Tenor saxophonist Bennie Wallace made waves throughout the jazz world in the late 1970s with his debut recording, The Fourteen Bar Blues. His subsequent works reiterated the scope of his talent and established him among the more prolific young impro-visational artists of the late twentieth century. With an unflagging respect and affection for classic jazz, he repeatedly represented his own progressive take on the music. His talent for composing and arranging music attracted the attention of Hollywood moviemakers in the late 1980s, which led him to spend nearly a decade in California composing and directing film soundtracks. Wallace’s music has developed a more lyrical sense, yet his rhythms retained an authentic style that belonged uniquely to Wallace, according to critics. Winner of Germany’s Deutscher Schallplatten-preis, the jazz Grammy equivalent, and a five-time winner of the Down Beat magazine award for Talent Deserving Wider Recognition, the full impact of Wallace’s talent remained yet to unfold into the 2000s.
Born Bennie Lee Wallace Jr. on November 18, 1946, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Wallace began playing clarinet in his youth from the age of 12 when a music teacher at his school started a jazz band and taught the group about great jazz musicians like Count Basie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. Later, Wallace played in the high school band and added tenor saxophone to his teenage repertoire. Despite his youth, he learned his way around the after-hour jazz clubs even while he was still in high school in Chattanooga. During his late-night excursions, Wallace participated in jam sessions, playing bebop and blues most frequently. He went on to study music at the University of Tennessee and received a bachelor’s degree in clarinet studies in 1968. After college during the mid 1970s, he did some composing for a German radio orchestra although his first love was jazz saxophone. Even during a stint in Hollywood during the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Wallace maintained to interviewer Zan Stewart of the Los Angeles Times that his horn remained the focal point of his music and of his life.
In 1971, Wallace made the fortuitous move to from Tennessee to New York City. There he assimilated easily into the city’s jazz club culture where extemporaneous jam sessions between established musicians and newcomers were commonplace. Wallace, like many young jazz stars before him, cultivated his performance and improvisational skills by working informally with prominent musicians. Eventually Monty Alexander gave Wallace a regular paid position, marking the beginning of Wallace’s professional career as a performer. Among his other work during the early years, Wallace performed as a guest soloist on occasion with Larry Karush’s band and joined the George Gruntz Concert Jazz Band in the late 1970s. Additionally, Wallace developed an excellent working rapport with bassist Eddie Gomez, which evolved into an ongoing professional relationship.
In 1977, having performed with artists such as Buddy Rich, Buddy Harris, Glen Moore, and Cecil McBee, Wallace recorded his debut album on German record label Enja. The album, Fourteen Bar Blues, was released in 1978 and featured Gomez on bass. It attracted media attention and earned recognition for Wallace among the rising stars of jazz. It was the first in a series of Enja releases for Wallace between 1978 and 1984, including The Free Will in 1980, Bennie Wallace Plays Monk in 1981, Mystic Bridge in 1982, and Sweeping Through the City in 1984. Critics hailed Wallace for his brilliance and for his natural ability to juxtapose a wide spectrum of jazz styles into a single work while retaining a coherent theme. Wallace’s distinctive voice, infused by his own unique spin on the saxophone, caused listeners to marvel. Leonard Feather of the Los Angeles Times noted that Wallace straddles, “A thin line [that] separates the eclectic from the erratic.” His unpredictable rhythm, sometimes compared to the work of Thelonius Monk, varied drastically from smooth ballads to the extremes of experimental moods.
Wallace, after his arrival in New York, spent 1973 studying the old jazz masters and their music in an effort to discover the essence of each, focusing heavily on Johnny Hodges and Coleman Hawkins. Yet despite his in-depth study of historical jazz, Wallace disliked repertory bands and eschewed revivalist groups equally. He remained committed to personal definition in everything that he performed. Thus as critics came
Born Bennie Lee Wallace, Jr. on November 18, 1946, in Chattanooga, TN. Education: Bachelor’s degree in clarinet studies, University of Tennessee, 1968.
Played locally in New York City during the 1970s and 1980s; recorded with Enja Records (Germany), 1977-84; signed with Blue Note Records, 1985; worked in the Hollywood film industry as a music director and composer, 1991-97; returned to Enja Records, 1997.
Awards: Deutscher Schallplattenpreis, 1997; Best Serious Contemporary Jazz, High Fidelity, 1997; five-time winner, Talent Deserving Wider Recognition Award, Down Beat.
Addresses: Record company —Enja Records, P.O. Box 190333, D-80603, Munich, Germany.
to an awareness of Wallace’s work, it was evident that Wallace moved in a direction different from the bandwagon that typified so many of his contemporaries, with his styles rooted more closely in the work of Coleman Hawkins than with John Coltrane. In 1985, Wallace signed with Blue Note Records. His debut album for that label, entitled Twilight Time, remained a favorite for many years. The rousing album featured John Scofield and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Wallace released only one other disc on Blue Note, Border Town with Dr. John in 1988.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Wallace formed various combos of his own, including trios and quartets, and his reputation flourished. In 1987, he performed for then New York Mayor Ed Koch and his guests at Gracie Mansion. The occasion was a private preview performance of the JVC Jazz Festival, a New York-New Jersey based evolutionary vestige of the Newport (Rhode Island) Jazz Festival of earlier years.
In 1991, in an unanticipated career shift, Wallace moved his residence to Pacific Palisades in Southern California to be near the Hollywood film industry as he became involved in composing for films. The opportunity came as a result of his 1985 Blue Note release, Twilight Time, which caught the ear of filmmaker Ron Shelton. Shelton requested that Wallace contribute to the soundtrack for the late-1980s film Bull Durham. Wallace obliged with “Love Ain’t No Triple Play,” written expressly for that movie. Also heard on the Bull Durham soundtrack was a reprise of Wallace’s arrangement of “Try a Little Tenderness.” Wallace went on to score the movie Blaze and served as musical director the film White Men Can’t Jump. Additionally, Wallace wrote the title track for an Academy Award-nominated short film called Little Surprises by Jeff Goldblum. Wallace spent nearly a decade in the Los Angeles area where during the early 1990s, he worked live venues in Hollywood accompanied by Steve Masa-kowski on guitar, James Singleton bass, and John Vidacovich on drums. Thereafter Wallace gradually limited his personal performances to selected concerts in New York City and occasional appearances in Europe.
During this time, Wallace worked extensively with pianist Tommy Flanagan in creating film music. Additionally, Wallace worked behind the scenes as a docent of pianist Jimmy Rowles after Wallace, having settled in California, contacted Rowles completely without introduction. Regardless, a comfortable relationship bloomed between the two, as Rowles mentored Wallace not only in the mechanics of playing the piano, but also in the fine points of harmony. In 1993, Wallace released The Old Songs, an album which represented a culmination of the wisdom and inspiration that he derived from Rowles.
Wallace returned to active performance in 1997 beginning with concerts in Southern California. Critics welcomed the return of the singular-sounding saxophone player with elation. Reviewer Bill Kahlhaase said in Los Angeles Times, Wallace is “a rare individual who is not afraid to show some character … [and] should be required listening for those who think all saxophonists sound alike.” As if bring finality to his film work in California, Wallace resumed residence on the East Coast where he settled in Connecticut.
In May of 1998, Wallace appeared in concert at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles at the request of Ruth Price. He assembled a quartet consisting of Mulgrew Miller on piano, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Yoron Israel. At the request of the Film Music Society, the group developed an all-Gershwin program in celebration of the Gershwin centennial. The program subsequently found its way to an album, Someone to Watch over Me, released the following year. The recording, a Joe Harley production, marked Wallace’s return to the Enja record label, and the Wallace-led quartet was reportedly dubbed “a dream band” by producer Harley.
Wallace attributes much of his style to his personal preference for recording as an ensemble using traditional two-track technology. In the late 1990s, he was actively involved in a project to furnish background music for a series called Hoop Life on the Showtime cable television channel. Also in 1999, Wallace released an album called Bennie Wallace on Audio-Quest. The eponymous release was reviewed by Down Beats Thomas Conrad as “the label’s strongest album ever,” even in retrospect of the 1993 album, The Old Songs. Conrad praised Wallace’s modernist style of “slanting inflections and asymmetrical phrasing … against the quaint spirit of his vintage material.” The album, which included the Cole Porter standard “Over the Rainbow” and Louis Armstrong’s “Moon Songs,” featured Gomez, Flanagan, and Alvin Queen. Bennie Wallace further served to reinforce an evolution toward melodic ballads that characterized Wallace’s career in 2000.
The Fourteen Bar Blues, Enja, 1978.
The Free Will, Enja, 1980.
Bennie Wallace Plays Monk, Enja, 1981.
Mystic Bridge, Enja, 1982.
Sweeping Through the City, Enja, 1984.
Bordertown, Blue Note, 1987.
(Contributor) Bull Durham (soundtrack), Capitol, 1990.
(Contributor) Blaze (soundtrack), A&M, 1990.
(Contributor) White Men Can’t Jump (soundtrack), EMI, 1992.
Talk of the Town, Enja, 1993.
The Old Songs, AudioQuest, 1993.
(Contributor) Little Surprises (soundtrack), 1997.
Someone to Watch over Me, Enja, 1998.
Bennie Wallace, AudioQuest, 1999.
Down Beat, October 1998; January 1999, p. 58; September 2000, p. 44.
Los Angeles Times, November 27, 1990, p. 2; January 15, 1993, p. 18; January 1, 1994, p. 3; May 26, 1997, p. 3; November 26, 1999, p. 24.
“Bennie Wallace,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/x.dll (December 26, 2000).
“Bennie Wallace,” Enja Records, http://www.enjarecords.com/BENNIE_WALLACE.htm (December 27, 2000).
“Bennie Wallace, Tenor Saxophone,” AudioQuest Music, http://www.wwmusic.comrmusic/audioq/bio/wllcb.html (December 27, 2000).
“Fireside Chat with Bennie Wallace,” Jazz Weekly interviews, http://www.jazzweekly.com/interviews/wallace.htm (December 27, 2000).
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