Ben Sidran Recounts His Seven Decades in Jazz

For this veteran singer, songwriter, and pianist, it's not just about the notes

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Ben Sidran (photo: Pierre Darmon)

On the eve of his 75th birthday, singer/songwriter/pianist Ben Sidran decided to release a three-CD compilation of performances spanning the last 40 years or so. Ben There, Done That, released on Sunset Boulevard Records, features an engrossing range of live cuts from 1975 to 2015, with cameos from David “Fathead” Newman and Phil Woods. Go ahead and do all that math. With or without a calculator app, it adds up to a long career—nearly 70 years of playing music that blends the swing of jazz with hipster wit and classic R&B-style melodic accessibility.

Born in Chicago and raised in Racine, Wis., Sidran started out playing in Madison in a local group with Boz Scaggs and Steve Miller. We know how this ends, but Sidran didn’t. In fact, he ran away from it. After all, it was just a college band. “Boz played bass, I played piano, Steve played guitar, and we played fraternities,” he says. “I went on to graduate school in Brighton, England. I got a Ph.D. in American Studies and went there to avoid the draft, of course.” The other two stayed in the U.S. for less academic pursuits; Miller signed a record deal in San Francisco, then went over to London to record—the kind of thing incipient rock stars did back in the ’60s. Miller hooked up with his old bandmate in England and they made four records together, collaborating on several songs, including the hit “Space Cowboy.” But Sidran wasn’t in Miller’s touring band. “I was just a jazz guy,” he recalls. “When it turned into rock & roll, I got real bored real fast.”

After he got his degree, he moved to California on the back of that production experience with Miller: “Because I’d done all this recording in England, I thought, ‘Maybe I can make something out of this.’” What he actually made was a mess of his relationship with his wife Judy, who hated L.A. “We lived in North Hollywood and there were no sidewalks, there was no community,” he remembers. “She was on her own more than she liked. She wasn’t a musician, she wasn’t in show business. She was really miserable there. So I said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’ She said, ‘Let’s go back to Madison, where we met.’” It wasn’t the end of the story, but just the beginning.

Sidran had been on track for a staff producer job at Capitol Records, but moving to Madison forced him, in his words, “to invent myself and dig in.” It was there that he started to write articles for Rolling Stone and other publications. Most importantly, he began collaborating with other players, including members of the Peterson family, cornerstones of the Minneapolis music scene. “They’re a musical gift,” Sidran says. “I met Billy in 1978 at this studio called Sound 80 [where Bob Dylan famously cut part of Blood on the Tracks four years earlier]. In the studio next to us, Prince was doing some stuff, and I was in the other room with Billy and these jazz cats, and it reminded me of 1967 when I would go to London for these Steve Miller sessions, and in the next studio could be Eric Clapton or the Small Faces. You’d all meet each other in the cafeteria. Minneapolis had that feeling. It was small enough and isolated enough, and at the same time had such a strong musical tradition. I think part of the reason why [bassist] Billy and his brother [keyboardist] Ricky, and their brother [multi-instrumentalist] Paul, are all such wonderful players is because, literally, music was in the air.”

Earlier in the ’70s, Sidran’s work as a writer initiated what would become a long personal and professional relationship with the late singer, pianist, and NEA Jazz Master Mose Allison, to whom Sidran frequently has been compared. It began when Allison put out a record on Atlantic and asked Sidran to write liner notes for it. “That gave me an excuse to meet him,” he says. “Obviously Mose was real important to me, going back to the late ’50s—just the intelligence of his writing, and the deceptively simple way he approached playing. He has a lyric where he says, ‘I don’t pretend to be so great/I’m no pace setter, no potentate/I’m getting older every day/I’m just trying to swing a little in my way.’ That kind of humility really struck me as a path you could follow.”

Sidran freely admits that Allison’s clever lyrics and unique vocal drawl were huge influences on his own style. “The whole message of Mose was like the message when Dylan showed up: Oh my god, you can sing like that. You can be yourself. You can deliver a narrative with however you sound. Mose’s pitch is great and all, but he sounds like the piano player singing. He doesn’t sound like a singer playing the piano.” And his dedication to live performance was equally influential: “Mose played 220 nights a year, and all he cared about was playing good on the gig. He had no ambitions beyond that. Somebody asked him why he wasn’t more famous, and his response was, ‘Just lucky, I guess.’”

Thanks in part to a succession of recordings for Blue Thumb, Arista, Antilles, and Windham Hill, Sidran had his own measure of fame in the ’70s and ’80s. He even formed his own label called (appropriately for a lifelong jazz advocate) Go Jazz, for which he recorded several albums, including 1993’s Life’s a Lesson, a personal take on Jewish music. If all that wasn’t enough, he also became a media personality, hosting a jazz show on VH1 and doing interviews for NPR and other radio outlets. His interviews were eventually published in 1992 in the hybrid book/CD box set Talking Jazz.

Sidran credits his son Leo—an accomplished drummer, arranger, and producer—with reviving his career in his later years. “Just as I was kind of burning out—I’m talking about the late ’90s, when it was harder and harder to go on the road and I was running the Go Jazz label and in the studio all the time—I thought, ‘Maybe I don’t need to perform so much.’ It was just when he was maybe 15 or 16 that he said, ‘Let’s go out and play gigs!’ Seriously, the reason I’m still out here goes back to when that road forked and Leo pushed me. He really has brought a lot to my third act.”

Working with his son hasn’t adversely affected their personal relationship, he maintains: “When you’re on the stage, it really doesn’t matter who’s the father and who’s the son. You’re carrying your pail of water, and they’re carrying their pail of water. And as a matter of fact, I think the fact that we do music together helped defuse the usual conflict.”

Their joint love of performing infuses Ben There, Done That with warmth and energy. When Sidran was first approached by Zev Feldman of Sunset Boulevard about doing a career retrospective, they quickly settled on a live focus. “I’ve played a lot of gigs, got a lot to choose from, and that was intriguing to me because there are moments on these CDs that are as good as anything I’ve ever done,” Sidran says proudly. “There’s the place where we hand off ‘Hard Times’ with David ‘Fathead’ Newman to ‘Minority’ with Phil Woods. I love those intersections.”

To Sidran, the set is about more than just the music it contains. “The other thing, the social thing for me, was the idea of there [being] a coherent jazz life,” he explains. “Not that you had to live a particular way, but you had to try to find what you did that was different than everybody else. We all know that with so many brilliant players coming out of schools, they play everything, but they sound like the syllabus. And this is a real problem. And so [the point of Ben There, Done That is] to celebrate the idea that jazz comes from a way of living, that it’s not just a syllabus.”

Sidran is keenly aware that this collection could be perceived as a means toward establishing his own legacy, but he says, “I don’t think of it in those terms, like ‘How will I be remembered?’ or ‘How is my music seen?’ I do think of it in terms of the music that we love as a historical phenomenon, not just an artistic phenomenon. It’s definitely tied to a time and a place, and a community and a way of life. Somebody once asked me how I wanted to be remembered, and I said, ‘I want to be known as a family man, in the family of man.’ That’s really how I feel. I want to be known as somebody who fell in love with this music, who was committed to this music.”

Check the price of Ben There, Done That on Amazon!