91 year old Benny Waters steals the show!
St. Paul Pioneer Press
October 18, 1993
Benny Waters steals the show, and all that jazz
Bob Protzman Staff Writer
Only someone as dedicated to the 1920’s-30’s early big band music and as enthusiastic and generous in sharing it as former Twin Citian Ted Unseth, would hire someone practically guaranteed to upstage his own efforts.
Unseth, who left the Twin Cities for Washington, DC in 1990, was back home over the weekend to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his founding here of the Wolverines Classic Jazz Orchestra.
Unseth’s WCJO--not to be confused with the current Wolverines Big Band—provided many nights of pleasure for local audiences for a number of years at various venues, and it was a joy to hear the band again Friday night at the Dakota Bar and Grill in St. Paul under its new name, the Americana Classic Jazz Orchestra. The 13-member ACJO also played Saturday at the Dakota.
The ACJO gave a polished, entertaining performance, playing ‘hot jazz’ songs and arrangements by Fletcher Henderson, Jimmie Lunceford, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and others. But as enjoyable as the ACJO’s recreations of Jazz Age music were, it was 91-year-old saxophonist-vocalist Benny Waters who stole the show.
Waters, you see, was there during the Roaring ‘20’s playing with the bands of Henderson and Lunceford. And here he was in the Dakota Atrium still playing and singing with incredible gusto, probably very much as he had those many decades ago.
Little known—primarily because he lived in Europe for 40 years before returning to the United States several years ago—Waters was a revelation.
Though he has diminished sight and needs some assistance in walking, once on the bandstand, he is amazingly vital. So is his music. Backed empathetically and skillfully by the rhythm section of the ACJO (Butch Thompson, piano; Tim Sparks, guitar; Ron Evaniuk, bass; Phil Hey, drums) Waters’ alto was both sweet and robust—if occasionally a bit blustery.
And despite a few clinkers, he played lines that seemed to skip merrily along. He sang and scatted in a deep baritone, somewhat remindful of the great Al Hibler. And he charmed everyone with his keen sense of humor.
His 45-minute set included “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, “Misty”, a full-of-fun blues title “Hurry On Down To See Me, Baby”, a bossa nova version of “Autumn Leaves”, his own slow blues “Benny’s Blue Waters”, and the closing “Lady Be Good”, played at a very fast tempo.
There were too many highlights in the Americana Classic Jazz Orchestra’s set to include here. One was the richness of horns on “I Ain’t Got Nobody”; another was Thompson’s playing on “Basie’s Boogie”, a terrific jump tune.
The full band sounded wonderful—chirping clarinets, trilling brass and Hey’s drumming on the hi-hat cymbals—on the intricately arranged “The Whiteman Stomp”.
And special guest vocalist Shirley Witherspoon was at her best, wailing on the low-down “Hungry Blues” and ebullient on “Swing Brother, Swing” featuring trumpeter Bernie Edstrom’s fine plunger-mute solo.