It’s Sunday night at the Burnt Mill Creek Wine Bar and Benny Hill has just taken the stage. Within only a few notes most of the audience, hardcore Jazz fans, recognize the tune. It’s “The days of wine and roses” first made popular by a movie by the same name.
On the stage with Benni are three other musicians. At the start, there’s a drummer, a bass guitarist and a guy on the keyboard. As the night goes on others will join in. No one knows how many or what instruments they will be playing… it just all depends on who shows up this week.
This is a Jazz Jam where little is planned and nothing is rehearsed. It happens every Sunday night. Musicians from across the Cape Fear region show up to share their talents. Some know each other, many have never met, let alone performed together. But that’s okay, do you love jazz… then get on up here. What do you want to play and we’ll follow along?
Before I go any further, in full disclosure, I need to tell you that saxophonist Benny Hill is a close personal friend. He lives just a few doors down, often times we’ll share a meal or a beer or just a great conversation.
But our friendship is not based on proximity. We’re close not because we live close to each other, but because I respect and collect people who have identified their passions. Benni is passionate about music.
As a young man, he decided that music would be his career. He decided that! “I made a promise to myself,” he tells me one day over the house, “That no matter what it looked like this would be exclusively how I made a living. If that meant I would be living hand to mouth, or in a small apartment with a dozen other guys… then that was just the price I’d have to make.”
There were some lean years. There were sometimes when Benni didn’t always know if he’d make it. Those were in the days when he took himself too seriously. Afterall he was trained and educated musician. He wasn’t going to play anything that was beneath him.
The turning point came when Benni was playing at a wedding. He was right in the middle of David Brubeck’s “Take Five,” or maybe it was Miles Davis’ “So What,” Benni doesn’t remember exactly but he knows it was one of the Jazz standards, one of the songs that Benni took pride in mastering. That’s when a young lady approached him and requested a Brittny Spears tune.
“Normally, I would have been insulted. But it was like a light went off inside me. It’s a wedding. People want to have fun. If that’s what they want to hear then I need to learn it.”
And so he went home that night and started to learn some modern pop songs. It helped him get a few more gigs and bookings, and it wasn’t too long before Benni was doing more than just surviving.
Of course, jazz remained his first love and 12 years ago Benni had an idea. What if there was a place where people could just get together and play. The Rusty Nail, near downtown, was their first venue. This was payback. This was where musicians came to let loose. This is where they got to play their music, not the pop tunes or billboard stuff.
When you let people start to pursue their passions, eventually other people will notice. The Jazz Jams started to attract a crowd. People started showing up, not to perform, but to just listen, to tap their feet and to “bee-bop” along.
Benni moved the Jam to Burnt Mill Creek a few years ago. The stage is a little wider, the parking a lot better, but the music is the same.
“From week to week, I never know who is going to show up. We’ve had kids perform with us, 12 and 14 year-olds who blow you away. The rest of the week, I’ll still play the other stuff, but Sunday is my night. Sunday is time for Jazz.”