If music is the food of the soul, Benny Poole knows how to make it go down smooth.
Poole, a local legend with a star-studded history, spent his life infusing his hometown with soul, supporting young musicians, and creating music of his own. The saxophonist from Jackson, Michigan performs frequently at Johnny T’s Bistro in downtown Hillsdale.
The 85-year-old musician has spent his career pushing the limits of saxophone music as a recording artist and live performer. He began with the alto saxophone, and moved on to master baritone, tenor, and soprano versions of the instrument before taking an interest in the electric horn, which appeared in the 1970s. A slim, black instrument with the upper keys of a classic saxophone, this instrument allows jazz performers to imitate sounds of different instruments, adding variety to the performance.
“That’s what makes his show unique,” said Christie, Poole’s wife. “Most entertainers play a certain type of music, and they don’t put the variety in there. No one else plays the synthesized horn. It’s not something you see every day.”
Though primarily a jazz musician, Poole explores many other styles of music, including blues, Motown, standards, funk, smooth jazz, reggae, and salsa. Rick Tropiano, the owner of Johnny T’s Bistro, described Poole’s signature style: “We would probably consider it almost like Motown funk.”
Poole’s cocktail of jazz styles has found admirers throughout the world. The singles “Pearl Baby Pearl” and “Sorry ’Bout That,” from an album recorded in 1967, became popular on the Top 40 charts, in commercial jingles, and on soap operas. He opened for Ray Charles at Lansing’s Civic Auditorium in the late 1960s. Audiences in Acapulco, Mexico, on three cruise ships, and in various venues across the United States have enjoyed Poole’s blending of musical styles.
Although his personal accomplishments mount, Poole also has a keen eye for discovering young musicians.
“I’m not going to tell anybody that ‘you can go big time’ if I don’t believe it. I knew because I could feel it all,” Poole said.
His gut instinct rarely leads him wrong, either, as his protégé list can attest. Poole recounted stories of stars he mentored throughout the years, beginning with Abbey Lincoln, a church-singer-turned-jazz vocalist and movie star who began her music career singing with Poole.
Poole’s dedication to fostering music does not stop with finding gigs. For pianist Gene Harris, the gift of a job and a place to stay meant that Harris could focus on his music, spurring him to fame. Poole sent pianist Lyman Woodard to school in Canada, and then decided that Woodard had the makings of an organist. He found Elvin Jones, the man who would become the world’s top jazz drummer, Pontiac, Michigan. Through his growing web of connections, Poole began to work with pianist Eddie Russ, who was later hired by the Philip Morris Company and toured around the world.
With his talent, his reputation, and his skill in spotting the next big thing, Poole could have “made it big time” like many of his protégés. Instead, Poole chose to be a salesman by trade and raise a family in Jackson while performing in venues close to home.
Poole’s presence at Jonny T’s Bistro stems from connections within his community. Tropiano, a native of Jackson, knew Poole growing up. Soon after buying the restaurant in 2009, Tropiano decided to give live music a shot, and Poole agreed to perform. “We just unofficially crossed paths, and it was an opportunity for him and an opportunity for us. I knew what his abilities and talents were,” Tropiano said.
Since then, Poole has been a fixture at Jonny T’s Bistro, playing once or twice per month. According to Poole, “Hillsdale has been one of my top towns to play in because of the people.”
Poole praised Tropiano, his staff, and the customers at Jonny T’s Bistro, saying, “They’re just super.”
Poole’s dedication to music in Michigan creates opportunities for listeners and musicians alike. By bringing in musicians like Poole, Jonny T’s Bistro gives Hillsdale a taste of jazz that satisfies the soul.
“The quality of what you are is going to come out in your music. It’s the same with Rick. The quality of person he is comes out in his staff and in the people who come here,” Christie said. “People ask, ‘What is it about Benny that’s so special?’ and I say, ‘I think you can only play out what you have inside.’”