The Performer and The Professor: Bennett Friedman plays among giants

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Photo by Sean Young

Bennett Friedman continues to perform for audiences of loyal students and SRJC community members with an annual performance of his current jazz ensemble, The Bennett Friedman Quartet. The SRJC legend has backed up megastars like Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson

Sean Young, Co-Editor in Chief

He’s backed-up Sinatra, Elvis, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson. He’s tuned his sax in lounges and juke joints, and clubs and arenas. He’s jammed on jazzy tunes and Rock ‘n’ Roll, and R&B and pop and soul for some of the biggest names in music history.

Since 1977, Bennett Friedman has played for audiences of adoring students at Santa Rosa Junior College, where he is the full-time director of jazz studies. He teaches jazz appreciation classes and leads the student jazz combos — all while juggling an active tour calendar.

At age 78, Friedman is the most veteran of SRJC faculty and shows no signs of slowing down. He rises at 6 a.m., jogs two miles every morning and then practices his beloved saxophone. He then heads into work, teaching students both an appreciation and a practical application of the music that lead him to his illustrious career.

The Performer

It could be said that Friedman was destined into a career in the music industry.

Born in Berkeley, California to classically trained musicians, Friedman’s parents exposed him to myriad artists and music genres. “My mother played piano, my father [played] violin and they performed together sometimes,” Friedman said. “But we listened to everything: musicals, Broadway shows, pop music–everything.”

His mother insisted that Friedman—at age 6— learn to play the piano before choosing another instrument. After two long years tickling the ivories, Friedman opted for the clarinet before picking up the saxophone at age 10.

Friedman took his clarinet-playing skills all the way to San Francisco State University, where he met his first wife while playing in the Symphonic Band. “Bennett went to San Francisco State at a time when you could not study jazz, so he was a clarinet major,” said former
Santa Rosa High School band director Mark Wardlaw. He met Friedman through the Sonoma County jazz scene. “He learned jazz the old-fashioned way: by studying, listening, gigging and working his butt off,” he said.

About a month before graduating from SFSU, Friedman received a draft notice to serve in the Vietnam War. Trying to stay out of combat, Friedman pursued an opportunity to play in the U.S. Army Band, the premier musical organization of the United States Army.

“It’s a special band and they needed somebody who could play both jazz and classical music. So on my own nickel, I flew back and auditioned,” he said.

He aced it. “[The Army] was great — once I got out of basic training.”

After serving three years stationed in Washington D.C., Friedman returned home to the Bay Area to perform his own shows but was soon on the road again. “One of my first gigs was a road gig with Elvis Presley,” he said. Friedman toured with Presley on his 1970 tour dates in Portland and Seattle, where the band enjoyed seeing the relatively new Space Needle and Monorail. “From then on, I was accompanying all these huge stars.”

Following his tour with The King, Friedman worked in horn sections for other superstars, such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr., Natalie Cole and The Temptations.

“I played all kinds of gigs and ended up playing more saxophone than clarinet by the time I got out of the army,” he said. “But it is very typical—whether it’s Shirley MacLaine or Liza Minnelli or any of those Broadway titans—that you play saxophone, clarinet, flute, maybe two kinds of flutes, maybe two kinds of clarinets because the music is written for those instruments.”

Though Friedman played with some of the biggest names in the music industry, he never made a personal connection with any of them. “We pass in the hall, in the dressing room… I never hung out with them,” he said.

His SRJC colleague, Dr. Jerome Fleg, is in awe of Friedman’s live performances with so many legends. “He was one of the top musicians in San Francisco and one of the top saxophone players, playing for all the major names to come through this region,” Fleg said. “If you named like 10 or 15 jazz legends, half of them or more he’s played on a stage with.”

One gig Friedman fondly remembers was during his time as a graduate student when he met with a jazz organ player who was playing at the Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar in San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel. “He was looking for a saxophone player, and I had to play
the flute [as well],” Friedman said.

For two years, the pair, along with a singer, worked five or six nights every week. One night, the organist and the singer were bantering. “He dared her to dive into the pool, and she did it. We got our notice the next day,” Friedman said.

When Friedman got the boot from the Fairmont he joined what would become his own group, the Bennett Friedman Big Band.

The band started out as the Chris Poehler Big Band and played out of the Great American Musical Hall in San Francisco on Monday nights. Friedman took over leadership of the group after his friend and former band leader left. “I didn’t name it my name right off the bat,” he said.

The band performed at famous venues, such as Keystone Korner and The Reunion in San Francisco, as well as at the Russian River Jazz Festival.

The Professor

In 1977, Friedman was looking for more steady work so he could buy a house and support his young family with his first wife and their child. “After the army, I worked on my master’s degree, started teaching part time at SF State and Foothill College, College of Marin, sort of freeway-flier kind of existence, along with playing,” he said. “One day I was going to my faculty mailbox at Foothill College, and there was a job announcement and reading it, it was like [the announcement] was reading about me.”

The job was for the director of jazz studies at Santa Rosa Junior College. Friedman interviewed and, once again, got the gig. Since he started in 1977, Friedman has taught thousands of students to appreciate jazz and directed more than 200 jazz combos’ performances. “It’s very hard to come up with those numbers [of students],” he said.

Many students, especially those in the jazz combos classes, choose to repeat the course.

Friedman’s dedication to both instruction and performance for more than 45 years at SRJC has inspired many fellow musicians and instructors.

“I’ve learned a lot from Bennett, and he’s been a mentor to me in my time at the JC,” Fleg said. Starting at SRJC nine years ago, Fleg, a fellow clarinet player, asked Friedman for a wealth of resources, including teaching approaches. “He helped me to kind of get my feet on solid ground [at SRJC].”

Friedman’s approach has also positively affected students. “Bennett has had a large impact on me as a student musician,” said Nathaniel Rocheleau, a student in Friedman’s jazz combos class. “He has helped me learn jazz as a language. He teaches a way to think, rather than having me memorize stuff from a textbook.”

Wardlaw, a fellow saxophone player and music educator, speaks highly of Friedman’s diligence in practicing his instrument daily and organizing lectures. “There’s a lot to admire about a guy who has committed himself to these two things and done both of them at such a high level for so many years,” Wardlaw said.

Fleg agreed. “In our field it’s easy to let one [performance] slip because you’re teaching a lot and you’re putting effort there,” he said. “So you get this practical challenge of ‘Well, how am I supposed to practice for a couple of hours?’”

Friedman has found a way to excel at both callings.

Despite having spent several decades backing up legends and becoming one in his own right, he’s not ready to put down his sax just yet. In fact, a wander through Forsyth Hall in the morning might yield the jazzy sounds of Friedman practicing in the tiny office that belies his status in the music industry.

“It’s my number one priority to keep my skills, to keep playing, to keep playing creatively,” he said.