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Savannah Jazz Festival honors founder Ben Tucker with tribute band, documentary

  • The Ben Tucker Tribute Band and documentary premiere is Sept. 18 during the Savannah Jazz Festival. (Photo courtesy Coastal Jazz Association)
  • Ben Tucker (left) and Teddy Adams (right) play the first Savannah Jazz Festival in 1981. (Photo courtesy Coastal Jazz Association)
 

Savannah Jazz Festival honors founder Ben Tucker with tribute band, documentary

12 Sep 2017

Throughout its storied history, the city of Savannah has been blessed with progressive icons who have helped shape the social and economic status of one of the most beautiful cities in America.

In the last three decades, one Savannah icon stands head and shoulders above most all our denizens.

Ben Tucker was not only a legendary jazz musician, but his social outreach and community efforts also gave birth to a revival of jazz music in Savannah and acted as a bridge between communities of different races and backgrounds.

Tucker was killed June 4, 2013, in an accident on Hutchinson Island. He was struck by a speeding car as he drove his golf cart across the Grand Prize of America Roadway. He was 82.

As a co-founder of the Coastal Jazz Association, Tucker, alongside longtime friends such as trombone player Teddy Adams, helped forge a new era in Savannah by uniting people around the music they loved. He owned and operated the longest-tenured Savannah jazz club in modern history, Hard Hearted Hannah’s, and the jazz radio station WSOK.

During the opening days of the 36th annual Savannah Jazz Festival, a free seven-day event organized by the Coastal Jazz Association, Tucker will be honored by his friends and family with a night dedicated to his memory.

‘True to the music’

The Ben Tucker Tribute Band, otherwise known as the Ben Tucker Alumni Band, will play a free show at 7 p.m. Sept. 18 at Lucas Theatre. They will play through some of Tucker’s original compositions, including his most famous tune, “Comin’ Home Baby,” which he wrote and recorded in 1961 with the Dave Bailey Quintet. Originally an instrumental, lyrics were added later and the the vocal version with singer Mel Torme became a Top 40 hit in 1962.

The band will feature musicians who played with Tucker over his long career, including Adams and Coastal Jazz Association President Howard Paul, both close friends of Tucker. Adams met Tucker in Tokyo in 1972 while serving in the Armed Forces. After Tucker moved to Savannah, Adams encouraged him to come out of retirement and play music again, which he did up until the day he died.

Paul met Tucker the day he moved to Savannah in 1991. Tucker introduced Paul to his wife of 25 years, and became one of his closest friends. They both served as president and board members of the Coastal Jazz Association.

The Ben Tucker Alumni Band began when Paul put together the music for Tucker’s highly attended funeral in 2013. Every year since then, they’ve gathered to honor their friend with a show.

“I tell you one thing, Ben remained true to the music,” Adams said. “A lot of guys that played very well and accomplished a lot of things — I won’t say they sold out — but they compromised the music for financial reasons. Ben never compromised the music. He played straight-ahead jazz when I met him and he died doing it. It’s important to keep things going in his name, because he was true to it.”

Get the full Savannah Jazz Festival schedule here.

“It’s important for me, because I am from the next generation or two after that music was popular,” Paul added. “I grew up in an era, that’s all we played. I was surrounded by guys like Ben Tucker in the ‘70s and ‘80s learning how to play jazz.

“He was an important part of what created the fabric that is straight-ahead jazz. By honoring his legacy, through performances and documentary, we preserve that. Otherwise, it would be lost. We’re just a little part of it.”

Documentary project

Two years ago, Savannah College of Art and Design film and television professor Kenneth Daniel proposed an idea to one of his classes: a documentary film on the life of Tucker. The film would not be part of the class, but rather an outside project. Almost everyone in the class volunteered.

The documentary, “In Tune, The Ben Tucker Story,” will see its premiere Sept. 19, following the hour-long concert by the Ben Tucker Alumni Band. The screening and concert are free and open to the public.

More than 40 SCAD students have worked on the documentary in different capacities over the years, with Daniel helming the entire project, backed by the Coastal Jazz Association and Friends of Ben Tucker. The 56-minute documentary will also air on PBS in February during Black History Month.

“I love documentary,” Daniel said. “One of the reasons I love it is you’re constantly learning. When it was suggested we do a documentary of Ben’s life, I knew this was going to be a journey that we were going to discover things about this man that we didn’t know about.

“All of these students from SCAD immersed themselves in doing this research. That’s the core of a good documentary. Discovering all of this information that most people don’t know about.”

‘Something real special’

“Ben was so many things to so many people in this community,” Daniel continued. “That’s what I like best about this. People are going to sit in that auditorium, friends of Ben, people who worked with him and knew him and find out things about this amazing man they didn’t know. We’re all human beings — we’re all subject to making an error once in a while — certainly Ben did that. He was so amazing in what he did for this city, that goes beyond music.”

“He did enough besides music to make a documentary,” Adams added. “Social things. Civil things. You could do a documentary on that and leave out the music, but when you combine the two, you have something real special.”

Daniel did share a teaser tidbit from the documentary. In the early 1970s, Tucker purchased WSOK, a gospel station with an African-American format. He was living in New York at the time and came to Savannah to visit his radio station. At the time, he had retired from music and was focused on business.

He stepped into his station and introduced himself to the all-white staff working there. They asked who he was and once he told them he was the new owner, they all left. He immediately called his wife, Gloria, and told her he needed help. The pair moved to Savannah and never left. WSOK would become the No. 1 station in the region.

Beginning with the radio station, Tucker would embark on a mission that over the subsequent three decades would embody the spirit of a new Savannah, including the Savannah Jazz Festival.

“He was a unique bridge between the races here in Savannah,” Paul said. “It was a pivotal time and it’s still a pivotal time. It’s because of Ben and his music that Teddy and I have been friends for 20 years. It brings together parts of the community that Ben wanted to see as colorblind despite the hardships that he and everyone put up with back when he moved here. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from him.”

IF YOU GO

What: Ben Tucker Tribute Band and documentary premiere

When: 7 p.m. Sept. 18

Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.

Cost: Free

Info: savannahjazzfest.com

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