We love live music! Obviously that means we love going to a big show at Live Oak Bank Pavilion, Greenfield Lake Amphitheater or the Wilson Center. It means we love the free municipal shows that virtually every town in the Cape Fear puts on in the spring and summer. And it also means we love going to one of our favorite restaurants and discovering that they’ve hired a talent to entertain diners.
Saxophonist Benny Hill fits into all three categories. He’s played at Live Oak Bank Pavilion and does an annual show at the Wilson Center. He’s headlined the free shows too, and in addition to the weddings and private parties, he also does weekly gigs at restaurants up and down the coast. Born and raised in Wilmington, he is one of our premier musicians.
We sat down with Benny recently to play a game we call “Seven Questions.”
Question: What instrument would you like to learn?
BH: I currently play the saxophone. I’ve played it all my life. I started when I was 12. I am 52 now. So, that’s 40 years! I’ve messed with the piano off and on and I recently started playing an organ- that’s really fun.I like people like Jimmy Smith and Richard Grooveholms and I would really like to learn to play in that style. I currently had a few performing gigs playing the organ, and I am slowly getting better.
Question: What is the strangest or most off the wall request you’ve received as a musician?
BH: Typically I play just jazz, so the most common off the wall request is for the song Free Bird. (By Lynyrd Skynyrd) I say it’s off the wall because you’re listening to a group playing jazz and you request Free Bird…you know it’s almost like “Are you really paying attention to what’s going on?” And I play with other bands, regardless of the genre Free Bird is a common request at every gig. What I really learned is no matter what you’re playing someone is going to ask for something else. If you’re playing Blues, they’re going to ask for rock and roll. If I am playing with a rock and roll band, they’re going to ask for beach music. When I am playing jazz someone is going to ask for country music. It’s just part of the gig.
Question: Which closed local venue do you miss playing?
BH: That’s a very easy question for me. There’s really two. The Ice House which was down on Water Street in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It’s where I cut my teeth musically. I used to go to the jam session every Sunday and play jazz with other local jazz musicians and I learned so much. I played my first professional gigs there. They hired me to play after a while, after I grew up musically. The owners there were very supportive and they hired me to play…. so I really miss the Ice House. But there was also a venue at the corner of Front street and Princess. It is now the Bourbon Street restaurant but back in the day it was called the Paleo Sun. They had live music 7 days a week. I played there all through the mid 90’s to the early 2000’s. They brought in popular acts from New York and all over the country. It was a great place for live music.
Question: What’s an album or artist that everyone needs to listen to at least once?
BH: For me, as a jazz lover, two albums really come to mind. Myles Davis 1959 Kind of Blue Album. That should be a staple in anyone’s library. Also John Coltrane’s A Love’s Supreme. It may take a few listens but I think over time his message will come across. Regardless of what kind of music you like those two albums anyone can relate to.
Question: What’s your day job?
BH: For thirty plus years my only job was playing music. I would teach an occasional music lesson, saxophone lessons to little kids for extra money. And then in 2010 I started teaching part time at Cape Fear Community College, I taught music appreciation, jazz history and a basic music fundamentals class. And then they hired me full time in 2018. So my day job is I am a full time teacher at CFCC but I still play and perform several times a week.
Question: If you had only one artist to listen to for the rest of your life, who would that be?
BH: My favorite saxophonist is a guy named Dexter Gordan. If I had to pick one, it would probably be him. He has a very personable way of playing the saxophone. When I hear Dexter, I know its Dexter. Not just his tone, but his musical ideas and his approach to playing. I really studied him. He’s my favorite. It is still hard to pick one, but he has such a wide catalog of music. He’s played with several different artists, so I wouldn’t get bored.
Question: If you can play one venue where would it be?
BH: New York City – the Village Vanguard. It’s probably one of the best jazz clubs in the world. All the greats have played there. I’ve been there several times to hear multiple concerts and other performers. There’s been so many live recordings from the Village Vanguard by different artists over the decades. It would be an honor to perform there!