By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
January 1, 2021
As I sit here, writing about the intensity and genius of woodwind master, Bennie Maupin, I’m listening to his album “The Jewel in the Lotus” and admiring the beauty of his music.
Although it was written and released in 1974, it is still as dynamic and innovative in 2021 as it was back-in-the-day. In fact, in 2011, Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer (Berlin-based DJs and composers) used samples of The Jewel in the Lotus as the basis for their track “Rensenada” on a remix album.
Listening to Bennie’s original composition, “Ensenada,” featuring Herbie Hancock on piano, Buster Williams on bass, both Frederick Waits and Billy Hart on drums, with Bill Summers on percussion is another release in 1974; an album by ECM Records titled “Spiritual Jazz Classics.” As I listen to it, I feel as though I should be meditating and connecting to some spiritual place inside my being. Bennie’s music does that to you. It directs you to a higher place within yourself. Another of his beautiful pieces is “Escondido,” that pulls you into a meditative place of peace. His melodies are both hypnotic and rhythmic.
But where did Bennie Maupin’s amazing talent come from? What influenced him? It all started on August 29th in 1940 when little Bennie was born into this world at Edith Kay Thomas Hospital. His parents had migrated from Mississippi to the Midwest motor city of Detroit, Michigan, where his father secured work in the automobile factory and his mother became a domestic worker. Once a week, his mother would take little Bennie to the popular Paradise Theater to enjoy live music concerts by famed entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington’s orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong. That historic building, that was once The Paradise Theater on Woodward Avenue, is now referred to as Orchestra Hall. It remains a popular concert venue.
“I was born on the East side of Detroit. We lived between Rivard & Russell. The Gordy’s lived practically around the corner from us,” Bennie Maupin told me a few days ago.
“I remember music was always in the air around me; at church, in live concerts and on the radio. I had three brothers and I was the youngest. No one in my family played music, but my mother enjoyed it immensely. There were a lot of musicians in my neighborhood. I think I was a pre-teen; maybe eleven or twelve years old. I used to hear this neighbor named Jesse playing saxophone. He was in a group and sometimes they would practice at his house. I’d stand outside and listen.
“I think one of my first mentors, who really comes to mind was the great Teddy Harris. He served in the Korean war and was injured. When he came back, 1954 or 55, I met him and he invited me to his house to study music. He played woodwind instruments and piano. He groomed me a lot. Teddy had enough skills to copy things from records and write arrangements. He was once musical director for the Supremes. He could play, conduct and arrange. He groomed me in those beginning years,” Bennie recalled.
“Then, there was Sam Sanders who was a little bit older than me. We both attended North Eastern high school. The very first band I ever played in (outside of the high school band) was with Sam Sanders. We both went to the Teal School of Music. Joe Henderson went there too. It was located on Cass street in Detroit. It was a big old house with two floors and a lot of rooms. The guy who founded it, Larry Teal, turned it into a music studio. His son was one of my teachers. I wanted to play in my high school band. The band director, a guy named Rex Hall, told me, if you want to play in my band, you’re going to have to take private lessons. I said, how do I do that? And he hooked me up. He sent me to Teal Music School.
“There was a spot called ‘The Minor Key’. All the musicians hung out there. You could hear greats like Yusef Lateef, Miles Davis and Elvin Jones. My good friend, Sam Sanders, was studying with Yusef Lateef. I got a lot of my music information from Sam, secondhand. I met Yusef later on down the road. Yusef lived in Detroit. We’re talking about maybe 1952. I used to go up to the World Stage in Detroit. It was frequented by Yusef, Barry Harris, Kenny Burrell, Donald Byrd, Hank Jones, Milt Jackson, … all those great guys who came from Detroit and later moved to New York. Jazz wise, it was happening. Barry Harris and Kenny Burrell, were some of the guys who were pretty savvy in terms of business. They found an upper floor of a furnisher store and they took one of the rooms, painted it, put some colored lights in there and a piano. That was the original World Stage. These were my places to go, because I wasn’t twenty-one yet. No alcohol was sold and I could get in those places as a teen and hear the music. I also used to go to clubs and stand outside to listen. I used to listen to music through the window. I got to hear Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane playing on Twelfth Street at a place called the 12th St. Lounge. I would stand outside the club and listen. The bouncers used to tell me I couldn’t stand in front, but I could go around to the side and listen. So, that was cool. Later, as I started to really listen more, I became aware of Yusef Lateef, also Barry Harris and Kenny Cox. In fact, pianist, composer, arranger, Kenny Cox and I went to high school together.
“I also went to high school with Alice Coltrane. Alice McLeod is her family name. She’s from Detroit and she’s one of my very, very important teachers. She showed me what versatility was all about. She was older than me by three or four years. When I got to high school, as a freshman, Alice was playing the Timpani; the orchestral drums. She played the snare drum too. I discovered one day, at a school assembly, where kids would sing a song or tap dance, just do whatever they could do, Alice came out, sat down at the piano and played that too. She’s my mentor and very, very important to me. She was extremely close to the great Budd Powell. Alice was an amazing person and a fantastic musician. She went to Europe, lived in France, and then eventually she came back to Detroit. That’s when I really got to know her. I think trombonist, George Bohannon, introduced me to her. They had a group, a really good group with Alice, George and a number of other local musicians. I was influenced by watching what they were doing.”
At that point, I asked Bennie Maupin about his relationship to John Coltrane, who Alice would eventually marry.
Bennie explained, “Well, I knew John Coltrane, but I knew them separately. I knew Alice in my earlier years. Coltrane came to Detroit a lot. I was able to get to know him and go hear him. He played where there was no alcohol served at that place called, The World Stage. So, I got to know John and every time he came out, I would talk to him and ask him questions. Plus, whenever he got done playing in the clubs, and doing whatever he was doing, he would go and play out in an area known as Conant Gardens (in Detroit). In Conant Gardens, Joe Brazil had a really nice house. I think he was a civil engineer. He made good money and had a beautiful home with a piano down in the basement. It was in that house that I really got to connect with John Coltrane. Cause the gigs would be over at two in the morning, but John liked to spend time with the musicians; plus, he just liked to play. I got to meet him so many times and experienced so many wonderful moments listening to him and talking to him about what I was doing and what I was working on.
“Looking back, I met everybody that I needed to know, with the exception of a few people, I met them all in Detroit, before I even went to New York. Actually, I met Sonny Rollins in Detroit. See, Detroit is the hub of all of my stuff. That’s where I met Coltrane. That’s where I met Freddie Hubbard. You know, I spent a fair amount of time being able to talk with Coltrane and also Sonny Rollins. Sonny and I are in contact with each other daily. He’s another one of my mentors. By the time I went to New York, I knew a lot of really important people.”
Don Heckman wrote in an article for the LA Times, that Maupin and Sonny Rollins became fast friends.
“Meeting Rollins changed my life,” Bennie told Heckman in 2001.
“When the Rollins group returned to Detroit for a rare two-week run at a local club, it meant I could see and hear him every night, sit and talk about music and mouthpieces and all sorts of things. It was great, and it continued when I moved to New York. Most people are aware of Sonny going up and practicing on the bridge over the East River, but he used to like to go out to New Jersey to practice in the woods too. He’d call me up sometimes, at night, and we’d just head out into the woods to play”
Before The Four Tops singing group signed with Motown, in 1962 or 1963, they were already touring and working venues all over the country. When they offered Bennie Maupin a road-gig that included performances in New York City, New Jersey and Upstate New York, Bennie gladly accepted the gig. He told me about that time in his life.
“My Four Tops tour was only two or three weeks, something like that. During that period, I got to go to New York City for the very first time in my life. On my days off, I was wondering around, just listening to the city; to the sounds, to the smell of it; to the languages. I was fascinated by everything. I somehow, found myself down in Greenwich Village. I got to a place called the ‘5 Spot.’ I read the sign on the window and it said Thelonious Monk would be there that night. I said oh! Ok. Now I know where I’m supposed to be. That’s when I made up my mind. I’m going to move to New York.”
Maupin and alto saxophonist, Marion Brown wound up being neighbors. Everyone around him was experimenting with the new Avant Garde jazz scene. Bennie Maupin wanted a piece of it and it didn’t take long for him to establish his talent. He found himself playing with Horace Silver, Andrew Hill and Lee Morgan. He also met Jack DeJohnette in the ‘Big Apple’. DeJohnette lived on the Lower East Side and so did Maupin. They struck up a close friendship. After playing only 6-months with piano icon, Bill Evans, DeJohnette left the Bill Evans trio to join Miles, at the request of Miles himself. He then told Miles about woodwind player, Bennie Maupin. Miles slipped into a live show one night, featuring McCoy Tyner. That’s where he heard Bennie playing his bass clarinet in a tiny but popular New York City jazz club called, “Slugs.” Not long after, Bennie got a phone call that summoned him to the studio to record with Miles.
“It was like painting. Miles was a painter. He used the studio as his palette and created these beautiful things that came out of that. … The kind of inspiration and what came out of me is just there! He gave me total freedom to be myself. It’s rare that you get a total forum to be like that, so I took full advantage of it. I wasn’t shy about it at all!” 
Bennie Maupin recalled the exciting experience that created “Bitches Brew.” This was the album that shocked and pissed off hard-nosed, conservative, be-bop fans and issued in a brand, new day for jazz. This album created the pot for cooking up fusion jazz and serving it piping hot to worldwide listeners. It was Bennie Maupin’s amazing bass clarinet addition that spiced up that extraordinary Davis ensemble. Bennie went on to record on other Miles Davis masterpieces like “On the Corner,” “Big Fun,” “Circle in the Round,” “Directions,” and the “Jack Johnson boxed sets.” But when Miles Davis asked him to join his tour group, Maupin had already committed to working with and recording with Lee Morgan. Much to Miles’ dismay, Maupin turned down the famed trumpeter’s gig offer. Instead, he recorded “Live at the Lighthouse” with Lee Morgan. Morgan included five of Bennie Maupin’s original compositions in that 1970 release on Bluenote Records. At that point, Maupin was a published composer, pianist and woodwind master. He was growing and flourishing in New York.
In demand, he found himself working with heavyweight champions of jazz like Roy Haynes, Pharoah Sanders, Chick Corea, Eddie Henderson and Woody Shaw. When Herbie Hancock formed his own sextet, he invited Bennie Maupin to become a part of it. That Mwandishi Band dissolved in 1973. Then, Maupin and Hancock formed the famed Head Hunters. It included Harvey Mason on drums, Bill Summers on percussion and Paul Jackson on bass. Their work together led to both Gold and Platinum certified sales of that October, 1973 album release. Head Hunters became the first jazz album to ever sell over a million copies. Later, Harvey Mason was replaced by Mike Clark on drums. I asked Bennie Maupin about that time in his life, going from recording with Miles to becoming part of the Head Hunters and touring endlessly.
“Well – you know, we did a lot of working. So, when a cycle comes to an end, you do need to recharge yourself. I discovered a lot by moving to California and that completely revolutionized my life. I went from New York’s fast pace to Pasadena, California. I was able to develop a family atmosphere and put some of the resources that I had to use. I bought some property,” Benny described his1974 move to a sleepy suburb of Los Angeles in the mountain community of Pasadena/Altadena, California.
However, Maupin let no grass grow under his feet. The Bennie Maupin Ensemble was a result of his close musical association with dynamic drummer, Michael Stephans and percussionist, Munyungo Jackson, along with bassist Darek “Oles” Oleszkiewicz. In 1974, Bennie Maupin became bandleader and recorded “The Jewel in the Lotus” for ECM. That album remains timeless, as does his amazing work with the Head Hunters group, who in 1976 released their second album, “Survival of the Fittest/Straight From the Gate.” In 1977, Verve Records released Bennie Maupin’s “Slow Traffic to the Right” followed in 1978 by “Moonscapes.” Maupin’s next bandleading mission was recorded in 1998 on the Intuition label, “Driving While Black” which featured him working with synthesize master, Dr. Patrick Gleeson who created loops and creative tracks for Bennie to play his saxophones over. In 2002, bassist John B. Williams and Bennie Maupin united in a project they call, “The Maupin/Williams Project – Live at Club Rhapsody in Okinawa” that displays their straight-ahead mentality and jazz/be-bop roots. In 2003, he released his most recent endeavor, “Penumbra” on the Cryptogramophone label, which is more contemporary jazz. Several overseas albums have also been released, but these I have listed remain the most accessible on YouTube.
If you listen closely to the smooth stylized delivery Maupin has on all his woodwind instruments, you may hear the influence of John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef or Sonny Rollins, but his sound and approach is uniquely his own. I find myself endeared to his work, whether it’s straight-ahead jazz with John B. Williams or fusion jazz with Herbie Hancock, he brings a spiritual sweetness and musical surprises to please and inspire the listener. Bennie Maupin is a master among us, currently working on a legacy book that will delve into the three cities that participated in molding this musician into an iconic exclamation mark next to the word jazz. He is a living tribute and an asset to Detroit, New York City and the Los Angeles jazz community; one who is loved and respected worldwide.