BENNY RUSSELL & FRIENDS
Benny Russell, sax
George Gray, drums
Blake Meister, bass
Alan Blackman, piano
Tickets: $12/$10 students
When reedman Benny Russell was 15 years old he took his first major step toward what has become a prolific music career--one that embraces a range of styles that span R&B, jazz, gospel and classical music. As Russell tells it, his brother David, who was attending Morgan State University at the time, was instrumental in setting him on this path. "I was still in high school when David asked the director of Morgan State's Jazz Ensemble if I could sit in," he reports. "The director said I was welcome if I could play." Evidently Russell could play. He ended up sitting in with the school's concert and marching bands on clarinet, and continued to perform on several reed instruments with the jazz ensemble until his own graduation from Morgan State. He now recognizes those years as a pivotal time in his musical life. "It was in the University's jazz ensemble," Russell recalls, "where my composing and arranging ambitions really took flight." Born February 21, 1958 in Baltimore, Maryland, Russell started clarinet lessons at age 7 under the instruction of Mr. James H. Holliman.
At 12 he began playing tenor. And by the time he was 15, sitting in with the Morgan State bands, Russell was playing tenor, alto and soprano saxophones as well as clarinet, bass clarinet and flute. 1976 was the year he became a full-time undergraduate student at Morgan State, and during that time he also started gigging for the Manhattans, the Four Tops, and Richard "Groove" Holmes in addition to several other artists who toured the area. Shortly after his college graduation, Benny moved to New York and quickly formed a jazz orchestra called the NEW YORK ASSOCIATION--a seventeen-piece ensemble that featured such noted jazz artists as trumpeters Cecil Bridgewater and Tom Harrell, saxophonist John Purcell, trombonists Steve Turre and Robin Eubanks, pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs, and drummer Mike Clark. Since then, Russell has been steadily building an impressive list of credits. Besides arranging and performing for off-Broadway shows like Beehive, he's worked with Otis Rush, Harry Belafonte, Mino Cinelu, Craig Harris, Jimmy Owens, Junior Cook, Mor Thium and a host of others. Russell can also be heard on The Cosby Show and A Different World. In 1995 Russell chaired the jazz division at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he also taught jazz history. While working at the Conservatory, he was able to launch a string of other cultural activities that served Brooklyn, including a program of workshops for high school students in the Brooklyn public school system, the Charlie Parker Birthday Festival, and regular performances with the Next Legacy Orchestra. Next Legacy Orchestra is a big band for which Russell writes and arranges as co-director with saxophonist Jorge Sylvester. He first worked with this group when it was known as the David Murray Big Band. When Murray decided to move to Paris in '96, he asked Russell to take on the role of leader, the name was changed and the group got a home on the Conservatory's stage. After a recent performance there, the Next Legacy Orchestra was described by New York Times critic Ben Ratliff as "one of the best overlooked bands in the city."In February, 2002, Russell presented his work Langston Hughes: The Soul of His Words to a large audience at the Museum of Natural History in New York. The three-movement piece written for 19 piece Jazz orchestra and three actors was received with a standing ovation and a citation from the Borough President Marty Markowitz of Brooklyn, New York. In February 2004, the piece was extended to five movements and received equally as well at the St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York.In February 2005, Russell was commissioned to write a Jazz score for Zora Neale Hurson’s play Cold Keener and it was received well at Baltimore’s Loyola College.
In June 2004, Russell was hired to chair the Jazz department at the Maryland Conservatory of Music. Already he has produced a successful Count Basie 100th Birthday Celebration that featured the legendary Frank Foster and Grammy award winners Antonio Hart and Mark Gross. Presently, he is signed to Arabesque Records and is working on his second release entitled Miracles which features James Spaulding, Cecil Bridgewater and many other luminaries. On April 4, 2008, Benny Russell along with a committee of concerned community activists as well as others from the clergy are having a march in Northwest Baltimore to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the assasination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The march serves as a moratoium on inner city violence. Featured will be a Jazz Orchestra and chourus playing arrangements written by Mr. Russell.
The George Gray Project was created and formed by George A. Gray, Jr. George Gray was born and raised in Baltimore, Md. And began pursuing his dreams within the music field at the age of 6 in elementary school playing the bongos and this was only the beginning. All through junior high George participated in the jazz ensemble, the Falcon Drum & Bulge Corp which was a competitive drum corp. Later in senior school as well when attending Morgan State University George was involved with the school's marching band with being the drum section leader of the bands. And also attended Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, MD.
After college George became the drummer for the Maurice and Verdine White discovery "Pockets". This groups was produced and managed by Verdine and Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire and their organization with three recordings under Columbia/Kalimba Records. This group opened up for the Deniece Williams and Earth, Wind & Fire tour "AllNAll" in 1976-77. Later this group toured with a number of household R&B, Soul and Funk acts as Chaka Khan, the Brainstorm, Camero, Teddy Pendergrass, Jeffrey Osborne, Weather Report, the Emotions, Atlantic Starr and the list continued on.
After being a member of Pockets for 5 years George then pursued a career as a freelance all around drummer for style of playing ranging from R&B, Pop, Fusion, Jazz and any style that displayed his artistic drumming ability. At this point George worked with such household name groups at the time as T-Connection, Peaches & Herb, E,W&F, Stevie Wonder, Chuck Berry, Sam & Dave, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Talking Heads, Stephanie Mills, Deniece Williams, Maurice Hines and many others of the R&B vain.
Later George ventured more into a jazz/fusion scene while living in Baltimore, MD to then work with a host of artist as Gary Bartz, Richard "Groove" Holmes, Jimmy Witherspoon, Brooks Benton, Leon Thomas, Flor Purim, John Abercombie, Dave Samuels and the list of others. Soon George moved to Brooklyn, NY in the early 90's where he entered a much deeper field of playing artistry to work with such entertainers as Cassandra Wilson, Onaje Allan Gumbs, Will Downing, Abdullah Ibrahim, Carla Cook, Vanessa Rubin, Frank Foster, Jimmy Smith, Dwight Sills, Jann Parker, Sathima Bea Benjamin, Carmen Lundy, Angela Bofill, Stanley Jordan, Ronnie Jordan and more to come.
Aside from the world of drumming George Gray is a known fitness consultant for the performing artist of the world. George conducts workshops, clinics and seminars that basically discuss the need and the advantages of exercise, proper nutrition in combination with developing performance skills on the instrument and on stage as well as increasing optimal health. George is sponsored and has endorsements with REMO Drums, Drum Heads; DWDrums, Hardware and Accessories, and SABIAN Cymbals. And also George presently is the jazz drum instructor at York College located in Jamacia, New York for the Jazz Workshop program.
Monthly George writes a drum fitness tip in a news article for the well known drum and percussion store "Drummers World" here in New York City. This is a online publication that is distributed worldwide to the drummers and percussionist of the world. And hopefully very soon George will be writing for Vic Firth Sticks news article. So do be on the lookout not just for the drumming and song writing of George Gray but also the up and coming news articles, clinics and videos based on "Exercise, Nutrition And Your Instrument".
The George Gray Project is a group of the finest musicians from New York that perform a wide range of music based on the stylings of smooth jazz, be-bop, hip hop, fusion, go go and various grooves to take you beyond the norm. There's much more to come so be on the lookout for this incredible ensemble that'll take you on a journey of many roots of the music with combinations and experiences as it was once known, quality music!
Blake Meister received his Bachelor of Music in jazz studies from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, where he received both the Richard Franko Goldman and Alice and Leary Taylor awards for performance, and his Master of Music in orchestral double bass at Catholic University’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, under a full-tuition scholarship. His upcoming debut album of original compositions, to be released in early 2012, features Gary Thomas, Paul Bollenback, Marc Copland and Ralph Peterson. He has performed professionally with various international artists, and was a semi-finalist in the 2011 Bucharest International jazz competition. He is a bassist for the American Studio Orchestra, and has also held positions of section bass in the York Symphony Orchestra and principal bass in the Prince George Philharmonic. He has performed at major venues in the United States, Japan and Singapore, including the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theatre and Millennium Stage, Shriver Hall and the Shaw Auditorium.
Also a dedicated educator, Meister serves on the faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music, teaching both major and minor lessons, as well as Jazz Improvisation I. He also serves as co-coordinator and faculty for the jazz department of the Peabody Preparatory, teaching piano, double bass, theory and an ensemble. He has been a recipient of the Peabody Faculty Development grant, in addition to multiple Career Development grants while as a student.
A native of Philadelphia, Mr. Meister began playing electric bass at the age of twelve, and later took up the double bass and piano while in college. Additionally, he is an active composer and arranger and speaks French.