Benny Powell, 80

Benny Powell dies at 80; Jazz trombonist performed with Count Basie

By Claire Noland
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Benny Powell, a jazz trombonist who played with Count Basie's band from the early 1950s to the early 1960s, taking a solo turn in its 1955 recording of "April in Paris," died June 26 at a hospital in New York after undergoing back surgery. He was 80.

Mr. Powell's career ranged from Lionel Hampton's big band in the late 1940s to the modern jazz of pianist Randy Weston and his African Rhythms ensemble for the past quarter-century. In between, he had a steady gig in "The Merv Griffin Show" band, studio session jobs, and work in Broadway musicals and touring shows.

Benjamin Gordon Powell was born March 1, 1930, in New Orleans. The first instrument he picked up was a parade drum. His mother encouraged an interest in the trombone, and he had his first professional gig at 14.

"The thing I most love about it is how expressive it is," Mr. Powell said of the trombone in an interview with the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2001. "It's like a voice. It can go from a whisper to a roar."

He played with bands in Texas and Oklahoma before touring with Hampton, beginning in 1948. From 1951 to 1963, he was a member of Basie's celebrated band, which played at President John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1961.

Mr. Powell left Basie in 1963 to lead his own ensemble. He played and recorded with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and others in the 1960s.

In 1970, Mr. Powell began an eight-year run with Merv Griffin's TV talk show, and he moved with it to Los Angeles. He occasionally rejoined the Basie band, including for a brief scene in Mel Brooks's 1974 comedy film "Blazing Saddles."

He began playing with Weston in the early 1980s and in recent years taught at the New School in New York.

-- Los Angeles Times

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