Houston's jazz scene lost one of its most venerable and visible figures when Ben "Scatman" Turner passed away late last month. The octogenarian was a fixture at area clubs for decades, first as a drummer and later as a patron and singer. His identity in the scene loomed so large that his mere presence in the audience gave a show credibility. If he got up on the bandstand and scatted a number or two, he brought the house down. Not bad for someone who wasn't really even a singer.
"When I was a little boy, I was at a house party with a piano player," Turner told the Houston Jazz Scene newsletter in 1995. "People were so happy.I knew then I wanted to be a musician. You can always be happy when you're playing music. And when you're laughing and smiling, you can't be evil."
Turner would spend as much time as he could making people happy through his music. Born in Marshall, Texas, in 1927, Turner moved to Houston when he was 17 to work in the local shipyards. A few years later, at the relatively old age of 20, Turner decided to try his hand at drumming. He taught himself. If he ever took formal music lessons, he never talked about them.
"He was primarily a fatback drummer," says fellow stickman Rick Porter. "Great beat. I used to call him Big Beat. When he played straight-ahead, he tended to have that R&B feel. He didn't have any polished technique. He didn't have a reservoir of technical facility or theoretical approach for concepts. It was all just listening and figuring out where licks would fit. He understood the nuances of different rhythms and had a sense of integrity about where the time was and how the rhythm should feel."
As a good-time, back-beat blues drummer, Turner played his share of striptease joints, which no doubt helped him develop a sense of flair and showmanship. He would tour with blues legends Big Mama Thornton and Jimmy Reed in the '50s, Junior Parker in '68 and even a version of the Ink Spots in the early '60s. But Turner stayed in Houston most of the time, even declining an offer to tour with Ray Charles: He had a daughter to raise in Houston.
While Turner had established himself as a solid blues drummer, he wasn't satisfied. He studied the style of Houston legend G.T. Hogan and other jazz drummers. Over time, he became a respected jazz stickman. "He was always really strong in the pocket," says Porter. "But that was his personality because he drove a meat truck during the day and played at night."
Eventually Turner became a first-call guy. When an out-of-town jazz act needed a local in-the-pocket drummer, Turner was always at the top of the list. When a local band needed a fatback drummer with a good-time feel, the leader called Turner.
Throughout his career, Turner played with several local jazz bands and enjoyed long associations with, among other Houston notables, Cedric Haywood, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and Conrad Johnson. But many remember him most for his long association with tenor saxophonist Arnett Cobb, a relationship that began in the late '60s when the two played for Haywood. Turner eventually became Cobb's primary drummer until 1981, when the former suffered a stroke. "He was the perfect drummer for Arnett because he had a real big swing feel," says pianist Bob Henschen. "That really accentuated all the parts of every arrangement."
Turner found his career halted by the stroke, which temporarily paralyzed his right side and left him without the use of his right arm. Many a man in his mid-fifties who had just lost his career would give up, but Turner had an indomitable will that separated him from his peers. Rather than fade into the shadows, Turner showed up at clubs -- not to play, but to listen and be a part of the scene.
"I was amazed that he would show up at every place," says Henschen. "All the places that jazz was played, Ben would get there. Even with the use of only his left arm, he was driving a car all these years. Just thinking about it is amazing to me."
Turner made his presence at jazz clubs known. "He'd sit right by the bandstand," says drummer Malcolm Pinson. "He'd have a glass of something, and he'd be keeping time with the glass on the table. Then one time he started scatting, started singing with the heads on different tunes. That's when we started calling him Scatman."
Ben "Scatman" Turner had found new direction as a singer. He didn't headline shows, but every night he was out and about. If he dug a band, he would scat a tune on the bandstand. The audience would scream. On rare occasions, he would sing blues tunes with lyrics. "God has a reason for everything," Turner told Jazz Scene in '95. "I was supposed to develop my singing."
Turner also would jump on the bandstand and play drums with his good arm. The playing even retained some of Turner's signature sound. "That, to me, exemplified what Ben's spirit was about," says Porter. "Ben was determined he was going to continue performing. He was a strong old cat. Ben would get up there on the stage, and -- let's face it -- it was mainly spirit and heart that were coming through, because he didn't have that much of a voice. He kind of knew it. He'd work out a chorus or two, but in the end it was just Ben's heart coming through. That was Ben."
Turner was more than a presence in jazz clubs, though; he was also a promoter of the music. His friends say he received two grants from the Cultural Arts Council of Houston-Harris County to present jazz concert series. The first took place last year, and Turner was scheduled to present another, the Pan-African Festival at Miller Outdoor Theatre, on May 27. That concert became a jam session dedicated to Turner's memory.
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"His local goal was to [present jazz] as often as possible," says Henschen. "He [wanted to] take his concept of jazz, which he felt was going to be lost on young people unless people went out and did education, and take some of the better musicians out to places like St. James Episcopal Church. His concerts locally had an effect on the audience. They were effective concerts."
Turner's ultimate goal was to take the concept nationally. Turner thought, Why couldn't the best local jazz musicians get together, tour the country on an arts grant and get paid to present the best Houston had to offer? "He always believed the birthright of a great jazz musician was to be paid," Henschen says.
The wake and funeral for Turner were held on May 25. In the tradition of jazz, a jam session took place at the wake for about two hours, and many of Houston's top names took part. "He would have enjoyed that because he was always trying to get all the guys together for one big session, and they did turn out," says Pinson. "Why does it always have to be at a funeral that guys get together?"
Reportedly hundreds of people showed up for Turner's services. He was interred at the cemetery where Cobb and legendary Houston bandleader Milt Larkin are buried. Turner is also survived by two grandchildren. His impact on the Houston jazz scene and on those who loved him will also survive.