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Ben Sidran - Madison's King of Jazz
 
By Teresa Peneguy Paprock
 

Ben Sidran literally can’t remember a time when he didn’t play the piano.

 

Because his first experiences at the ivories occurred before his conscious memory – probably around the age of 4 – he has to depend on the recollections of his family. They’ve told him that like most kids, he wanted to do things that older kids were doing. In this particular case, it was the piano; his sister was taking lessons, so he crawled up on the bench.

 

His sister eventually lost interest, but for Ben, who lives in Madison, it was just the beginning of what would become a distinguished career in jazz and rock music (as is the case with most jazz musicians, he’s better known in Europe and Japan than in the U.S.). In addition being a pianist, he would grow up to be a world-renown vocalist, record producer, radio and television commentator and interviewer, and author.  He would release some 27 albums (so far!) and perform with such greats as Steve Miller, Mose Allison, Diana Ross, Boz Scaggs, Phil Upchurch, Tony Williams, Jon Hendricks, Richie Cole and Van Morrison.

 

Ben has been the keyboardist for the Steve Miller band; composed and directed the music for the acclaimed documentary, “Hoop Dreams;” and worked as a journalist for “Rolling Stone.” He is on the Board of Governors for the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, the agency that administers the Grammy™ Awards, and is an artist in residence at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 

Perhaps Ben’s inner child is still at work, because his latest album, “El Elefante” (2002 Liquid 8 Records) is a testament to the little boy on the piano bench, with his feet dangling several inches off the floor.

 

Go ahead. Try to listen to “El Elephante” without dancing in your chair and singing along. In a joint project with his 26-year-old son Leo, also a musician, Ben has released an album for his pickiest audience yet – little kids. But Sidran knows what the most successful authors of children’s’ books know: when it comes to quality, kids aren’t easy. Just like adults, they prefer good entertainment.

 

That’s why the music on “El Elephante” is essentially no different from the music Ben and Leo write for grown-ups. “Except that we had more fun,” says Ben.

 

Ben was born in Chicago, raised in Racine, and made Madison his permanent home after living for some time in England and Los Angeles. There are plenty of kids in his Vilas Park Neighborhood, including the children of Michael Feldman of Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Whad’Ya Know?” Some of them provided background vocals for the album, as well as artwork (Ben admits to drawing the cartoon on the album cover all by himself, though. “It was really cool,” he says.)  

 

Ben says he’d wanted to do a joint musical project with his son “ever since I’ve known him.” When Leo was eight, Ben recorded him singing his very own song, “Pushing and Shoving,” in a real recording studio. Those vocals are now mixed with Leo’s grown-up vocals to produce perhaps the only song ever that features the childhood and adult voice of a single performer. The song is a plea for peace: “Let’s stop all this pushing and shoving/Let’s start some real good loving/Let’s stop all this teasing/Let’s start hugging and squeezing.”

 

Then there’s the bouncy blues of “Popcorn’s got a Brand New Bag.” In hokey pokey style, the lyrics describe a “popcorn” dance. Ben was excited when he played the song for the children next door and they automatically followed along. “I thought, ‘Wow! They really did it!’” he laughs.

 

The cool piano jazz melody of “The Yellow Bird” is a lullaby of sorts, describing purple cows and ice cream clouds, but it is just as beautiful as that of any song written for adults. Throughout the album, the music is sweet but not sappy, simple but not silly, reflecting his respect for his young listeners.

 

“Before I had kids I had not use for kids,’ he admits. “ I didn’t understand them. One I had a kid, I liked them. When Leo was at Red Caboose (day care), and I’d go over to do parent-stuff, I’d hang out with the 3- and 4-year olds. I take them seriously. A small child has a wonderful sense of justice and fair play. If you make a deal and you keep your side of the bargain, they’ll keep theirs.” One song, “Take it Easy Greasy (You’ve Got a Long Way to Slide”), is a song Ben used to sing during his “parent-stuff” visits to the Red Caboose.

 

In addition to being an album that will delight children and adults, “El Elephante” is bilingual.  Leo began talking Spanish lessons when he was eight, and the album reflects his fluency in the language. Even listeners who don’t know a word of Spanish will pick up some by listening to the songs.

 

Once Ben and Leo decided that the time was right to record their father-son album, the process took only about two months. “Literally, the fun factor took over,” he said. “It was playful. For one song, the kids had to laugh, so we ticked them.”

 

“I’m grateful we had the opportunity to do this together,” Ben says. “I would have been disappointed if we didn’t do it. It was something we could really do together.”

 

Maybe there’s a moral to this happy success story. Not every 4-year-old who sits down at the piano will become a world-known music star. But early music exploration is important. There is some music inside every child - and an inner child who loves music inside every adult.

Teresa Peneguy Paprock

This article originally appeared in Dane County Kids. Teresa Peneguy Paprock / words & stuff freelancing retains the copyright to this article and it may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without express permission. For reprint rights, contact Teresa Peneguy Paprock at words@chorus.net or P.O. Box 5207, Madison, WI, 53705.

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