FOUR YEARS after his passing, jazz bassist Ben Tucker’s legacy can still be heard around the world.
His bubbly 1961 classic “Comin’ Home Baby,” which became a hit for Mel Torme, currently sets the tone of Nespresso’s George Clooney-helmed TV campaign, but Savannah gets to hear the songs of one of its most beloved citizens right at home this weekend.
Friends of Ben, Inc. invites the community to “Remembering Ben,” an ode to the jazz great’s legacy, in Wright Square this Sunday.
The nonprofit was started after Tucker’s 2013 death by his close friends and admirers.
“His friends were so devastated,” President Barbara Essig recalls. “Twelve of us came together and decided that we can’t let his legacy die with him. He was so important to us—no one had ever met a person like Ben before in their life. He had a very special meaning and impacted us in such a positive way. We couldn’t forget him. We organized and decided to do things to keep his legacy alive and protect and preserve his legacy internationally.”
Tucker, who was born in Tennessee, moved to Savannah in the early ‘70s with his wife, Gloria. After years of playing upright bass with the likes of Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper, Grant Green, Yusef Lateef, Quincy Jones, Peggy Lee, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery and Illinois Jacquet, Tucker arrived in The Hostess City to buy the WSOK-AM radio station.
During his time spinning other folks’ music, Tucker was not performing. Trombonist Teddy Adams encouraged him to get Bertha, Tucker’s beloved upright bass, shipped down from New York so he could jump back in the game.
The two revived Savannah’s jazz legacy, forming The Telfair Jazz Society, which evolved into what we know today as The Coastal Jazz Association.
Tucker also established a jazz club, Hard Hearted Hannah’s, and played in the house band six nights a week.
“When you learn his history, it’s amazing, the music he’s been involved with,” Essig says.
An innovative businessman, Tucker formed a production company with Bob Dorough in the early ‘70s and made television commercials. He was approached by an advertising exec whose son was struggling to learn his multiplication tables.
Tucker paired math memorization and music to help the child learn; the results became the pilot episode of Schoolhouse Rock!.
“He also wrote a piece for Nelson Mandela and actually had a CD that he sent to Mr. Mandela,” admires Essig. “He was just one of those out-of-the-box thinkers.”
Friends of Ben have worked hard to preserve Tucker’s legacy; first, they restored Bertha. Last month, when The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa dedicated its new pavilion to Tucker, Bertha was played for the first time since the restoration.
In addition to maintaining Tucker’s scholarships at SCAD, the Boys and Girls Club, and the YMCA, Friends of Ben will soon launch “Keep the Music Playing,” an instrument donation program.
“Lots of people have instruments in their attic and they don’t use them,” Essig points out. “We’ll have a day where they can donate the instruments, we’ll refurbish them and make them brand-new and shiny again, and donate them to children whose parents can’t afford instruments. We say that education is equal opportunity, but it’s not always, especially for low-income children.”[image-2]
Ten musicians will convene in Wright Square to play Tucker’s original compositions and jazz standards that he recorded and performed.
“Many of the musicians that will play really honor Ben for keeping the music alive right here in Savannah,” says Essig.
The talent includes Teddy Adams on trombone, Howard Paul on guitar, Bruce Spradley on bass, Robert Saunders on drums, Randy Reese on saxophone and flute, Jeremy Johnson on saxophone, Calvin Barnes on saxophone, Eric Jones on piano, Kirk Lee on trumpet, and Claire Frazier on vocals.
“There’s something about people who are creative and have this passion—they just want to share their gift, and that’s what Ben was about,” Essig says. “He shared his gift of music, the gift of community, and improved and impacted his community in such a positive way.”
Musicians, music lovers, and neighbors of all generations are invited to bring a chair and a cold drink and enjoy the day.
“All you have to do is mention Ben’s name, and people have a story,” says Essig. “It’s always something positive. There are rare people that come into your life that are like a Ben Tucker.”