A critic once remarked of David Benoit after hearing a Greek Theatre concert by the best-selling jazz pianist: "Doesn't this guy have any Angst in his life?"
Benoit, a favorite on radio's KTWV ("The Wave"), makes no apologies for creating upbeat music. His music, he says, "is a reflection of my own life. Which is pretty positive."
Benoit is best known for playing jazz fusion, but he also has had one of the largest-selling traditional jazz albums on the charts, "Waiting for Spring." He also has made his mark in big band, has written the music for the Charlie Brown specials since 1985 and has even dabbled in rock 'n' roll.
On Sunday, Benoit ventures into new territory when he debuts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Palos Verdes Peninsula Music Fair. He will conduct a symphonic jazz rendition of his composition "Carmel." He wrote the piece for a documentary of the same name, a collaborative project with Clint Eastwood about the seaside city.
"By and large," Benoit said, "I've lived a charmed life."
But Benoit's acclaim did not come overnight. From the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s, he plunked out cocktail tunes on his portable piano at bar mitzvahs, weddings and private parties, even while enjoying star status in the Philippines, playing there with full orchestras in 3,000-seat halls.
Back in the United States, though, he was just another lounge lizard doing private parties to pay the bills. He says the first private party he played after returning from the Philippines was really difficult. When he arrived at a Brentwood home to play, the owner was horrified at the prospect of him carting his piano through the front door. She showed Benoit the back door and told him to stay in the kitchen "with the cook and the help" until it was time to play.
Benoit chuckles at the memory. "I was playing in a house that was probably no bigger than the house I live in now in Palos Verdes."
Benoit is a longtime South Bay resident. He moved to Hermosa Beach with his family when he was 6 so his father could study psychology at USC. His two younger brothers became star athletes and surfers. Benoit, who described himself then as "quiet, shy, really thin, not athletic," had a difficult time before he discovered music. While the rest of the family talked about sports, Benoit played piano.
"Music rescued me," he said. For the first three years of high school, "no one paid attention to me. Music was perfect for me. It solved my problems." In his senior year, Benoit wrote the score for his school's production of "Tom Jones." The show's success put him in with the in-crowd, he said. After that, "people had a feeling I was going to make it."
And he did. With two Grammy nominations to his credit (for his jazz album "Every Step of the Way" and his work on the GRP jazz label's all-star album) and international acclaim, the only thing left to conquer, it seems, is a few critics. "I've had a love-hate relationship with some of them," he said. "Either they get it or they don't.'
Regardless, Benoit plans to continue moving forward. He recently agreed to score the music for the upcoming Clint Eastwood film "The Stars Fell on Henrietta," starring Robert Duvall. And he plans to continue working more with symphony orchestras and maybe move into conducting, he said.
"I want to grow into other areas, continue to experiment, try different things. That's what I aspire to do: Do all kinds of music. Keep exploring."