.
AAJ: On your album Svend Asmussen can be heard playing pizzicato violin, a unique choice of instrumentation. How had that come about and how involved with the non-singing aspects of the album had you been?
SBB: So while we were doing this Nightingale In Berkeley Square he said now you are going to work with a trio. And then I did "Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year" and other things, "Darn That Dream..." And while we were into that the door opened and in walked... Svend Asmussen. And Ellington said "Oh, heyyou are just what we need... I want you to play with her but listen and this is important...Please do not play the melody. She is the melody." So is that not beautiful. Ellington said "You can play anything else but you don't play the melody." So that's why he played all the pizzicato, which I found sometimes like really annoying me. But what could I do? I wasn't in control of this. I wasn't going to tell him.
When that was finished Duke said "Now you are going to work with the Trio. " And Abdullah sat down and started to do "I've Got It Bad" with me. Ellington came running out of the studio and he said "Wait a minute. That is my song. Get off of the piano stool." I am in this little booth... it was like one big room but they had like glass partitions set up so we could all see each other. I thought "Oh my God here is Ellington sitting down at the piano."
Then he said "So what key do you do this in?" If you talk to any of the musicians I work with to this day they will tell you "We love working with Sathima but she works in the most difficult keys." So I am never singing in key C or F or G. This is not because I don't want to. We have tried that, but it doesn't suit where my voice lies, I am singing on the black notes. Someone joked that I am a musical racist. It is not intentional its just where my voice lies.
So then Ellington sat down and we were going to do "I've Got It Bad" and he asked "So what key do you do this in?" and I sad D flat. He said "Oh" and he took a moment. If you will listen to that CD you will hear how tentatively for the first two chords he's trying to find the place because nobody had ever done "I've Got It Bad" in D flat...
AAJ: While Abdullah Ibrahim's album was released a year later as Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio (Warner Bros., 1964)...
SBB: Frank Sinatra, the Reprise people they decided "Yeah, OK, we'll put this out." It was a great thing because it opened doors for Abdullah...Dollar Brand...that would have remained closed to this day because it said "Duke Ellington Presents."
AAJ: Unfortunately then your album disappeared for thirty years. When this initially happened had you been given any explanation?
SBB: Because Frank Sinatra said, "Ah! look this Sathima..." him being a singer... look I don't know. I have no idea but they just said that he's not interested in that. That it's not commercial.
AAJ: When this initially happened had you been given any explanation?
SBB: It just never came out. At that time Duke Ellington's sister was still alive and I used to go and ask her. She would say, "I really don't know we have to talk to Duke." Then we would bump into Duke in Europe and he would say "You know what. I really don't know, but when they tell you that it's not commercial enough; can I just say something to you so that you'll feel good... You are really doing something that they are not prepared to let out of the bag." So it just languished like that until much later, when I did get Enja records to put it out.
AAJ: Although your album had not been released, Duke Ellington remained firmly in your corner, did this help open any doors for you?
SBB: I didn't have the money on my own so I went to Enja because I was desperate to get this out. And then I took it away from Enja because one time when I talked to him I was asking for some copies the head of Enja said to me "Well, I did it because Duke Ellington and Strayhorn's on there. I don't really like your singing." So I said "You send my stuff right back." You know, people have a right to like what they like but then he told me that so I took it back and said "You don't have the rights to that any more. Give it back to me and when I have the funds somehow I am gonna put this out again." And that's what I did.
Did you know that my daughter is Jean Grey? We did a little thing together at the Sweetwater club. We will be doing more things but all of this takes funding. It's always about where do we get the money for this? We need to do something together period. Put out a CD. I am just amazed at how really young people (in their twenties) just adore what I am doing. I have talked with some of them and they say "It is because you are singing about love. And it is so real when you sing it." I guess I am just one of those old stalwarts, you know. This is what I do. I can't pretend to other stuff. I don't know if anyone really listens. Jazz musicians are in. Jazz singers, except for the young ones who are out there.... I don't have a terrific voice, I don't have a great range what I do have is an emotive power. These young singers have gorgeous voices but I can't detect or feel a spirit or some soul in it, and that's so sad.
My husband says "You never make any money because you always have to have Buster Williams and Steven Scott." And I say "Yeah well if you come from the best..." He says "Well, Abbey Lincoln, she works with the kids" I say "Maybe she plays piano and maybe she knows what to tell the kids what to play." I do not know what to tell them but I am able in rehearsal to say "Can you play some other chords with that note? Because that one doesn't sound right." And you know there are many chords for one note and the musicians have to work very hard with me. With all my recordings I have always used someone like Buster Williams who knows how to ...he just knows how to dance with me. The way you turn a corner, it's like ballroom dancing. I did a lot of ballroom dancing when I was young. I think that's got a lot to do with my sense of timing. Somewhere between one and two, before we get to that two I am going to be sliding in there.
It's a story being told with the lyrics and the sound. It's a story you are telling. Everything has to make sense. I don't suddenly just sing a song. I will figure out what's the story here. That impacts on where I am going to put the accents. Which word is more important in the line? I wouldn't say I intensely work at it, but I do think about it. I do think that this is a story that needs to be told and. This is how you tell it. This will be the most effective.
Every song is a story. I think what a blessing it is. It's a very sacred gift from God. I believe in God, OK? How else do you get your talent? How on earth did you get this gift? It was given to you by Angels. They just work things out and when a song has to be written by somebody to come onto the planet and they angels decide, "I think she's ready for that song." I don't really know how to write songs down. It can come at any time. It can come when I'mI call itmeditating in motion. I think about songs when I am walking in streets here amidst all kinds of people. I do not retire to some place and say, "OK I am gonna write a song." It's not about that. It is very divine and very inspirational.
My husband suggested once, "So why don't you go to the new school and then you could learn to write down music." I was tempted to do that and then I changed my mind because I thought that once I do that I will no longer get inspiration. I am just supposed to be the way I am. That's why you will notice on the back of my CDs you will see "Sathima Bea Benjamin/Onaje Allan Gumbs" or "Sathima Bea Benjamin/Steven Scott." They actually didn't write any of that music, what they did was they wrote it down. When I go to them, they'll say to me "OK, Sathima we'll write this down for you but we want half the credit." And I say "You know what, you can have it." It doesn't matter to me. So you will notice that it says "Written by Sathima Bea Benjamin and Onaje Allan Gumbs" or "Written by Sathima Bea Benjamin and Steven Scott." I wanted it written down so that when I wanted to do it I could hand the chart to somebody and they could play it. This is how it goes.
I think I made the right decision not to go and study. I think it leaves my music more true to its code. I don't know about all of these things. It scares me to death so I didn't go to school and I am never going to go to school. I just always need the musicians that my heart desires to work with me and I am always blessed to have that. And they all love to work with me. They just love it. If you were ever to come to a performance you will see like some people will say that "I heard Steven Scott here there and there but they don't play the way they play when they play with you." I'll go up there and think I know that I am supposed to be the singer standing out front here. I don't really like that idea although I do have to stand out front. But you know, this is a democratic unit, I will take this song out and then I'll go and sit down.
This is what I like to do. I like to take the song out and then I go and sit down. Then Steven improvises, Buster improvises and then the drummer and that is gorgeous. Because by the time I go back on the stage to take it out again, I have grown just from listening to that.
AAJ: Often you have used US musicians for your American recordings and Cape Town musicians when you are working there. Is this due to the practicality of bringing musicians from one country to another or artistic considerations?
SBB: This is for financial reasons. At one point I was happy to put Steven together with the South African musicians, to have a blend of both countries and I thought this was so wonderful.
Abdullah was putting on some kind of a show and I said I wanted to bring Steven down there with me. There's a gorgeous bassist there, Basil Moses. He is gorgeous! I did a recording, it was before Musical Echoes (Ekapa Records, 2006), with Henry February (who has since died); he was my teacher in the early years in the nightclubs. My husband called me from there one time and he said "You know Henry February? He's still playing in the clubs here." I said "Oh, please Abdullah could you send me money to get there? I need to go there and go in the studio and do some stuff with him." And I did but you know...it costs so much money to reissue anything and I won't get any return for months. You send out all the CDs and you send it to all the distributors but it takes months before you start to get some money back. I don't want to keep doing this. The joy actually when I think about it, is, "You know what ....never mind Sathima," everything is Ekapa Records, everything belongs to me, belongs to Abdullah, belongs to my children. It's a legacy. I have recorded nine times under my own label because no one has ever been interested even to this day.