Last December, I was sitting with Ben Tucker and Teddy Adams in the chilly rear courtyard of Foxy Loxy Café. I asked Ben if he was aware that the Beatles song "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" was, in part, a ripoff of "Comin' Home Baby," the brilliantly torturous jazz tune Ben wrote (with Bob Dorough) back in the early 1960s.
"No, I'd never heard that," he boomed, then asked me to write down the exact title of John Lennon's song so he could consult with a lawyer. He laughed when he said it.
I meet a lot of musicians, and to tell you the truth, most of them don't really register. I can't say I knew Ben well, but when you were with him you knew, you just knew, that his gentle, still waters ran deep. He had a natural gravitas, an aura that said 'Man, I have BEEN there.' Go look at his resume and try to grasp his rich history; see where he went and the cats he played with. And sit up straight.
He commanded respect; one quick shake of his massive right hand and you knew you were in "no bullshit" territory. You couldn't lie to the man. He looked you square in the eye.
He came to Savannah in the early 1970s, when the local jazz scene had eroded to a raw nub of what it had been, and — standing shoulder to shoulder with Teddy Adams and a handful of other dedicated jazzheads — recharged it, revitalized it. Rebuilt it from scratch.
He loved Savannah, and he loved jazz, and he was supremely confident about both.
A few interviews back, Ben told me a story.
During his 27 years in a South African prison, Nelson Mandela was permitted very few books to read. Whitney Baillett's Such Sweet Thunder — named for a classic Duke Ellington tune — was one of his favorites.
In 2010, 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," Ben said.
"I was doing a concert in New York in 1962 with Grady Tate, Jerome Richardson, Clark Terry and Billy Taylor. 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."