AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
When it came to music, drummer Howard “H.B.” Bennett had quite the resume — stints with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Tim Eyermann’s East Coast Offering and Billy Price. He even impressed Prince with his skills.
But he was probably most proud of the Balcony Big Band, which he founded in 1988 and led until about 2002.
Mr. Bennett, 61, of Shadyside, died Monday of kidney disease at Manor Care HCR in Shadyside.
His sister Wendy Bennett of Squirrel Hill noted that her brother’s musical career “got started when he emerged from the womb — he started drumming on things,” playing in bands when still in high school. Ms. Bennett mentioned that when their mother encouraged him to find a more stable job, he countered, “I don’t know what else I could do.”
Primarily self-taught, Mr. Bennett soaked up a lot of music, listening to such groups as Weather Report, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Blind Faith, Cream, Donald Fagen, Bootsy Collins, Tony Williams, Billy Hart and Jack DeJohnette.
Saxophonist Eric Leeds of Minneapolis, who played with Prince in the 1980s, said, “H.B. and I grew up together — he liked a lot a rock, which I wasn’t into.” Eventually Prince and Mr. Bennett became acquainted, and Mr. Bennett “did a couple of things in the studio when I was there — he was part of the extended gang. Prince was a fan of his drumming,” Mr. Leeds said.
Around that time, Mr. Bennett also was traveling with Mr. Eyermann, his East Coast Offering also including keyboardist Max Leake and bassist Scott Ambush, the latter now with Spyro Gyra.
“We both ended up back in Pittsburgh when the Balcony started to take off,” said Mr. Leake, of Verona, and “H.B. eventually started booking the place.”
In 1988, Mr. Bennett put together the Balcony Big Band, which played Mondays at the upscale Shadyside supper club to emulate the Monday night big-band tradition in New York. The band consisted of a dozen of the younger jazz musicians in Pittsburgh, including Mr. Leake on piano, receiving a nomination for Band of the Year from In Pittsburgh newsweekly and recording an album of arrangements written by band members, “Seasoned to Taste.”
The Balcony Big Band, which also played a number of gigs beyond Mondays and stayed together even after the Balcony closed at the end of 1997, became “the biggest love of his life — he had so much pride because it was his band. He was giving work to a lot of musicians” as a result, Ms. Bennett said. Mr. Bennett was also on the ground floor of “Jazz for Juniors,” which took place on Wednesday afternoons at the Balcony.
Mr. Bennett’s musical career fell victim to health concerns about a decade ago because of two liver transplants and the anti-rejection drugs that subsequently affected his kidneys. He moved to Charlotte, N.C., with his then-wife, a flight attendant for U.S. Airways, and while in Charlotte worked in hospitals.
On a visit to Pittsburgh three years ago, he sat in at the Savoy with Michele Bensen and Sean Jones, and according to his sister, “sounded good” even after not playing for a while. Intrigued, she asked him, “How did you do that?”
“I don’t know,” he responded.
Mr. Bennett, who had been on dialysis, decided to end treatments a couple of weeks ago and toward the end began hanging out with Mr. Leake and guitarist Ken Karsh, who also worked with Mr. Price.
“I knew it was coming and I spent a good amount of time” with him at the end, Mr. Leake said. “These last couple of weeks he seemed to be at peace with everything.”
Last week, Mr. Bennett “told me how proud he was of me, apologized for all of the teasing, and we hugged in the energy of true reconciliation. I knew that it would be the last time I would see him,” said Mr. Karsh, of Greenfield. “I feel that he gave me a gift that I will always keep with me — the gift of completeness and no unfinished issues. I will not forget that.”
Mr. Bennett also is survived by a brother, Brian, of Squirrel Hill.
Funeral arrangements are private. A memorial service will be announced later.
Rick Nowlin: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3871.