Memorial jazz concert honors Savannah music icon Ben Tucker
29 May 2017
Every year on June 4, a jazz concert is held in memory of the iconic jazz musician Ben Tucker.
This will be the fourth annual concert honoring Tucker. Set for Wright Square, in case of rain the show moves to Lutheran Church of the Ascension.
“We’re bringing in musicians who played with Ben over the years,” says jazz trombonist Teddy Adams, a close friend of Tucker’s. “We have a pretty decent lineup of Savannah’s best musicians.”
A jazz bassist, Tucker appeared on hundreds of recordings, including albums by Art Pepper, Billy Taylor, Quincy Jones, Grant Green, Dexter Gordon, Hank Crawford, Junior Mance and Herbie Mann.
“Ben was multifaceted,” Adams says. “A lot of people know him because of his music, but socially, civically, Ben was active, period. He had been on every worthwhile board in Savannah. He was part of anything constructive.
“His influence was across the board because of his involvement in so many things,” Adams says. “Music was just one of them.”
Together, Adams and Tucker presented an educational program on jazz at Telfair Museums. It was so successful, they went on to found the Telfair Jazz Society, which later became the Coastal Jazz Association.
“As a result of that close association, we also started the Savannah Jazz Festival,” Adams says. “It’s real funny that we started the Coastal Jazz Society in 1982 and within one year, put on the first Savannah Jazz Festival with national acts. Now it’s going on almost 40 years.”
To Tucker, no one was a casual friend.
“Ben was gregarious,” Adams says. “Ben’s reaction was that all people were the same — he had known you for a long time.
“He would never say no. A lot of times, perhaps he should have. No matter how busy he was, he would accept responsibility and somehow try to put it across.
“Ben remained true to jazz and never crossed over,” Adams says. “That’s why I respected him. I knew I had one person here that I could count on to stay true to jazz.”
On June 4, 2013, Tucker was killed when the golf cart he was driving on Hutchison Island was struck by a speeding car. He was 82 years old and still as active as ever.
If Tucker were alive today, he’d still be active, Adams says.
“I’m sure he would be doing exactly what he was doing before his demise — being involved in the community and playing music,” Adams says. “When I got here in 1976, Ben had given up his musical career.”
Born in Tennessee, Tucker moved to Savannah to run a radio station. By 1972, he owned two radio stations in Savannah, WSOK-AM and WLNH-FM.
“His bass was in storage in New York,” Adams says. “He said, ‘I’m not in music anymore. I’m a businessman.’
“It was about making the radio station work,” Adams says. “He said, ‘I had fun, I made money, but it’s over.’”
But Adams couldn’t accept that.
“I’d met him years before in Tokyo and knew his reputation,” Adams says. “I just wouldn’t let up and I talked him into playing.
“His bass was still in storage, so he started playing electric bass, which he didn’t like. He only started playing because I asked him to.
“So when he got his bass from New York, he more or less had made up his mind to resume his career in music, locally if nothing else,” Adams says. “He owned Hannah’s East in City Market and that gave him the platform he needed and motivated him to stay and really do it because he had an outlet. That eventually closed, but he never stopped playing.”
Donations accepted at the concert will go to the Ben Tucker Foundation.
“It’s for scholarships and positive things pertinent to music and education,” Adams says. “We’re going to play jazz standards he liked to play and some of his original compositions.”
Jazz guitarist Howard Paul is helping organize the concert.
“I’m putting together the band,” he says. “The intent is to feature folks that played with Ben over the course of the years.”
The concert will include Adams on trombone and Paul on guitar. Tucker’s guitarist and substitute bassist Bruce Spradley also will perform.
“He was Ben’s guitarist and substitute bassist for probably 30 years,” Paul says.
Others participating are Robert Saunders on drums, Randy Reese on saxophone and flute, Jeremy Johnson and Calvin Barnes on saxophone, Eric Jones on piano, Kirk Lee on trumpet and Claire Frazier on vocals, all musicians who performed with Tucker over the years.
Tucker impacted Savannah in a lot of different ways.
“He was a mentor and bandmate for a couple of generations of musicians who settled in Savannah, including myself,” Paul says. “He taught younger musicians the importance of community participation and philanthropy they might not have learned otherwise.”
But most important, Tucker was a friend.
“He was a really wonderful guy,” Paul says. “We played together on and off over 20 years, and traveled together a little bit.
“We’d do gigs in the mountains of North Carolina. Every year, we’d fly out to the West Coast.
“He was a great traveling partner, a fun dinner companion and on the bandstand, he tried to be all business,” Paul says. “In Savannah in particular, he was so beloved and well known.”
Tucker was often interrupted by fans, even when he was performing.
“There are generations of people whose weddings he played,” Paul says. “He worked with their children and grandchildren. They would literally line up and try to have a conversation with him while we were performing. It was challenging, but a lot of fun.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Remembering Ben” A Memorial Tribute to the Legacy of Ben Tucker
When: 3-5 p.m. June 4
Where: Wright Square
Info: 912-232-4151, email@example.com
What else: In case of rain, the concert will move to Crumley Hall in Lutheran Church of the Ascension, 120 Bull St.
Ben Tucker savannah Coastal Jazz Association memorial concert