ON MAY 21, Ben Tucker played our Best of Savannah party at the Morris Center, running those big hands up and down the neck of his vintage upright bass — he called her Bertha — with the skill and confidence of a man half his age. At 82, he'd won the "Best Jazz Musician" award for the umpteenth time, yet when I asked him if he'd be willing to come out and perform at our little winners' show, for no money, he did not hesitate in saying yes, absolutely.
Exactly two weeks later, he was gone.
"He was the face of jazz for Savannah," says Skip Jennings, president of the Coastal Jazz Association. "He was the most important person for jazz in Savannah. He was the one iconic figure we had for jazz in Savannah. We have other people around here who have good reputations and such, but none of them are Ben Tucker."
Born in Brentwood, Tenn., Benjamin Mayor Tucker grew up in Nashville, playing tuba in his high school band. He served in the United States Air Force for four years, 1950-54, and by 1960 he was well-established as one of the premiere jazz bassists in New York and Los Angeles. He made his first record, with saxophonist Warne Marsh, in 1959.
Among his credits: Lengthy stints in trios fronted by Billy Taylor and Marian McPartland, performances and sessions with the likes of Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, Yusef Lateef, Peggy Lee, Quincy Jones, Wes Montgomery and Illinois Jacquet.
His song "Comin' Home Baby" became a hit for his flutist pal Herbie Mann, and — with Bob Dorough's lyrics added — for Mel Torme.
A man with an entrepreneurial spirit, Tucker was always looking for a new opportunity. In 1966, he brought a young Nashville singer/songwriter named Bobby Hebb to the attention of Mercury Records, which turned Hebb’s song “Sunny” – the one that had grabbed Ben Tucker’s attention – into a smash hit and a beloved classic.
Ben and his wife Gloria relocated to Savannah in the early 1970s. Ben had given up on performing and recording — Bertha was in storage in New York City — to follow yet another entrepreneurial dream.
"We bought the radio station in 1971 and took it over on Jan. 5, 1972," he told Connect a few years ago. "We became the 15th African American–owned radio station in America, out of 9,000 back then.
"I wanted to play jazz music here in Savannah, but I'd be losing my ratings if I did. It was a gospel station, but I took the gospel out and cleaned all that up, R&B, cleaned all that up. We had black classical music. And you lose ratings when you play that kind of music. But we were No. 1 in the market from '72 to '84."
The station was WSOK-AM, and during its run at the top Tucker was convinced by Teddy Adams, a Savannah-bred trombone player who'd been living in Japan, to get the lead out.
Or, rather, get the bass out.
"When I got here, Ben was strictly a businessman," Adams says. "I went to the radio station, because I had met him a few years before in Tokyo, and I said 'Come on, we've got to start doing something.' Ben was not playing at that time; he was actively running the station.
"And when we started playing, Ben was playing electric bass. Which he hated. He said 'This ain't my thing.' He was accustomed to his upright bass, the contrabass. So he got his bass shipped here from New York. And he always told people, about me, 'This cat is the reason I started playing again.'"
Going back to the 1920s, Savannah had a rich jazz history. By the '70s, however, it had all but disappeared. Tucker and Adams were part of a group of visionaries who started an appreciation and performance group, the Telfair Jazz Society (which later became the Coastal Jazz Association).
For a few years, he ran a jazz club, Hard Hearted Hannah's, and anchored the house band six nights a week. Everyone in town knew him.
Teddy Adams: "After Ben moved Hannah's from City Market to the Hilton, we were playing a gig there .... I'm not aware that Ben has a twin brother, OK? We take a break, and I'm well aware of what Ben was wearing, because he had on some plaid sport coat that was kind of flamboyant. It would catch your eye. I'm walking around the club, and I see Rueben, talking to somebody, the same mannerisms, identical. From where I'm standing, I think it's Ben ... I think 'You mean Ben has gone out and changed clothes between sets? That's a new approach.' Looking at Reuben was just like looking at Ben."
Tucker became the go-to guy for jazz in town. Everyone wanted to play with him; he rarely turned anyone down. "I think as time went on he saw an opportunity to help forward the cause of jazz in Savannah," says Jennings. "He was always very concerned about the future of CJA; he realized what a unique opportunity he had to be the guy who spurred a lot of other people to take the music forward. Ben was always trying to think of ways to reach out and make this music alive to young people."
Guitarist Howard Paul was a frequent collaborator. "I think that Ben had really relished the fact that he had grown into an elder statesman of jazz," Paul reflects.
As a musician, "Ben was the quintessential old-school bass player, like Slam Stiller, Ray Brown and guys from that era. Solid time. He recognized that the role of the bass player was to provide support, and keep time. I hate to say it's a lost art, but that was a very specific era of jazz and Ben was the quintessential example of it. He could play solos, he could play flashy, but he didn't view that as the role of a bassist.
"He loved traditional and straight-ahead jazz, that was his thing. And he knew every tune, in every key, and knew not just the bassline and the harmony but he knew the melody and the words. And I think it was a real matter of pride for him that he had such a deep vocabulary."
Huxsie Scott: "I learned to become a jazz singer working with him. When he hired me to sing with the Telfair Jazz Society, I had been working with a Top 40 group. He gave me freedom. Basically, without actually saying the word, I was allowed to just fly, and isn't that what jazz is all about? You take something that has been written, you respect melodies and all of that, but you're able to interpret it the way you see fit. And you're able to fly with it. He allowed me to fly. Ben encouraged me to do so."
Without Ben Tucker, it's likely that Huxsie Scott, Howard Paul and the other reliably great jazz players in town wouldn't turn our heads today. Tucker was deeply committed to keeping the spirit of the music not just alive, but vibrant, and moving forward.
Jazz in Savannah did not die under the wheels of some fool's speeding car on June 4. It will outlive Ben Tucker; it will outlive all of us.
And that will be this great man's legacy.