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Bennie Wallace, Saxophonist
Tenor saxophonist Bennie Wallace made waves throughout the jazz world in the late 1970's with his debut recording, The Fourteen Bar Blues. Thereafter, with an unflagging respect and affection for classic jazz, he repeatedly represented his own progressive take on the music. His talent for composing and arranging music attracted the attention of Hollywood moviemakers in the late 1980's, which led him to spend nearly a decade in California composing and directing film soundtracks. Wallace's music has developed a more lyrical sense, yet his rhythms retained an authentic style that belonged uniquely to Wallace, according to critics. Winner of Germany's Deutscher Schallplattenpreis, the jazz Grammy equivalent, and a five-time winner of the Down Beat magazine award for Talent Deserving Wider Recognition, the full impact of Wallace's talent remained yet to unfold into the new century.
Born Bennie Lee Wallace Jr. on November 18, 1946, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Wallace began playing clarinet in his youth from the age of 12 when a music teacher at his school started a jazz band and taught the group about great jazz musicians like Count Basie, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. Later, Wallace played in the high school band and added tenor saxophone to his teenage repertoire. Despite his youth, he learned his way around the after-hour jazz clubs even while he was still in high school in Chattanooga. During his late-night excursions, Wallace participated in jam sessions, playing bebop and blues most frequently. He went on to study music at the University of Tennessee and received a bachelor's degree in clarinet studies in 1968. After college during the mid 1970's, he did some composing for a German radio orchestra although his first love was jazz saxophone. Even during a stint in Hollywood during the late 1980s and into the 1990's, Wallace maintained to interviewer Zan Stewart of the Los Angeles Times that his horn remained the focal point of his music and of his life.
After his arrival in New York from Tennessee, Wallace spent 1973 studying the old jazz masters and their music to discover the essence of each, focusing heavily on Johnny Hodges and Coleman Hawkins. Yet despite his in-depth study of historical jazz, Wallace disliked repertory bands and eschewed revivalist groups equally. He remained committed to personal definition in everything that he performed. It became evident that Wallace moved in a direction different from the bandwagon that typified so many of his contemporaries, with his styles rooted more closely in the work of Coleman Hawkins than with John Coltrane. In 1985, Wallace signed with Blue Note Records. His debut album for that label, entitled Twilight Time, remained a favorite for many years
In 1991, in an unanticipated career shift, Wallace moved his residence to Pacific Palisades in Southern California to be near the Hollywood film industry as he became involved in composing for films. The opportunity came as a result of his 1985 Blue Note release, Twilight Time, which caught the ear of filmmaker Ron Shelton. Shelton requested that Wallace contribute to the soundtrack for the late-1980's film Bull Durham. Wallace obliged with "Love Ain't No Triple Play," written expressly for that movie. Also heard on the Bull Durham soundtrack was a reprise of Wallace's arrangement of "Try a Little Tenderness." Wallace went on to score the movie Blaze and served as musical director the film White Men Can't Jump.
During this time, Wallace worked extensively with pianist Tommy Flanagan in creating film music. Additionally, Wallace worked behind the scenes as a docent of pianist Jimmy Rowles after Wallace, having settled in California, contacted Rowles completely without introduction. Regardless, a comfortable relationship bloomed between the two, as Rowles mentored Wallace not only in the mechanics of playing the piano, but also in the fine points of harmony. In 1993, Wallace released The Old Songs, an album which represented a culmination of the wisdom and inspiration that he derived from Rowles. He’s now back on the East Coast, living with his wife in Connecticut.