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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.’”