Benny Brydern: A license to Swing

Benedikt Brydern is the rare musician that has carved out a niche in hot jazz and swing and is also in demand in other genres. His training as a classical musician has no doubt contributed to him being a multifaceted composer, arranger, music supervisor, producer, and performer. He is a staple in the Los Angeles swing scene both as a sideman and in leading his own ensemble when need be.

“When need be?” Yes, the dirty little secret is when you are a gifted, classically-trained musician who is more than proficient in more than one style you get snatched up by major artists to go on tour. And if that takes you away from your love of hot jazz for a bit, you travel the world and put away your coins.

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I asked for a lot of help when I started on my musical journey seven years ago. As a woman diving into the male-dominated jazz world, I knew to ask those questions before the fresh smell of ignorance induced a coughing fit of chick singer jokes.

I knew a lot of musicians, but Benny wasn’t one of them. I had been hearing him play his violin in small hot jazz ensembles—and the man can swing. Everyone knows how hard violin is to master. “Mastering” in Benny’s case seems like an understatement. Any band he plays in you are mesmerized—whether he’s soloing or not. The violin isn’t something he held, more like it was growing out of his shoulder. And that appendage wasn’t simply being played; that swing came from his soul—it is unique, playful, and joyous.

I have no idea what brand of hubris possessed me one night after hearing him play but I walked up to him and introduced myself and asked him to produce my first EP. I knew nothing of his talents as far as “producing” but my guts are almost always right. It was obvious to me this man didn’t have a day job; he was a full-time musician. If I knew then what I know now I might not have had the nerve to ask. He was all in from the beginning and has become a part of my band whenever he isn’t off on tour.

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Randi Cee: How did your interest in music begin?

Benny BrydenBenedikt Brydern: I grew up in Munich, Germany; both of my parents were actors. My father taught at the renowned Falkenberg Acting School in Munich and my mother was his student back then. According to my mother, [Benny’s father passed when he was very young] he would listen late night when coming home from rehearsals or performances to passionate Frederic Chopin piano music.

Maybe that’s where I got my sense for melody from. I actually started with violin at the age of six, because most children picked piano as their main instrument. My mother thought violin was cooler. I seemed to have had some talent, progressed fairly quickly (but not as fast as some of the world famous prodigies). I do remember my first school recital when I was 10 years old. There were hundreds of people in the auditorium, but I didn’t feel any fear. I just walked on stage and played. (I wish I kept that coolness as I grew up!)

What influenced you in Germany?

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Music and Arts were present in all school curriculum. Most high schools even had an orchestra which was showcased every year in a concert. And I went to a regular high school focusing on languages and science. Munich is a very cultural city. We have two opera houses and four large orchestras and plenty of touring celebrities. Going to a concert was a regular thing. When I studied at the Conservatory we pretty much went once a week to see the legends.

What were those first years like?

Improving and polishing your art (on any instrument) requires a lot of discipline. I had some, but also enjoyed hanging out with friends playing soccer. (Germany was big in the World Cup in the ’70s.) According to my next teacher I wasted some time and needed to (technically) catch up, but I’m glad I had a social life as a kid. I made up for that laziness with extended practicing when I enrolled in Conservatory. As a student you just must practice, and yes, you want to get better. It took years to really understand what efficient practice means. Being your own teacher, etc. I think I’m much better now managing time and violin exercises.

Tell me about your time with Leonard Bernstein.

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Back in 1987 there was an ambitious concert pianist and he started a summer music festival modeled on Tanglewood in Schleswig-Holstein [Northern Germany]. Due to his connections he was able to get the great Leonard Bernstein (and some other famous conductors like Sir Georg Solti and Valery Gergiev) to work with a 100-piece Youth Symphony. I was very fortunate having been selected out of 2000 applicants in the summer of 1988 to play in the string section. Needless to say, I learned more in four weeks about the orchestra world than during my six years of studies. And made many friends from around the world. We performed at Royal Albert Hall during the Proms Concerts and Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow, where Bernstein had not been back for many years due to the Cold War.

What brought you to the United States?

At the music festival mentioned earlier I met many Americans from Juilliard, Peabody, and USC (University of Southern California) who shared my love for film music and mentioned a program that focused on studying the art of film scoring in Los Angeles. I didn’t know that Universities charged so much tuition and had to figure out a way to secure the funds. I actually got admitted to the program at USC before I knew how I was going to pay for it. Luckily my scholarship from Rotary International came through.

I arrived with two suitcases in the summer of 1993. Thankfully I didn’t know anything about the business side of Hollywood! Otherwise I would have stayed home and audition for a nice orchestra in Germany. But I loved movies and wanted to compose for that medium.

I received a small award from BMI (Performing Rights Society) by the end of the semester which encouraged me to stay. Also, back then you could apply for a practical training for one year after your student visa expired. So, I moved to Hollywood and pursued my composing dream. And I loved that weather—escaping the Bavarian winter for a year seemed like a great thing.

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At what point did the hot jazz creep into your world?

I was first introduced to Classical music through the violin. No one would really study or offer jazz for violin, etc. My mother played Bach, Mozart, etc. regularly on the turntable. Lots of music I didn’t quite understand when I was young. Some of the “heavyweights” like Brahms, Mahler, or Bruckner didn’t make it on my radar until I was in my late teens.

In my early teens my mother had a LP with Louis Armstrong playing Gospel music which I found interesting. Soon after I had a record of the early Armstrong recordings. But the major kick came when I attended a concert with the amazing Stephane Grappelli. Not in my wildest dreams would I have thought you can have so much fun on the violin wearing a Hawaiian shirt! My first Django Reinhardt LP was purchased soon after. Other influences followed, such as Errol Garner, Bill Evans, Benny Goodman, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson.

I think it is interesting that you mention fun. In my introduction I called your playing joyous. You swing so hard, which is unusual for a classically trained musician.

I have sat next to amazing violinists in orchestras. I mean brilliant—they can play anything you put in front of them but the ability to swing is not in them. I’m not even talking about soloing, just the swing.

How did you get into the hot jazz debauchery?

In order to focus on composition, I didn’t even bring my violin to the USA for two years! Soon after graduation my colleagues actually wanted me to play on their scores, so I went home and brought it over. I had no idea about an existing swing/jazz scene in LA. One of my violin stand partners who I met on a classical job recommended me to Johnny Crawford, who had a crooner Dance Band back in those days and added 2-3 violins to the band, because the ’30s arrangements always had a string section. That’s how I met all those wonderful musicians. Guitarist Tom Marion actually invited me to play with The Hot Club Quartette and that was all devoted to the music of Django Reinhardt. I ended up recording four CDs with that group. Around that time, I met Janet Klein, with whom I’ve played for ever since.

You are very well versed in many genres and it helps in making a living as a sideman.

One thing I love about Los Angles musicians is this flexibility and variety! I certainly paid off for me to be able to improvise and sightread in a variety of styles. Of course, it is beneficial to be a specialist in some sort—one reason people want to work with you. A sideman has different responsibilities than a leader, but I enjoy both roles. After running an exhausting gig and juggling a variety of hats, it’s nice “just” to show up as a side man and “make the boss” happy the next time. I never stop learning.

You have an extensive discography in just the jazz arena 11 CDs in total including the electric swing albums where you play the electric violin. Tell me more about the two “unplugged” records,License to Swing(with John Reynolds) and Day in Vienna.

Once you dive into the world of vintage jazz, you soon discover that only a handful of living players are actually true to its style and gestures. John Reynolds is one of those musicians. I enjoy his fluid technique and musicality very much. License to Swing is pretty much a tribute album to Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang. To John’s dismay I included a few “contemporary” songs we played in the retro swing style. Often listeners don’t even notice that the song was from the ’60s. Violin and guitar go well together, and I hope to be able to record many more tunes with John.

Benny Bryden A Day in ViennaSwinging the classics is nothing new. Early on, bandleaders took famous classical melodies (for instance, John Kirby’s “Bounce of The Sugar Plum Fairy”) and gave them a swell big band treatment. And, of course in the ’70s, the Swingle Singers did an amazing take on Bach. Django Reinhardt recorded a great version of Grieg’s Norwegian Dance, which inspired me to do a full CD (Day in Vienna) based on popular classical tunes. I hope Schubert, Mozart, Bach, Puccini, Paganini, and Chopin forgive my trespassing. I had a great time doing it and I think all musicians involved enjoyed it as well.

While reading Benny’s CV it was both varied and there was no shortages of awards and accolades. There were really too many to mention and Benny, being a modest artist to the core, didn’t mention any of them. Something that does stand out is that straight out of his film scoring studies at USC he composed the music for the Jon Voight’s film The Tin Soldier. Many others were to follow. He continues to compose classical pieces that are played by orchestras on stages around the world. And his love for hot jazz continues to delight.

To learn more about Benedikt Bryderns’ jazz music, visit Jazzviolin.us.

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Randi Cee is a bandleader and a swing and hot jazz vocalist living in LA. Her CD, Any Kind of Man, is available via randiceemusic.com. To see clips from her acting and dance career watch this video. For booking information, write: [email protected]

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