Anyone who knows anything about the Berkshire music scene knows who Benny Kohn is. Arguably the best jazz pianist in the Berkshires and beyond, I first met Benny in 2008 when I was given the opportunity to play with a group of local jazz legends. I was immediately taken with his playing. The man behind the piano is truly spectacular. His natural talent and keen musical sensibilities grab the listener, his versatility and range unique and impressive. With ease, Benny drifts from genre to genre, from soloist to accompanist, from pianist to vocalist to bandleader, etc. etc. Just as spectacular is Benny the person, although he is considerably subtler than Benny Fingers. Sitting across from me at his dining room table on Hinsdale Road, with jazz playing softly in the background, was the exceedingly polite, dryly funny, always kind and humble person I have come to know over the years.
Benny grew up with his family on High Street Hill in Windsor. He first sat in front of a piano at the age of 6, after his parents picked one up at a local thrift shop. His late father and “great inspiration”, Ed Kohn, was a singer, a songwriter and a recording artist who taught him the basics. Benny was clearly very gifted and quickly began playing by ear. He began to take piano lessons and was inspired by teachers Rick Campion and Lori Anderson. He found that his efforts on the piano really thrived when he was not confined to a “method book approach”.
Benny attended local schools through high school graduation. He began at Windsor’s Crane Community School (with Mrs. Raymond and Mrs. Morris) and when the school closed in 1990 he continued at Berkshire Trail Elementary (“the kids from the east side went to the Cummington Schools”) then Nessacus and Wahconah. When Benny was nine years old, the family spent a year in China. He and his brother attended a Chinese elementary school where there was no English spoken at all. Both boys attended 1st grade classes, even though Benny would’ve been in the 5th grade and his brother in the 8th in the States. Ben learned Chinese quickly and began to serve as translator for his parents. He and his brother were “pretty much fluent” by the time they returned to Windsor. “It was a completely different lifestyle. We rode our bikes everywhere and were in a classroom with seventy other students. There were rarely any disciplinary problems and, if there were, the teachers were allowed to get physical, if need be. It was intense.” Benny took just a few piano lessons in China. “The approach was way too stern for me.”
The family was able to take only a few items to China with them. Among the things Ben chose to bring were three record albums: a record by Michael Jackson, a Beach Boys record, and one Blues Album by John Mayall. Benny feels the bluesy elements in his own playing today are a result of listening to that Mayall album so many times during his year in China.
Back in the States, Benny says that he never participated enthusiastically in the school music program, although he really enjoyed a chorus role in Wahconah’s production of “Grease”. As a freshman in high school he began to network with older musicians outside of the school. He and these musicians formed “jam bands”, and this is when he really began to hone his jazz and improvisational skills. One such band was called “The Becket Boys”. They would play at the “Becket Barn”, a historic building and a known spot where musicians would gather and play together, informally.
After high school graduation, he auditioned for and was accepted into the music program at Westfield State. He found this experience challenging because he “totally played by ear” but was required by the school to improve his music reading skills. When he was given the choice to study jazz or classical piano, he chose jazz, although he would’ve chosen blues if it had been an option. During these years he was greatly inspired by both the jazz and classical faculty at the school.
After leaving Westfield, Benny returned to Windsor and began to build his career in the Berkshires and the rest is Berkshire music legend history. He routinely performs locally and beyond with a very long list of other musicians and in almost every kind of venue and genre imaginable. In addition to his busy performance schedule, Benny teaches child and adult students in his home studio and composes and arranges music. He is also an accomplished singer and you may find him, under the radar, playing the acoustic guitar.
He keeps it interesting. “I am always mixing it up, working with different people, and learning new stuff.” He plans to continue expanding his composing and arranging skills and he would really like to continue to develop in different directions, to improve his classical playing and his sight-reading. He finds the music of Bach and other classical composers to be beautiful and interesting.
Benny’s favorite part of being a musician is the people he works with and meets. “Both the people I play with and the people I play for…there’s always lots of different types of characters, which is always very entertaining!”
How does he manage the anxiety of performing? Benny has developed a gentle approach to what was once a nerve-wracking tendency to be extremely self-critical. “You need to be able to let things go. Observe it, learn from it, and then let it pass.”
Brilliant, sincere, soulful…just like Benny.
More info about Ben Kohn: www.facebook.com/bennyfingersmusic/
—by Eileen Markland
[An excerpt from this piece is featured in the May 2019 Windsor Now & Then]
CURRENT BEN KOHN PERFORMING GROUPS
*Pittsfield Sister City Jazz Ambassadors - www.facebook.com/PittsfieldSisterCityJazzAmbassadors
*O-Tones - www.facebook.com/theo-tones/Berkshire Jazz Collective with Any Wrba – www.facebook.com/berkshirejazzcollective
*Misty Blues Band – www.mistybluesband.com
*Berkshire Bateria – www.sambaland.com
*Rev Tor Band – www.revtor.com
*Berkshire Big Band with Kyle Murray – www.facebook.com/berkshirebigband
*Rejuvenators – New Orleans Funk and Jazz
*Jazz with Paul Green – www.paulgreenmusic.com
*Samirah Evans – www.samirahevans.com
*Jack Waldheim – www.crazyjanerecords.com
*Wanda Houston – www.wandaworld.biz