Benny Barth, musician and local treasure, was born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1929, becoming a song-and-dance man by the age of four. He took up the trumpet but soon left it behind when he noticed that the girls liked him better as a drummer. Benny received a music scholarship to Butler University where he played the best black jazz clubs in the city. To this day, he is the only white member of the Bebop Society of Indianapolis. When the group met at Benny’s house, they would gather in a circle with their arms around each other, each scatting two choruses of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Hooly Koo”. In this segregated city, neighbors would prance by, shielding children from the sinful sight.
He became part of the Mastersounds that were signed by World Pacific Records in the late fifties. They were hot, playing at the Blue Note in Chicago as well as the original Birdland in New York. These boys had hit the national scene.
Benny Barth and the Mastersounds played at the first Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958 (and later at its 50th anniversary) and the Newport Jazz Festival the following year. If you ask Benny for his favorite recording, he might just say “Stranger in Paradise”. After the band disbanded, Benny was in the Fillmore District of San Francisco when it was known as the Harlem of the West, playing at Jimbo’s Bop City and the Blue Mirror. He was also a regular at the Tropics on Geary, Basin Street West, Jazz Cellar in North Beach, and the Coffee Gallery. Many music enthusiasts remember Benny as the house drummer at the Hungry i. For several years there, he backed up Mel Torme, Barbra Streisand and John Hendricks.
Other artists that Benny has played with are: Duke Ellington, Dizzie Gillespie, Vince Guaraldi, and Peggy Lee to name just a few. Benny also worked with Wes Montgomery, the greatest jazz guitarist who ever lived and a major influence on Benny’s career.
Benny made his initial trip to the redwoods in 1977 when he strutted his skills at the first Russian River Jazz Festival. A few years later he met his soulmate, Diane Cosgrove. They soon married in a swinging ceremony under the trees that featured the seventeen-piece Rudy Salvini Big Band (over two hundred musicians stepped in for a song or two). Thank you, Benny, for sharing your talent with us. Cheers!