2007 awardee Alan Benzie. Image: William Ellis.

Alan Benzie

I’m a jazz pianist and composer, and I’m very lucky to perform and record internationally in various bands, including with my own trio.

The story goes that my folks were watching something on TV, I think it was possibly a Mahler symphony. I must have been around 4 and apparently I sat in front of the TV, just totally mesmerised. The next day I was asking to play the violin.

They didn’t let me play straight away, but apparently I kept nagging! I eventually started when I was 8, with a wonderful Russian violinist, Lev Atlas, who taught me here in Glasgow. I think, as much as an 8 year old is able to have an idea of what they want to do with their life, music became something that I thought I would like to do with my life.

I wanted to be a violinist and a couple of years later I ended up auditioning for St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh – I don’t think I had fully realised at the time what that meant. We had gone to an open day, and I had just fallen in love with the place. There is something kind of magical about it, just tucked away in a corner of the West End and all that music happening. I still remember the impression that left on me.

I remember a few things about the audition. I was wearing my Jimi Hendrix t-shirt and, in fact, I’m pretty sure when they asked who my favourite musician was, I said Jimi Hendrix. This was an audition for a classical music school, so they asked “Anyone else?” And I think I said, “Not really”!

I got in though, and went to a place where we still did all the ordinary subjects but music was the reason you were there. It was a huge thing, a fantastic opportunity.

I’d only been playing violin for a couple of years, so I imagine they would have taken me more on musicality than on technical prowess. There were kids there who were very technically advanced or had been doing it since they were 2 years old, and I wasn’t quite sure what they saw in me at the time.

I’ve been asked if I could spot, looking back now, who was going to be successful, but I think there are so many factors that go into success beyond whether somebody is technically able, or even musical. Especially, I suppose, the way that the arts have gone in the last decade or longer. I think the things that might be the norm for artists to have to be capable of now, are different to what they might have been previously.

It’s not enough to be really good at your instrument. Perhaps once you could say, “I will just work hard at getting really, really good and then someone will pick me up and things will fall into place”, and that might have happened to a degree, but I think now you really have to be on top of so much more. You’ve got to be able to do that stuff yourself I think, self-producing for example.

I feel like my generation were probably some of the first ones for whom that became a reality in a big way. None of us were prepared for that. I don’t think we’re prepared for that even now to be honest, it’s not what we spend most of the time talking or thinking about.

I’m not entirely sure how I was seen then in terms of potential. I was constantly told that I had a future, but I think because I was less technically advanced than some of my peers, that was something that gave me a loss of confidence, so perhaps I didn’t go for it all out until I discovered jazz. I’ve also always been someone that’s interested in lots of different things, for example, I love sport. Even at school I probably spent as much time playing football as I did practicing! So I think I may have been seen as someone who was talented or musical, but who maybe didn’t work as hard as I could or should.

Having said that, I just loved it. I spent a lot of my primary years being bullied in various ways and being very aware that I was different, feeling that I was different I think. I used long words a lot, I’ve always been very short and classical violin wasn’t exactly a normal thing to be doing. I went to a wonderful primary school in Pollokshields, but it wasn’t like everybody was playing classical music or really engaging with that kind of thing. So to go to a place where everybody else did music, where that’s what they loved too, that was certainly a wonderful thing. That was great.

2007 awardee Alan Benzie with the Alan Benzie Trio. Image: Aiga Ozolina.
2007 awardee Alan Benzie with the Alan Benzie Trio. Image: Aiga Ozolina.

So how come I’m playing jazz piano now? There was always lots of different kinds of music on in the house. It could be classical music, it could be rock, it could be jazz, it could be funk, you name it and it was probably on in the house at some point, so I was open to lots of different things. And then at St Mary’s, a guy called Richard Ingham would come in to do jazz days once a month, and each year group would go together and they would get an hour.

It’s still kind of a mystery to me why the school was doing that, but I just loved that one hour. It was such fun and I think part of me may well have realised, though not in a fully conscious way, that I was very comfortable being pointed at and given my four bars to improvise in. I was more comfortable with that than maybe some of my more technically advanced peers, for whom it was just terrifying. But I loved it!

And Richard, he had this amazing energy and enthusiasm and I just really enjoyed that. That was definitely a big part of it with the jazz thing. And then one of the older guys in school played a bit of jazz piano, and I thought he was really cool, and he also introduced me to a band called EST, Esbjorn Svensson Trio. That was massive, that was huge.

So I started up my own little jazz quartet at 13 or 14 maybe, with me still on violin. I didn’t practice the piano, so I both feel a bit guilty and am incredibly grateful to my piano teacher, Margaret Wakeford, who stuck with me the whole way and who must have been tearing her hair out.

The combination of this older guy at school and EST and all that made me think, “Well, I want to do that, I want to do the piano bit”. So I kicked the very good piano player off the piano in my quartet, made him play trumpet (he was a very good trumpet player as well) and I played piano!

I wanted to have that role in the music, I think. I got to be interested in chords and how they are put together, the guy a few years above me showed me things and Richard was around once a month as well. I started skipping my classes to just turn up to jazz, as much as I could get away with.

I think it became the case that, as I became better at piano and jazz, it probably was useful to have me in the class to accompany people etc. But in the initial stages it was a bit naughty. It just totally took hold of me. Richard was encouraging in the sense that he had that great energy and enthusiasm and he would show me how to do things, but, early on anyway, he never suggested that I should be doing this with my life.

When I eventually decided I wanted to make jazz piano my main focus, not classical violin, it wasn’t well received initially. It wasn’t something that was considered an appropriate or a suitable career. I still remember my violin teacher’s reaction when I said I was going to make jazz piano my main thing. She said, “But what will you do?”.

I told my folks that I wanted to pursue jazz piano and they were very supportive in helping me convince the school that I was serious about it, and to let me do it as my main instrument. I know now that they spoke to Richard, and he described my piano playing at that point as rudimentary at best!

I suppose, looking back, I can see why everybody had their reservations and it was definitely something I got quite a bit of flak for. There were a few upsides of that as well though, as the school hadn’t really had the experience of someone making jazz their principal focus, to seriously want to study that. So they went, “Well, who do you want for a teacher then?”. I had had a couple of lessons by that point from a brilliant jazz pianist called Steve Hamilton who was just fantastic. He’s still a bit of a hero of mine. So I asked for him, and they went, “OK”. I saw him every two weeks for two hours, as opposed to every week for an hour. And then I practiced really hard in between.

Once the jazz thing hit me you couldn’t get me away from the piano, though I was still playing football a fair bit! I practised a lot. There were a few people kind of saying that I couldn’t do it, and I thought, “I’m going to show them”.

There may have been a part of me that felt I had something to prove, but I was mostly just obsessed with mastering the sounds I was hearing. I desperately wanted to know how to make those sounds. Steve was a great teacher, I learned so much from him and he really inspired me a lot, as did Richard.

"There are a lot of outside factors that make it difficult for people: those might be economic or social factors, they might be lack of opportunity. You’ve also got to look for help, which is a surprisingly hard thing to do sometimes."

I went to see EST live 4 or 5 times – every time they were in Scotland I was at the front, or as close as I could get! And I think they kind of thought, “Oh, it’s that wee guy again”. I met Esbjorn Svensson quite a few times after the concerts, and he always took the time to speak to me, to answer all my dumb questions, and he was such a lovely man. He even gave me the handwritten original chart for one of his tunes, from when he’d composed it on the piano and written it down. He just ripped it out of his manuscript book and gave it to me. I’m sure I’ve still got it somewhere – I bloody hope I have! So that was definitely huge for me as well. And now, if people want to talk to me after a gig, I always try and give them my time, as that’s what Esbjorn did for me and it meant so much.

I would also get to go to Steve’s gigs that he was doing in Edinburgh. He’d get me in on the door to see him play live quite a lot, which I think was really important. And later on, Mario Caribe, the bass player, also ended up teaching at St Mary’s. I don’t remember quite how it happened, but there started to be a little cohort of us and I was sort of chivvying folk along to rehearse and stuff like that all the time.

Mario was the one that told me that I should go in for the Scottish Young Jazz Musician of the Year Award, which I hadn’t intended to enter. Steve also recommended me for Tommy Smith’s Youth Jazz Orchestra which was definitely an endorsement, although I probably still wasn’t quite ready when I joined.

I think Tommy must have seen something worth keeping as I did get into the band. I had no idea what the hell I was doing though! The story of that is quite good. Tommy had asked the pianist at the time to send me the music a week before, and he just didn’t bother. My sight-reading was pretty poor, and my piano skills were still technically not that great, so I ended up getting the charts from Tommy himself the night before the gig. I still remember the sheet of paper with his calligraphy pen writing, I was terrified! I mean, I looked at some of them and thought, “There’s just no way.”

So I turned up for the gig (no rehearsal!), and for a good number of the charts I just got totally lost and stopped playing for large chunks. Tommy would be saying to the sound guy, “I can’t hear the piano, turn the piano up”, but it was just that I wasn’t playing anything. And then I would find a bit where I knew where I was, and go “Oh, great” and start banging away, and then Tommy had to shout “Turn it down!”, because the sound guy had turned it right up and it was far too loud! It happened a few times throughout the gig, though I only heard what had happened afterwards – I was totally oblivious to it during the gig! So that was terrifying – Tommy just had high expectations and if you weren’t making it, then you got told you weren’t making it.

I can only assume that he saw something in me though, because I was in the band for a good while. That was a very formative experience, definitely.

Another very formative experience was getting to play a regular gig on a Sunday at the Jazz Bar in Edinburgh. I had gone to a jam session there and met Bill Kyle, who owns the Jazz Bar and plays drums for a lot of the gigs there too. He asked if I wanted to play on a Sunday, and I said “Great, which Sunday?”, and he said “Every Sunday”! That gig really helped me to get my stuff together, and I ended up playing the Saturday night sometimes, or even getting to play with some of the top Scottish and International guys. Bill has always been incredibly supportive and helpful, it’s so great for the scene to have someone like that around. Again, a lot of these things I kind of fell into.

For some people, regardless of their actions, the opportunity isn’t there, and that’s a real obstacle. But I think because the opportunity was there, I was able to carve out a path to an extent. I was passionate about it, I think I worked quite hard at it and I was willing to give things a go even if they were scary. I did need a bit of prodding when I didn’t believe I was good enough for the Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition or to apply for NYJOS, things like that. With the competition I just assumed there was no way I would possibly win, and then ended up winning it, strangest thing. I actually still sometimes feel that I shouldn’t have won that night. The guy who I actually wanted to win, he won one of following years, so I was very pleased about that!

I think it would be pretty hard to win something like that just as you are about to leave school, and not think, “You know, maybe I’m kind of doing ok.” And the Dewar Arts Awards came in at this point. I had decided that I wanted to pursue jazz at the best level that I could, and the place I most wanted to go was Berklee College of Music. Tommy went there, Steve went there and many of the top jazz musicians in the world went there, so obviously I wanted to go too.

I wouldn’t want to underplay the help that I had from various people. At that age, I wasn’t good at organisational and research things so my mum was a big help. My teachers too. But I suppose to the extent that I was very passionate about it and made that very clear, you could say that that bit came from me definitely.

But Berklee didn’t just feel unaffordable, it was unaffordable. I mean there was no way. It was someone in St Mary’s that did the nomination, and as I say, Berklee would have been impossible without Dewar. That’s for sure.

2007 awardee Alan Benzie.
2007 awardee Alan Benzie.

The Dewar Arts Award allowed me to go to one of the top environments not just for jazz, but also for contemporary popular music making in the world! There is no doubt that it is one of the special places on this earth and I’m so lucky that I got to be a part of that. I do also look at it as a Scottish person who got to be a part of that. I think I kind of take Scotland with me in various ways, as a representative of Scotland if you will. I remember being asked lots of times, “How did you learn to play like that in Scotland?” There was this assumption, like how could that happen in such a tiny place? I think that’s something that I’ve kind of been conscious of ever since, not only having an identity as a musician or an artist, but also as a Scottish person.

It’s not always at the forefront of my mind, but it’s definitely something that does influence the way I think about things as a whole. Scotland has a big impact on me, the landscape definitely has an influence on the music that I write.

It’s absolutely in no way a nationalistic thing, but there is a kind of, I don’t know if pride is the word, but a connection with Scotland. That sounds obvious, but I do feel that this is my home and that it’s what made me who I am today.

Having just won the BBC Young Jazz Musician thing just before I hit Berklee, I’m not sure I thought I was great, but I think I kind of reckoned I was doing alright – well, obviously I was doing alright! But I hit Berklee and realised just what was out there. It was very interesting, and that was very much a two sided thing, because on the one hand, I went “Oh my goodness, look what’s out there, it’s pretty terrifying” but on the other hand, in the same way that I did going to St Mary’s, I felt I had found somewhere that I belonged.

It was really like a fish to water. I mean I love Scotland and I like home and all of that, but even on holidays I didn’t want to come home, I wanted to stay in that environment. To see that first hand, to meet other students from all over the world, who were not just doing jazz, but all kind of things, and different ages, from 16 to people in their 60s. I don’t know how different it is now that we have more ready access to YouTube and all that stuff but even at that time, which was just before that really exploded, you couldn’t really see that range unless you actually saw it for yourself.

In Scotland, you can’t easily see this incredible Czech pianist, you can’t see that amazing drummer. To be honest, even though you can see lots of things online now, it doesn’t compare. Being in the same environment as them and talking to them about music, practicing with them, being in the same classes with them, it’s a kind of irreplaceable experience. There’s absolutely no disrespect to smaller courses, and in fact there are some things that are very good about smaller courses, but I was in there with at least 20 jazz pianists that were really good, in fact probably more. Not two, three but 20, 30 people who could really play. They also have a very effective structure in place for how they educate all these people of different styles and stages, and the teachers are really good.

I was there for four years, and Dewar supported me throughout that time, which was just fantastic. I was also quite lucky that I won the Berklee Billboard Award, one of the major awards there. Some of the people who have won it in previous years are people that I was listening to on records, so it’s a crazy thing. I got the email, and it said, “Congratulations you’ve got this Billboard Award”, or something to that effect. I looked it up and the first thing I did was send an email back – I don’t remember if I actually sent the email but I remember composing the email that said, “Thanks very much for your message, I think you’ve maybe got the wrong person”.

But it turned out they hadn’t. It was definitely really helpful winning that, because number one, it gave me some opportunities in my fourth year at the college itself, and number two, it did help back here to a certain extent as well, as some of the papers picked up on it and it led to some nice things.

When I finished my final year, I came back to Scotland – of course, a lot of my peers went to New York and stuff like that, but if I’m honest I’d kind of had enough of the America thing at that point. It’s funny coming from the classical world, where jazz as a whole was sometimes not seen as appropriate, and then to experience a part of the jazz world where some people were saying, “You can’t do this, you can’t do that, this is jazz and this isn’t jazz”.

So I came home, and loads of things happened. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been able to go lots of different places and make music, and a lot of that has been through connections I made at Berklee, friends I made at Berklee. In fact, in my current trio, the drummer is one of my best friends from Berklee and now lives in Vienna. I know people all over the world now, and if I was in such and such a country I could probably pick up the phone and go “Hey”. That’s definitely another one of the special things about Berklee, the global thing.

I never thought I would get to go to so many different places making music. Some of it has come from me if I’m doing a tour, but some of it has just been luck. We ended up going to Poland because I went to see my friend’s gig in the Blue Lamp in Aberdeen, and this guy came up to me and said “Oh, you’re Alan Benzie aren’t you? Do you want to go to Poland?” But the Berklee connections are so often there one way or another, for example, when I’m in Japan I’ll play with my Japanese friends from Berklee. I do stuff with them quite a lot.

I think I do feel more like I’m an artist now, but I only felt like I could say that relatively recently. I think a wee while before making my first record, that’s when I felt had something to say. Ever since I won the Young Jazz Musician in 2007, when I was 17, people were going ‘Right, where’s your record?”, but I didn’t feel ready until more recently. The album was released Summer 2015.

And all that time, I was like, “I’m not there yet, I don’t have anything to say. I might have some skills but I don’t have an actual artistic vision”. To be honest, even while I was at Berklee, that may have been starting to form, but it was still mostly just practicing, jamming, getting information and trying to distill that. But I also think I kind of needed to live life a little bit, experience some ups and downs, to go to different places, see different things, and also give myself permission to do things the way I hear them.

I would say now I feel like I have things to say and things that I want to do. I don’t really know how to put it eloquently. I suppose I kind of feel in the last two years, all of that stuff – Scotland and St Mary’s and Berklee – has coalesced into one thing, at least for now. I would add that the influence of Japan has been very strong as well.

You have to pursue your talent. I think it can actually be difficult to allow yourself to love something in a deep way, enough that you’re willing to take an emotional risk. It applies to anyone’s life path in terms of what you want to do.

In terms of being a young artist, maybe you need some support, but you need to allow yourself to love it completely, let it consume you. You’ve got to try not to put a limit on where you go and what you do. Of course there are some people who already have limits imposed upon them but at least try not to impose them upon yourself, be it artistically, politically or socially.

And there are a lot of outside factors that make it difficult for people: those might be economic or social factors, they might be lack of opportunity. You’ve also got to look for help, which is a surprisingly hard thing to do sometimes.

I was very lucky to be in a very supportive environment that led me to the Dewar Arts Awards and it was transformative. There are various bodies and grants around the country that cater to various things, be it an instrument or money for a course, or various things like that, but I feel that Dewar has had, and I hope that it continues to have, a very special impact in facilitating the areas that aren’t covered by those other bodies.

So it may be that I could go to a certain trust and get money for an instrument or something like that, or maybe Creative Scotland later on, but at a particular point when you’ve got someone who is dead serious about their art, even as a young person, and they want to take that to the highest level that they possibly can, I feel like that is where Dewar comes in. It’s got the ability to help really talented young people make the absolute most of their potential and I think that’s really important for Scotland, for the artistic scene in Scotland as a whole – that really talented kids who are really serious about giving it a go, can have the opportunity to pursue these things that they could not otherwise afford. I think that’s a very unique kind of position for the Dewar Awards to be in and it certainly transformed my life.