In this the centennial year of Johnny Mercer’s birth, we’ve seen the Savannah songwriting legend honored in all sorts of creative ways, from theater to literature to dance. The bronze statue arrives in November.
Music, of course, is always the best way to pay homage to a musical titan. One day soon, perhaps we’ll have an all-bagpipes concert of Mercer’s tunes.
For now, there’s Sunday’s “Mercer Beaucoup: Come Rain or Come Shine,” a performance of songs we know by heart, performed by several of the city’s most accomplished jazz musicians.
“My personal feelings about Johnny Mercer, he was an extraordinary musician and an extraordinary lyricist,” says jazz master Ben Tucker, who brought his standup bass to Savannah in 1972 and never looked back.
“I’d like to do him justice and play his music the way it was written, and put my own personal feelings into it. Put it into the real jazz idiom if that’s possible, and I don’t see why not.”
Sunday’s show, at Four Points By Sheraton, will feature Tucker, trombonist Teddy Adams and vocals by Huxsie Scott, along with drums, piano and saxophone.
We’re talking a serious jazz combo.
“This is totally improvised; there can be no written arrangements,” Tucker vows. “I personally don’t care for written arrangements, to tell you the truth, because it takes away from the creativity.”
Tucker, 79, is himself the composer of more than 300 songs, including “Comin’ Home Baby,” a huge hit for Mel Torme and many others, “Right Here Right Now” and “The Message.”
He played with, among others, Herbie Mann, Billy Taylor, Art Pepper, Peggy Lee, Quincy Jones and Buddy Rich.
Upon arrival in Savannah, he bought WSOK-AM, one of the area’s first black radio stations. “I came to here to get involved as a communication link into the African-American community, and to bring hope and try to move our prosperity forward,” he says. “Rather than to sit here and do nothing.”
Stymied by the corporate monopolies that were gobbling up independent stations by the truckload, he sold the station 12 years later. And he’s no longer involved with Love 101.1, the FM station he kick-started. “I couldn’t even afford to start a radio station today,” he sighs.
Tucker bemoans the fact that public information programs no longer make up a significant part of the local radio diet. He’s very community-minded.
Not only that, there’s just no jazz on the airwaves. “Other than a couple of Sirius channels, where have you heard a radio station that deals with specifically jazz?” he asks. “I just don’t get it. Therefore, the kids who are coming up today have no idea who is Johnny Mercer. Who is Ben Tucker? Who is Duke Ellington?”
Bringing jazz to the people – real jazz, played by real musicians – has always been Tucker’s primary concern. He was the owner of the successful Savannah jazz club Hard Hearted Hannah’s, and co-founded the Coastal Jazz Association (with Teddy Adams and others) in 1982.
Along with the annual Savannah Jazz Festival, the organization puts on numerous concerts during the year, bringing in top players from all over the country, and assembling special groups consisting of Tucker, Adams and other high caliber local musicians.
Tucker dismisses a suggestion that the CJA is most interested in turning on young people to classic jazz. Neither, he says emphatically, does race have anything to do with it.
“I just want people involved,” he says. “I don’t care if they’re young, old, middle-aged or middle class. Rich or poor. I think (the city’s) Cultural Arts should do more in promoting jazz, rather than promoting it along with the Coastal Jazz Association.
“I think they need to go into the school system, they need to go into the communities and have block parties with jazz. So that people can understand what is our American heritage, as opposed to the African-American heritage.
“We’re not even dealing with that. I’ll hire a white jazz musician quick as I’ll hire a black jazz musician. I think it should be that way, because we are in a melting pot. Everybody’s playing jazz, and has been doing it since Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Teddy Wilson and all those guys.”
The title of Tucker’s new CD, Sweet Thunder, is a reference to Whitney Balliett’s 1966 book Such Sweet Thunder: Forty-nine Pieces on Jazz.
During his 27 years in a South African prison, Nelson Mandela was permitted very few books to read. Such Sweet Thunder – named for a classic Duke Ellington tune - was one of his favorites.
Last year, the author of a book about Mandela told Tucker that his name – Ben Tucker’s name – appeared in the book several times. “I was elated that I was actually a part of his ordeal while he was in prison,” Tucker explains.
“I was doing a concert in New York in 1962 with Grady Tate, Jerome Richardson, Clark Terry and Billy Taylor,” he remembers. “We played ‘Take the A Train,’ and Duke Ellington was there. And Duke commented ‘Hey man, you guys played the hell out of the song for me.’ That’s how I got in the book.
“And the kids today have no idea what I was doing in 1962.”
‘Mercer Beaucoup: Come Rain or Come Shine’
Where: Four Points By Sheraton, 520 W. Bryan St.
When: 5 p.m. Sunday, July 26
Tickets: $10 public, free for Coastal Jazz Association members
Phone: (912) 675-5419
Artist Web site: www.bentuckerjazz.org