Jazz Profile: Ben Bjorlie

Ben Bjorlie Photo: Frank Zipperer

written by Eddie LeShure

“Ben Bjorlie is one of those rare guys who is comfortable playing any style of music, be it funk, bop, Latin, swing, big band, you name it — always with great feel and sensitivity. But regardless of the genre, he always maintains his own “voice” on the instrument — the sign of a great player. And most important, he is a gentleman, balancing the demanding life of a musician, wonderful father and husband.” ~ Rick Dilling, drummer

Growing up in Charlotte, Ben Bjorlie was exposed to music early on with his parents part of the Charlotte Symphony for nearly 30 years — his mother Carol a cellist, and his father Leo a bassist. Ben started out on clarinet in the 5th grade and eventually moved on to the bass clarinet. He was selected to play in the Charlotte Youth Symphony, all-state bands, plus the National Honors Band in Chicago directed by Frederick Fennell. Then Ben received a scholarship to study clarinet at UNC-Greensboro.

“I got my introduction to drums by playing on the drum line in high school marching band, and at 13 started borrowing my dad’s early 70’s fender jazz bass and amp. I had no idea at the time how lucky I was! My dad had some great Stanley Clarke records that really put the bass in the forefront of the music and inspired me to search out other adventurous bassists like Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bootsy Collins from Parliament Funkadelic, and eventually Victor Wooten. I started playing bass in clubs well before I was old enough to legally get in.”

Ben moved to Asheville in 1997 and started playing bass in bands and freelancing around the region. It is also when he got his first drum set. “In 2003, I went back to school at Appalachian State University to finish my music degree where I studied percussion with Dr. Robert Falvo and jazz drumming with Rick Dilling. I also took lessons with Charlotte area bassist Ron Brendle. Returning to Asheville, I began playing professionally on both bass and drums.

“Currently I’m involved in many groups in the area including two weekly gigs: The Thursday Alien Music Club jazz jam at Barleys on drums (over 2 years), and bass on the Tuesday night funk jam at Asheville Music Hall (over 5 years). I’m lucky to be working with a wide variety of groups like The Asheville Horns, Bayou Diesel, David Zoll Trio, Montuno Salsa Band, The Rhythm Serenaders, Ram Madlekorn Trio, The Archrivals, Crybaby… as well as fronting groups under my own name.”

“Ben is an exceptionally gifted musician with the rare ability to drive a band equally well on two different instruments in any style you throw at him. It’s terrifying if you ask me!” ~ Michael Davis, drummer

I asked about influences. “Philly Joe Jones was huge early on as I listened to those famous Miles Davis Quintet Prestige recordings. I got to see Elvin Jones and that was an eye opener, as his elasticity of time keeping and explosive approach to jazz contrasted Philly Joe’s elegance and understatement. Despite their differences, both of these guys swing like no other!

“Nowadays I keep coming back to Lewis Nash for his ability to support the group sound. He solos very musically and manages to display top notch technique without drawing too much attention away from his band mates. That’s the way I aspire to play.”

While Ben was at Appalachian State University, Johnny Carson’s former drummer the late Ed Shaughnessy came and performed. “I hung out with Ed for a few days, picking his brain about technique and on the last tune of the concert, he called me up to the stage. Though we hadn’t rehearsed, I got to trade solos with him. He gave me some sincere compliments and advice I still draw from today.”

“Ben’s the bomb! Just when you think you know how good he is he takes it up another notch. And he’s humble as can be. It’s always good news when Ben’s on the gig!” ~ Jonathan  Pearlman, guitarist