Guitarist George Benson headlines Detroit Jazz Festival

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

When you think of George Benson, any number of mega-hits come to mind. Maybe it’s the ’70s-defining instrumental “Breezin’ ” or the R&B classic “Give Me the Night,” or his jazzy cover of the pop classic “On Broadway.” Or it could be one of his soulful ballads, “This Masquerade” or “Nature Boy.”

That music would comprise enough of a career for most, and Benson will delight the audience Friday with many of those numbers when he headlines the first night of the Detroit Jazz Festival. (The festival runs through Monday.)

George Benson says he finds it hard to say which comes naturally, his vocals or guitar skills. “I never really think about it because they both come out of the same place,” he says.

But running parallel to his pop celebrity and those shimmering, seductive R&B vocals, he is esteemed as a jazz guitarist in the tradition of Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery.

What set Benson apart was that he saw no shame in applying his gifts in a pop context.

As Chris Collins, artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival, puts it: “I love artists who have found a way for this art form to touch the masses with the sophistication and the legitimacy of the art underlying it. That’s what makes even something like ‘Breezin’ or ‘On Broadway’ so legitimate, because you hear the substantial musicality behind those things.”

Chris Collins, artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival.

Benson finds it hard to say which comes more naturally, his vocals or guitar playing.

“I never really think about it because they both come out of the same place,” Benson says during a telephone interview.

“The same brain, two different voices. The thing that makes a difference for me, the instrumental version takes a little more research and experience to master. So I practice all the time, I practice almost every day to stay on top of things harmonically. When you get to that point, you can speak different languages using the same instrument. It’s a phenomenon that I don’t think anybody really knows the answer to yet. But you can make it work on your behalf, that’s all I know.”

That he practices daily is important for young players to know, because he makes it look easy. As a poor child, growing up in Pittsburgh, Benson started playing on a roughly hewn, handmade guitar. A prodigy on that guitar, he was untutored. He ran with a gang for a while and had just about everything working against him.

But years of grinding it out in the clubs and constantly honing his craft paid off.

For his jazz festival slot, Benson says he probably won’t work out his playlist until he gets there.

“The thing with me, it’s very difficult to know exactly what to play, because most of our fans are pop fans, they know the hit records that we have out,” Benson says. “But along with that, we have some very tasty smooth jazz songs, and even some jazz-oriented tunes over the years. So we have a pretty good-sized repertoire. I don’t plan my show out, I just reach in and grab something on the spur of the moment.”

It’ll work for a jazz audience in Detroit.

“You know, we love Detroit,” the guitarist says. “Detroit is one of the most knowledgeable music towns in America. They’ve had such great radio, and they’ve produced great audiences too. I used to do interviews with WCHB and WJZZ all the time when I was playing at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge.”

As a musician, Benson is comfortable moving from pop to R&B to jazz. Like Miles Davis, he dismissed the idea that classic songs were from one era, and delighted in reinterpreting pop and rock songs.

He first fell in love with music as a child, via the Nat King Cole records he heard on the radio. But he also loved R&B, and formed a doo-wop group as a teenager.

While he was aware of jazz, and dabbled in it, it was another teenager, sax player Larry Smith from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, (near Pittsburgh), who prodded him further into the art. Smith now lives in Detroit.

At 17, Benson was playing in an organ group in an R&B club in Pittsburgh while Smith, also 17, was playing in a jazz club across the street. “I heard him sit in with Sonny Stitt, and I saw that he was a young master on his instrument,” Benson said.

“So I hired him to play with my band across the street from the jazz house, in an R&B house. And I asked him, Why does your music sound so different than what we play? Larry said, ‘Oh, I listen to Charlie Parker.’ I said Charlie who? He said, ‘You mean you don’t know who Charlie Parker is, man?’ ”

Appalled, Smith invited Benson to his house to listen to the album “Charlie Parkerwith Strings.”

“ I was blown away,” Benson relates. “I was convinced that that was the best jazz record in history.” Smith urged Benson to listen to Parker, and to play the chromatic scale, but Benson resisted, believing that playing in the blues tradition worked best for him.

That soon changed. Benson found inspiration in jazz, and worked his way back to it.

Over the years, he’s played frequently with this year’s jazz festival artist-in-residence, Detroit bassist Ron Carter. Carter’s Nonet will be the first act on opening night, performing before Benson, at 7 p.m.

“I met Ron when he was a young man coming out of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. I’m privileged to have had him on many of my records. I have to give him a lot of credit for dressing up a lot of our music,” Benson said.

Organ groups are having their moment right now, which Benson is glad to hear. He played for years in organ groups, most notably the George Benson Quartet, a mid-’60s lineup that included Smith on organ, Ronnie Cuber on baritone sax and Marion Booker on drums.

“We brought that band to Detroit years ago. Too bad I couldn’t have kept that group together,” Benson says. “Lonnie was an incredible musician and Ronnie was an exceptional saxophonist. We really had a great time playing what they now call acid jazz, R&B with a jazz attack to it.”

On his current docket, the guitarist is experimenting in the studio, doing something “new and fresh” for his next album. He’s also involved with a Motown-themed project, a new take on Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On.”

“Some superstars are going to re-record the album ‘What’s Going On,’” Benson says. “We’re going to turn it into a party, a Marvin Gaye extravaganza, and I’ll be one of the artists on it because he was my friend and he was truly a great artist. I think it’s time to remind people of that.”

Susan Whitall is a music writer, author and longtime contributor to The Detroit News.

George Benson

9-10:15 p.m., JPMorgan Chase Main Stage, Campus Martius

Detroit Jazz Festival, Fri.-Mon. in downtown Detroit

Admission is free