Ben Tucker

The Powerful Force and Legacy of Savannah Jazz Icon

Note: This story was originally published in 2010. On June 4, 2013, 82-year-old Ben Tucker was killed when the golf cart he was riding in on Hutchinson Island in Savannah was struck by a speeding vehicle.

Everybody loves Ben Tucker. He’s a master bass fiddler, businessman and social activist, all to the core. Over the

The late Savannah jazz bassist and composer Ben Tucker. Photo courtesy Savannah Music Festival

The late Savannah jazz bassist and composer Ben Tucker

decades, his involvement in various areas of the arts, civic activities and social justice has had him involved with all types of people.

By all accounts, everyone who meets and works with him is profoundly affected by him; and after not too long a period, they develop an affection for him that’s deserved and genuine. Having spent half his life in Savannah, founded in 1733 and the Peach State’s oldest and, arguably, its most beautiful city, Tucker has made its residents as proud of him as it has been of any of its citizens over the years.

The stunningly gorgeous city of 22 squares is the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts of the United States of America, the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the South’s first public museums, the first African Baptist Church, one of the oldest African American Baptist congregations in the United States, Temple Mickve Israel, the third-oldest synagogue in America, and the Central of Georgia Railway roundhouse complex, the oldest standing antebellum rail facility in America.

With all its Southern charm and antebellum feel, Savannah is a progressive city, demographically diverse and sophisticated, as well as hip—much like Tucker.

Benjamin M. Tucker was born in Brentwood, Tenn. outside of Nashville, on Dec. 13, 1930. Since arriving in Savannah in 1971, he immediately fell in love with the place, a real gem of the Lowcountry on the South Atlantic coast. Not much later, the town fell in love with him and they’ve been “married” ever since.

A real indication of the love affair between city and citizen is revealed when you mention his name to someone. Invariably, they smile. What they usually have to say after you call his name makes you understand why they light up at just the sound of it.

The road to Savannah

One of the things that’s attractive about Tucker is that he seems to know who he is, what his goals are and how he can go about achieving them. Business is what brought him to town but it became clear quickly—perhaps with some providence—that he and the city were a near perfect match.

Tucker went to Tennessee State University in 1947. Next, he spent four years and three months in the U.S. Air Force. He was discharged in San Bernardino, Calif. in 1956 and moved to Los Angeles in 1959. Then, he relocated to New York City.

“There, I was a studio jazz musician until 1971,” he says. “Then I moved to Savannah and bought WSOK radio station in partnership with jazz pianist Billy Taylor and a New York State employee named Doug Pugh.”

Always looking to improve himself, his hometown and his country, Tucker has chosen to lead his life based on lived experience. His value and belief systems are molded by his African American heritage. He knows all too well the bitter fruit of growing up in the segregated—by race and class—southern United States. Like many other people of color at the time, he learned how to navigate the travails of his circumstance and negotiate a path toward self-fulfillment, learning every step of the way and tweaking his strategies, always with his eye on the prize.

He says with pride of his first venture in Savannah, “Out of 9,000 radio stations in the United States, we became the 15th African American station owners, less than one tenth of one percent. For 12 years, WSOK was dominant in the Savannah market.”

As Anne Hart of Savannah Magazine reported in 2008: “As general manager, Ben overhauled the format, providing more news and more diverse music. He expanded the station’s album collection from 20 to 4,000. Ben used the airwaves to inform the community on everything—from where to get the best deals on bread to where Vietnam GI’s hooked on drugs could find help.”

Ben Tucker

Ben Tucker

That’s how Tucker rolls—size up the situation. Make a plan. Go to work. Join forces with others. Make it happen to the benefit of as many as you can.

Here’s what Teddy Adams, friend and trombonist colleague, said of Tucker’s arrival: “Upon returning to Savannah in 1976, Ben was here as owner/manager of WSOK, an AM radio station. He had retired from jazz and his bass was in storage in New York City. I was greatly dismayed with the music scene in Savannah. Being a product of this city’s great jazz music legacy, I decided to make an attempt at revitalizing the local jazz environment. Naturally, I thought that Ben would my best ally.

“We formed a group and named it the Telfair Jazz Society, after Savannah’s Telfair Museum of Art and Science. We had intense rehearsals and started doing monthly concerts at the museum. Ben’s reputation and knowledge of jazz was very instrumental in revitalizing the scene in Savannah.”

Tucker recalls, “In 1978, I became involved with revitalizing jazz in Savannah. I took a jazz group into the Telfair Museum for a Sunday jazz concert and since that time there has been a jazz society that promotes jazz consistently with monthly concerts and a jazz festival during the last week of September.”

So, it was on.

Jazz was back in Savannah, due in large part to Tucker’s work, and, as they say, the rest is history. Savannah continues to be one of the great jazz cities in the country.

His civic work paid dividends, too. “He led fund-raising efforts for the two local universities, Savannah State and Armstrong Atlantic State, put together an adult literacy program, and funded a scholarship program at the Savannah College of Art and Design,” says Savannah Morning News reporter Chuck Mobley. “Ben’s contributions to Savannah have been many and made a manifest difference.”

 Comin’ home baby

Adams, a Savannah native, went on, “I initially met Ben in Tokyo in 1967. He was touring with Art Blakey, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter and Jimmy Owens. I had no idea that when I returned to Savannah, he and Billy Taylor would own a radio station here.”

Rob Gibson, an Atlanta native and director of the highly acclaimed Savannah Music Festival, adores Tucker. “Ben has spent half of his life in Savannah and the work he’s done for this community has been exemplary on so many levels,” Gibson says. “As a businessman, an artist, and a community activist, he really has been a galvanizing force while touching so many people’s lives. He is revered and loved by so many people.”

Proving he really means that, Gibson has walked the walk, not just talked the talk when it comes to Tucker. Five years ago, the festival had an event honoring Tucker’s 75th birthday. In April, there was one celebrating his 80th. Gibson adds, “If he’s still swinging at 85, you can bet we’ll do another one.”

Tucker was one of the jazz musicians who informed Gibson’s initiation into the music.BenTuckerVertical

“I knew of Ben in late high school when I began collecting jazz records and started seeing his name on so many of them,” he said. “I didn’t meet him until the mid-’80s when we served on a Georgia Council for the Arts panel together, and then he showed up for the press conference when they announced my job in Savannah in July of 2002. We have hired him in some capacity for nearly every festival since then, but more importantly he’s become a good friend and colleague, and we play golf together.”

Golf, like cooking, is one of Tucker’s passions. He spends as much time as he can on the course; and word is he cooks a mean pot of oxtails.

 All that jazz

“Ben is a jazz musician who was good enough and fortunate to work with a wealth of fabulous musicians ranging from arrangers like Oliver Nelson and Gerry Mulligan to instrumentalists such as Hank Jones and Art Pepper,” Gibson says. “He also wrote a number of fine songs, several of which still help pay the bills, including his biggest hit ‘Comin’ Home Baby.’ It was such a joy to hear him play that song with [pianist] Hank Jones during our 2008 festival, and they just radiated joy and love to everyone in attendance.”

Tucker is a true jazzman, in every fine sense of the phrase, and has been affected by many. “I have had many influences in my life from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Quincy Jones, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Jimmy Blanton, Wilbur Ware, Dexter Gordon, Billy Taylor, Sonny Stitt, Ellis Marsalis, Marcus Printup and Hank Jones,” he says.

He plays in the moment. “Even though I am a studio musician, I believe jazz is improvised instantly, spontaneously and extemporaneously. Jazz is also songs created on top of songs.”

Adams says of his style, “Ben is a straight-ahead player and composer. He relates to playing standards. His composing tends to be in the same vein. Ben is a Southerner and his compositions reflect his southern upbringing juxtaposed with his worldly exposure.”

On Tucker’s art, Gibson says, “I wasn’t around for Ben’s most adventurous and important musical moments, but in his 80th year he still rises to the occasion, particularly when in the company of the finest musicians. He made arguably his best record as a leader [Partners] just a couple of years ago, and he’s always about swinging and playing the blues.”

Tucker’s self-awareness is an attribute of his music. “When on stage, I am in tune with my audience, the universe and my Creator,” he says. “During the three performances of my birthday celebration sponsored by the Savannah Music Festival, I felt that my musicians poured their hearts out for my 80th birthday and we were in tune with one another and the audience. We did several of my compositions, including ‘Comin’ Home Baby.’ This tune was written for my wife, Gloria, in 1961, and in 2009 I recorded it with the late Hank Jones at the Savannah Music Festival. It has been recorded by many musicians: Sergio Mendez, David Sanborn, Herbie Mann, Michael Buble, Quincy Jones, to name a few. Additionally, it has been in many movies as well as national and international television commercials.”

Ben Tucker performs at Savannah Jazz Festival. Photo by Michael Valentine

Ben Tucker performs at Savannah Jazz Festival. Photo by Michael Valentine

Tucker’s music is part of a rich jazz tradition. “Savannah has been often compared to New Orleans with regard to its music and jazz heritage,” Adams notes. “Starting with the brass bands, its music development is very similar to that of New Orleans. Savannah’s music evolved though the years into what is referred to as straight-ahead jazz, in the East coast tradition. Ben’s approach jibes very closely with the spirit and tradition of the music created and played in Savannah.”

“Ben makes performing look easy, but I think that he does a lot of work, a lot of studying and preparation, before he takes the stage,” Mobley adds.

Tucker has another characteristic in common with jazz players. Over the years, the jazz life has been unpredictable, full of ups and downs and plenty of laughs.

“Ben’s sense of humor is typical of a seasoned jazz musician who has been a lot of places and has done a lot of things,” Adams says. “When you couple the aforementioned with the numerous artists who he has worked and associated with, it would be almost impossible for Ben not to have a great sense of humor.”

 Off stage

Music is important to Tucker but he’s a human being, first and foremost. “Outside of music, my wife has been most influential in my life,” he says. “We like to travel when I’m doing a jazz festival, go to Europe, and make seasonal trips to New York.”

Mobley’s journalism relationship with the legendary player has evolved into a personal relationship. He says of his subject-turned-friend, “He’s a warm and genial man who has a wonderful, courtly manner and a delightful laugh. I’d very much like to think of him as a friend.” By his own account, Mobley isn’t a hardcore jazz fan. “I must confess to being an R&B fan, but, as someone who’s lived in Savannah for 30 years I’d certainly heard of Ben. He’s very active in the community, and stories on his events and appearances are often done by the Morning News and the local television stations.

“ … I went to a performance he was giving at one of Savannah’s churches, a fund-raising event that included pianist/composer Joel A. Martin. There were 60 or so people there, and Ben seemed to know every one of them. He hugged, shook hands and talked with most of the audience, and then sat down and talked with me. It was a real tour de force for someone getting ready to celebrate his 80th birthday.”

With all that he has going on, it seems very likely he’ll still be kicking it hard and ready to take the Savannah Music Festival stage to celebrate his 85th birthday.

He’s a giant among men, revered by all.

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