It’s been five years since Savannah jazz icon Ben Tucker was tragically killed in a vehicle accident, but his legacy is continuing thanks in part to the legions of fans and friends he made during his four decades in Savannah.
Every year, the Friends of Ben nonprofit hosts the Ben Tucker Memorial Concert, which began with his memorial service in 2013. A slew of Savannah jazz musicians, most of whom played with Tucker, come out to celebrate the life of their friend. This year's event will be at 3 p.m. June 3 in Wright Square. While admission is free, suggested donations of $10 support a scholarship fund.
“Everything about Ben was fun,” said Larry Broussard, vice president of Friends of Ben. “He was always making people smile. He was grandfatherly, almost a Santa Claus affect. He made you feel good about yourself and you knew he cared. He also inspired people to work for a better community. The musicians who played with him were honored to be on stage with him because it was just — you were a better person for knowing Ben.”
Tucker moved to Savannah in the 1970s after retiring from music. He was, at that time, an accomplished jazz bassist with credits on hundreds of albums. Tucker worked with Art Pepper, Billy Taylor, Quincy Jones, Herbie Mann and more throughout his career. In Savannah, he owned two radio stations, WSOK-AM and WLVH-FM.
Tucker was spurred back into action by trombonist and longtime friend Teddy Adams, who talked him into playing live again a few short years after moving to Savannah. Together, the two began a jazz education program at Savannah State University and Telfair Museums. The successful program blossomed into the Telfair Jazz Society and later the Coastal Jazz Association, which has hosted the Savannah Jazz Festival for the last 37 years.
The CJA, with Tucker and Adam’s guidance, was built around a notion of inclusion. The Savannah Jazz Festival has become one of the city’s most diversely attended events. Tucker’s legacy is one of community building and his memorial concert is built with that idea in mind.
“Music is a real fun, simple way of doing it,” Broussard said. “You get a bunch of people together and they’re having fun and then pretty soon, other projects are coming out and they’re helping each other. I find in today’s political environment, local communities are getting stronger because we can’t rely on federal help for anything. We have to do things ourselves. You've got to support your neighbor and they have to support you.”
Adams will be playing the concert again this year, along with Randy Reese on saxophone and flute, Eric Jones on piano, Mitch Hennis on bass, Robert Saunders on drums, Kirk Lee on trumpet, Howard Paul on guitar and Gina Rene on vocals.
A large part of the Friends of Ben mission is geared toward developing the future of jazz in Savannah. The nonprofit funds scholarships for youth, among other community development projects. Tucker himself worked with a number of local organizations during his time in Savannah, including Junior Achievers, The First Tee of Savannah, Bethesda Boys Academy, Boys & Girls Clubs of Savannah, YMCA, SCAD, the Westin Foundation and more.
“Also with Friends of Ben, what we’re really trying to do is inspire a new generation to continue and pass the torch, to not let Ben’s legacy die out,” Broussard said. “Ben is the Johnny Mercer of our age. Like Johnny Mercer, he was an internationally famous musician. Ben took it another step; he was a community advocate. He did so much to educate and help.”