Two songs stick out when scrolling through the tracklist of Benny Benack III’s sophomore album, A Lot of Livin’ to Do: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “It’s You I Like.” The tracks, both covers of songs from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, pay homage to Benack’s hometown of Pittsburgh. The jazz trumpeter and vocalist’s musical roots date back generations — he is the third Benny Benack, following his father and grandfather, to pursue a jazz career.
“There’s other songs that have influence from other prominent Pittsburgh musicians, like some of the instrumental songs are inspired by Pittsburgh [jazz drummer] Art Blakey,” says Benack, “Some of the original compositions, like ‘Irrepressible,’ take inspiration from Pittsburgh composer Henry Mancini.”
Benack now lives in New York City, but with so many influences coming from the ’Burgh, it only made sense for him to start his tour for A Lot of Livin’ to Do with an album release show at City of Asylum. It will be the first time Benack has ever played at the venue.
“It’s developed this reputation nationally as this really great concert place,” says Benack. “And the opportunity to present the album in that space, [it’s] perfect. … Over the years, every time I’ve come home to perform, there’s been this wonderful audience of family and friends and people that have watched me literally grow up. People that have been watching me play since I was eight years old. Pittsburgh for me will always be home and the place where I will feel the most love in the room. I knew that I wanted to come back and celebrate this album in [Pittsburgh].”
Ahead of Benack’s visit home, Pittsburgh City Paper chatted with him about the new album and Pittsburgh’s jazz scene.
Both your father and your grandfather were in the Pittsburgh jazz scene growing up. Did you ever feel pressure to become a jazz musician?
My parents never pressured me. I never had crazy stage parents; they were very supportive. But I didn’t really need a lot of pushing in that direction. As long as I can remember, performing, and specifically jazz music, was the only thing that I wanted to do with my life, the only music that I wanted to listen to. I think it would have been a different situation if my parents had pressured me not to be a musician. Even from the time I was seven or eight years old, I was already performing with my parents at shows. I had my mind made up when I was really young, they didn’t have to do much.
Besides your family, how do you feel the Pittsburgh jazz scene had an influence on you?
I tell people all around the world how lucky I was to grow up in Pittsburgh. I live in New York City now, but outside of New York, there’s not that many cities that can support a jazz community the way that Pittsburgh does, where there’s dozens of great musicians just making a living playing exclusively in and around Pittsburgh. There’s always been great places to play — the number of clubs goes up and down over the years — but there’s always somewhere to play almost every night of the week.
It’s been about three years since your debut album, One of a Kind, came out. How do you feel things have changed for you since then, and how did that affect your new album?
I feel like the first album kick-started my career as a solo artist. Before that album, I was playing a lot as a supportive player in other people’s bands. So, the first album was my first statement where I said I’m a bandleader, I’m a solo artist. The time in between was really one big tour. It was ongoing traveling and seeing the world, which was always one of my dreams.
The focus with this new album, the reason that it’s called A Lot of Livin’ to Do, [on] the cover art I have this big gesture and I’m smiling, and I think a lot of the music reflects that. On my first album, One of a Kind, I was going for a much darker, smoky, moody, sometime-after-midnight, more typical jazz figure. The music reflected that, but for this album I wanted it to reflect where I am in my life, where I am in my career, and my personality. I really wanted it to come through and wanted people to feel how much fun and joy I have when playing this music.
What song would you say was the most challenging to make, and what track are you most proud of?
“Later On,” an original ballad that I wrote is probably the most difficult. A lot of my songwriting, a lot of the songs that I write with lyrics, they have a general theme or appeal, a broader thing that more people can relate to. But that song, it’s kind of like your typical college breakup song, you know, the first person I was in love with. But also for me as a performer, because I am so energetic and boisterous, when I have to perform a ballad like that where the energy is much more introverted and the singing has to be more controlled and precise, that’s really much more challenging for me. But I knew it was important to have a ballad and songs like that for balance on the album.
Then the song that I’m most proud of, in the case of Pittsburgh, it was so great that I was able to do a couple [Fred Rogers’] songs on this album. My family has been very closely related to that show, dating back to my grandfather. [My grandfather] was on an episode where he taught [Rogers] a trumpet lesson at a music store. So, between that, and also my grandfather, when the Pirates won the World Series in 1960, he wrote the theme song for the team that kind of became a big hit. And he co-wrote it with Joe Negri, who is Handyman Negri from the Mister Rogers show.
We’ve always been kind of connected to themes and characters from the show, and that’s something I wanted to honor in the album, so we recorded the theme [“Won’t You Be My Neighbor”] and also a song Fred Rogers wrote called “It’s You I Like,” which is a ballad but actually much more of a sweet, happy message.