The Jazz Philosopher: Ben Sidran

[photo courtesy Pierre Darmon]
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Jazz is filled with wonderful vocalists who sing songs of love, heartbreak and romance, but that’s not Ben Sidran’s bag. 

The 74-year-old belongs to a subset of jazz vocalists that includes the late Mose Allison as well as current performers Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough.  They might best be described as world-weary hipsters, whose songs are can be a mix of melancholy and mirth, filled with wry observations about life and more than an occasional pointed jab at sacred cows from all fields.

Sidran said about 20 years ago he realized the wanted to tell stories that had nothing to do with love songs.

“I wanted to sing songs that had a kind of a humorous but philosophical platform,” Sidran said.

Sidran feels “Picture Him Happy,” which is the title song to his most recent recording, is a good example of what he’s trying to achieve.

“It’s a song about Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill. The philosopher Albert Camus said if you want to understand the myth of Sisyphus, you have to be able to picture this endless frustration of never getting to the top of the hill as part of the man’s understanding of being alive and hence, being happy with your life.  You can’t change what happens to you, but you can always affect how you feel about it.  That struck me as similar to what (tenor saxophonist) Johnny Griffin once said: ‘Jazz is music made by and for people who have chosen to feel good in spite of conditions.”

Sidran feels this kind of songwriting ties back to an early time in jazz.

“In the 1940s and 50s, jazz musicians were part of an intellectual community. Jazz musicians are not just technicians, they play from a point of view, not just a personal point of view, but a world point of view. They were part of a larger arts scene.  For example, in New York City, jazz musicians  would be hanging out with painters, philosophers and sociologists.  To me, that’s the real jazz tradition.  The jazz life has historically been part of this much larger rich cultural milieu and that’s where I’m coming from,” Sidran said.    

Ben Sidran and his quartet, with special guest saxophonist Richie Cole perform at Nighttown in Cleveland Heights, Thursday at 8 pm and Friday at 9 pm.


Hear Ben share his experiences of hosting the popular NPR series “Sidran on Record.”





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