Interview with George Benson: “I was thousands of miles from America in a French city that vibrated with jazz” | Travel

Jhe first time I left my hometown of Pittsburgh was when I was ten years old. I was already getting local attention as a musician, and my manager said, “Georgie, we’re going to New York. We were just around the corner from the Waldorf Astoria.

Our suite is £300 a night. It’s 1953! I was stunned by this new world of elegance and money. He took me to a restaurant called the Coconut Grove and for the first time in my life, I ate a steak. Unfortunately, my young body couldn’t handle it and I had terrible convulsions.

My manager had persuaded this rich society lady that I was something special and she arranged a bunch of auditions for me. in the best radios. This nice lady bought me a brand new guitar, but what I really wanted was a toy cowboy gun. We got one in Times Square and I liked it so much I sent it back all the way to Pittsburgh. Pow-pow-pow!

My family didn’t have money for vacations, so the only time I was able to travel was with my music. When I was 20, I flew for the first time and flew to the Côte d’Azur. I was there for a big jazz festival in Juan-les-Pins, but spent most of my time walking along the promenade. I felt like I was living in a movie with all the sports cars and boats and the beautiful blue sky.

Benson was treated like royalty in Johannesburg


I remember one afternoon sitting in this cafe, watching the pavement artists. This guy drew a nice picture of Charlie Christian and under it he wrote “Greatest Jazz Guitarist of All Time”. There I was, thousands of miles from black America and the birthplace of jazz music, but the whole city was buzzing with jazz.

When I was touring the States in the 60s and 70s, I got used to being treated differently. Black youth groups have not always received the best reception. But that was nothing compared to what I saw in Johannesburg during the apartheid era. The craziest thing is that as musicians, South Africa treated us like royalty – even white people. They put us in the best hotels and made sure we had the best of everything. But if I had gone out and tried to sit in the wrong place in a restaurant, I could have ended up in jail.

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Music speaks of memories. And travel brings those memories to life. I’ll never forget waiting nervously all night in a New York studio for Miles Davis, jazz’s baddest cat. He arrived, played three notes on his horn and stormed off. Or eat homemade pasta with Franco Cerri in Stockholm. Or me and my kids hanging out with Rod Stewart and his kids at Mr Chow’s in London.

London is a city that has treated me well: a truly multinational and multicultural city that welcomes visitors with open arms. It is also a city of hidden depths. At first you are captivated by all the famous sights – Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace – but then you drive west and realize that the city stretches for miles and miles.

If I want to get away from it all, I always seem to be drawn to the Mediterranean coast. I guess it all goes back to that first trip when I was 20. You know the place I really like? Marbella. Have breakfast and catch up on all the local gossip at the News Café in Puerto Banus. The morning sun makes strange patterns on the water, much like musical notes.

There is a certain lifestyle and a certain mood when you are on this coast. Hot nights and cool music. From the start, Europe seemed ready to accept this new music. At first, jazz didn’t get the attention it deserved in America because it was played by black musicians. In Europe, they loved music. And that’s how it should be.

George Benson, 79, is one of jazz’s finest guitarists, having backed some of music’s biggest names – Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra – and found solo success with albums such as Breezin ‘and Give Me the Night. Benson’s UK tour begins June 16 at Hampton Court Palace. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife, Jo

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