BY AUDREY COLEMAN | FROM THE SUMMER 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Benny Chong and I are chatting amiably at Happa, the L.A.-area restaurant and music venue where he’ll later perform. My plan is to interview the 75-year-old jazz-ukulele virtuoso after the show, so I ask if I can video some of his set, especially his remarks.
“I don’t talk,” he replies. “I just play.”
During the first two sets, Benny sits on the side, clearly enjoying the ukulele playing of Bryan Tolentino, Herb Ohta Jr., and Steven Espaniola. When, at last, he mounts the platform with his ukulele in hand, the audience erupts in applause. From the front row, I watch him settle himself. He begins playing “Almost Like Being in Love.”
Quickly, brisk chords ornamented with single notes spell out the melody at a moderate tempo, and soon a rollercoaster of single-string picking zigzags across the fretboard of his baritone ukulele. Brows knitted, he is changing the dynamics from a bright mezzo forte to a pianissimo, then slowly and subtly, the song regains the previous volume. Occasional dissonant chords and percussive scratches inject a piquant flavor. Claps and whoops come from the audience as he vaults into a different key, presenting the song’s story from a new perspective. As he winds down, his fingers form chords mixing open strings with strings he’s stopped at higher frets. The original melody emerges, and after a few crisp chords, he lands a bull’s-eye on the tonic note.
He acknowledges the applause. “Thank you very much. I just love playing jazz, and the reason why is that the things I do in the ukulele solos are not rehearsed. I just play spontaneously…”
“You play from the heart right there. You make mistakes—that’s fine, but at least you tried something different. Sometimes you hear me go uh! It’s because it didn’t come out quite the way I wanted.”
This down-to-earth way of talking to the audience is such a contrast to the thrilling chord progressions and mind-bogglingly fast runs of his playing. Now, once more, he is easy-going Benny, sharing stories from his years of performing in Don Ho’s show. The job brought the group, known as the Aliis, high salaries, visibility, and star treatment, he says. “I was on the Johnny Carson show, Merv Griffin, television specials. We used to fly first-class, stay at the best hotels. Limousines would pick us up.” He pauses. “People ask me, ‘What was the best time in your life?’ and I tell them, ‘Now, because I’m able to play the music that I want!’”
Near the end of the set, he takes requests.
“Just the Way You Look Tonight!” someone shouts.
“Which way?” quips Benny. “You know, I do it two ways. I’ll play it in the swing style, but there’s another way I play it, a little more pop style. That’s how I play it for younger people—younger than me!”
As soon as he steps down from the platform, fans close in, holding up CDs and ukuleles for him to sign. I’m thinking that he’ll be ready to do the interview pretty soon. Wrong. Once the crowd disperses, Tolentino grabs Benny’s arm and nudges him toward the door. “He’s my ride,” apologizes Ben.
“We play at the NAMM show again tomorrow morning,” explains Bryan about the need to be ready for a morning performance at the music-industry trade show.
“We’ll do a phone interview, okay, Ben?”
“Of course he will!” Bryan replies jovially as they leave.
The next night, thankfully, I’m able to reach Benny in his hotel room in Anaheim. He says he prefers the baritone ukulele’s mellow tone to the brighter, higher-pitched sounds of smaller ukuleles. Also, the baritone is better suited to his large hands; he plays a Kamaka customized to fit his hands and fingers. Then, he explains his method of tuning his baritone. “I use reentrant tuning. I tune the baritone ukulele the same as the first four strings of a [six-string] guitar—fourth-string D, third-string G, second-string B, and first-string is E. But, the difference is that the fourth string on the guitar is an octave lower, and I tune mine an octave higher.”
This tuning on the baritone helps him move rapidly from chord to chord, he says. “When you see me play with my right hand on top of the fingerboard—you know, I put my thumb up there and I play two or three other notes depending which chord I’m playing: close-knit harmony chords or hands-spread-apart harmony chords, with the high D—I’m able to do that much easier.”
Benny’s turbo-speed chord transitions and extremely wide harmonic intervals on the fretboard surpass most players’ capabilities. “What I do on the ukulele, I develop techniques on how to play chords at a very rapid pace through experimentation and perseverance.”
His arrangements use offbeat chords and unexpected chord progressions. He may change the melody line slightly, but he never sacrifices the original melody. This approach enthralls listeners, especially when applied spontaneously during solos. “Most people are not thinking about orchestration when they play. They’re not thinking about how chords will fit in to the harmonic structure of that particular song. I do. I arrange it like I hear strings, horns, flutes, or whatever, yet it’s only the ukulele playing.”
Benny’s own talents as an arranger have roots in the music he listened to while growing up. When he was a young child, the family lived in the village of Kalia, where Waikiki’s Hilton Hawaiian Village now stands. “The hotel next to where we lived—before they built the Hilton—was called the Niumalu Hotel and I could hear all the Hawaiian music that they would play at night over there. It was pretty cool.”
His mother’s family sang Hawaiian songs in harmony. His uncles Kuki, Alex, and Francis arranged and performed traditional and contemporary Hawaiian music in their group, the Among Brothers. Each played several instruments and sang both solo and together in four-part harmony.
When Benny was 10, his parents gave him a ukulele, which he learned to play mostly at the beach. There, he watched older boys passing around a uke for each to play. They answered his questions and taught him basic strums and chords, a little about the notes, and how to tune his ukulele. From that point, Uncle Alex and Uncle Kuki coached him to an advanced level. “They were terrific ukulele players. Whenever we would visit them or they visit us, I asked a lot of questions. I used to draw the ukulele fretboard, filling in the notes on each fret on each string. Then I would ask something like ‘What is a C6 chord?’ I would learn that the C6 chord is comprised of four notes, which are C E G A. After months and months of playing, practicing, and learning, Uncle Kuki taught me my first song, ‘Prelude to a Kiss.’”
As a teenager, Benny spent hours listening to records of jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, keyboardists Johnny Griffith and Oscar Peterson, and guitarists Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, and Wes Montgomery. Although sometimes his uncles played ukulele with a jazzy flair, Benny didn’t have a solid concept of jazz ukulele. Not until his uncles suggested he listen to Lyle Ritz’s album How About Uke? It blew Benny’s mind. “His chord melodies sounded like an orchestra with strings or a vocal group singing in four-part harmony. His chord solos sounded like a brass or woodwind section taking a solo in harmony. It was jazz ukulele at a level no one had done before. I learned every song on that album, chord for chord, note for note, and stroke for stroke.”
His first paying gig came at 15, when he played ukulele with a trio that included a drummer and guitarist. During the next two years, he performed with two different quartets, though he was now playing bass, not ukulele. Then high-school buddy Rudy Aquino, already a professional vibraphonist, convinced him they should both join the Air Force after graduation. This would fulfill their service and qualify them to take college courses toward degrees. The plan propelled both their musical careers.
Arriving on the base, they learned that the Air Force Special Service Band was looking for a group of musicians to represent Hawaii. Benny and Rudy pulled in three other enlisted Hawaiian musicians and named their group the Aliis. [“Ali‘i” in Hawaiian refers to hereditary rulers.] Benny was the group’s guitarist, mainly because he didn’t want to play bass. In fact, he never had played guitar, but with an instruction book and his experience playing ukulele, he mastered it. After they successfully auditioned, the Air Force transferred the five to Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, DC, and they subsequently performed in officers’ clubs and at special functions throughout the USA. During this time, Benny appeared on uke proponent Arthur Godfrey’s show and even played the TV star’s ukulele.
During military leaves, he would return to Honolulu and take in a show of Hawaiian entertainer Don Ho. His Uncle Alex played vibraphone, and several times Benny was invited onstage to play guitar.
Don Ho invited the group to join his show when the Aliis finished their military service in 1964. They eagerly accepted his offer. They played Hawaiian music, pop hits, light rock, and light classical numbers. Don also expected them to entertain audiences with jokes and skits, a role they fulfilled with gusto.
The Aliis stayed with Ho’s show for four years and by 1969, the group was ready to build an independent following. They played to enthusiastic audiences for 20 years before breaking up. When the Aliis finally disbanded, Benny retired to a life of fishing and golfing to his heart’s content. About a year later, however, Don Ho asked him to return to the show, offering him complete freedom to hire musicians and vocalists and create arrangements. Benny agreed, not knowing that this would lead to his solo career playing ukulele jazz.
His gift for playing jazz on the ukulele would surface at parties and in limited gigs. When Benny eventually tried it on Don’s show, the audience went wild. Don asked him to play the opening 15 minutes of the show and, shortly after, to perform several ukulele numbers nightly.
Another opportunity opened up in 2000, when he performed in a concert series, “The Art of Solo Ukulele.” He was asked to replace Lyle Ritz, who had dropped out, but had requested Benny Chong. After performing in Honolulu with Jake Shimabukuro, Byron Yasui, and Gordon Mark, Benny went on tour with them to the other Hawaiian Islands. The concert series was also broadcast on television.
This experience led to his friendship with Yasui, a gifted ukulele and upright bass player— and Professor of Music at the University of Hawaii—who helped Benny learn standard musical notation and formal harmony. They have been playing jazz gigs together for a number of years.
Today, 75-year-old Benny Chong plays ukulele jazz and leads workshops all over the world. His students range from beginners to established musicians, and he tells them all, “What I look for in ukulele players isn’t how fast they can play and how showy they are—I look at their creativity. How do they think of the song that they’re playing? What you want to accomplish when you do an arrangement is what’s very important.”
A Lesson with Benny Chong
As we prepared this feature, Benny supplied us with standard- and baritone-tuned arrangements of two classics, “Chopsticks” and “You Are My Sunshine.” Chong created these exercises to give to students to practice making chord progressions. (Both are arranged for reentrant-tuned ukuleles, including Chong’s preferred tuning on his baritone, in which is switches the low D string for an octave higher.)