MACUILXOCHITL: Five Flower,” the Aztec god of music and dance
By Francisco H. Ciriza
It is said that a man is known by the company he keeps. Nothing could be more true in the case of veteran Puerto Rican Latin Jazz guitarist, Eddie Benitez.
Eddie. Raised in a military family, at the age of ten, the aspiring guitarist was tutored by a friend of his father. The tutor? Andrés Segovia, widely recognized as a true Spanish Flamenco virtuoso; his name fittingly placed alongside Bach and Bethoven.
That same year, his family moved to the United States and settled in Brooklyn, New York. There, among other Puerto Rican transplants, Benitez recalls summer nights in the city where salsa music blared from neighborhood apartments, stores and nightclubs, but young Eddie honed his ears on theTop 40 as much as he did on the Lebron Brothers, Tito Puente, Joe Cuba.
By the late 60’s, Benitez was listening to the likes Jay and the Americans, Jimi Hendrix, Alvin Lee, Santana and doo-wop groups. At the age of 13, Benitez formed his first band, “Nebula”. This was key for another reason as well because it was the first member of his group Gregory Hernandez was a percussionist who would teach Eddie all about the clave.
“That’s the ever-present beat you can’t hear, but is ever so crucial to the music, “said Benitez recently from his second home in Arizona as he prepared to travel to San Diego for a rare appearance at Dizzy’s in Downtown San Diego (East Villiage).
By his fourteenth year, Benitez and Nebula would come to the attention of Fania Records via a high school competition of music bands. “We had played at battle of bands and had won them all... and at the south side of Brooklyn final, there were labels waiting for the winners,” recalled Benitez.
Benitez chose to go with the Latin-based Fania over other mainstream labels and recorded his first album, Night Life, that same year. The prodigy’s debut went on to be acclaimed by Downbeat and Latin New York magazines as one of the best ever Latin Rock/Jazz albums at the time. Singles from his “I’m So Sad” LP entered the Pop Charts and his “Night Life” LP would enter the Jazz Charts and becoming the major force in creating a large cult following on most continents. To date, Benitez’s second LP “Essence of Life” is a collectors Item selling at $400.00 or more for an original copy.
Eddie continued to be drawn in closer to the Fania family making his debut at Madison Square Garden opening for the legendary Fania All Stars and Tito Puente. Benitez and Nebula later bcame the first Latin artists to perform at the world famous CBGBs punk rock venue in New York where they were labeled a “Latin Punk Rock band”.
The Good breaks continued for the hardworking and talented Benitez allowing opportunities for him to perform and collaborate with such well known artists as Tito Puente, Mongo Santa-maria, Al Dimeola, Michael Walden, Billy Cobham, Stanley Clark and Charlie Palmeri among others.
As if he’d not proven the strength of his character with his business savvy, maturity, and sharp management of his early career, fate dealt Benitez two potentially knockout blows, cancer and later, a massive heart attack.
“I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease and spent a year in bed. Four months later, I still had pain in my back and legs. They said it was psychological. The survival rate is 60% for people at that stage, but I made it. The chemo back then left my fingers and toes numb. Sometimes it takes me about and hour before I am a point where I can play. Then I had a heart attack...”
Amazingly, he’s recovered from both and feeling as strong as ever.
“You know, doctor’s can tell by the damage done to the heart muscles if you’ve had a heart attack. When I go to the doctors and I tell them I’ve had one, they say it doesn’t look like I have. The damage doesn’t make itself obvious.”
These days, Eddie Benitez spends much of his time with his family between homes on the east coast and in the southwest. While at his home in Arizona, he often spends time with his friend, George Benson.
“Larry Graham gave George Benson my number...” said Benitez sounding more surprised at the oddity of the act rather than awe of the loftily regarded if not legendary names to which he was referring.
He and George Benson have lunch and they talk about music and spirituality.
“George is a very spiritual man who’s really taught me how to see life from a different perspective,” said Benitez, perhaps not realizing his own great level of spirituality and effect he’s had on others as Benson has had on him.
Eddie Benitez has also gone back to the music he loves and his band combining Latin, jazz, rock and New Age to attain a warm groove that’s not all that unfamiliar, yet unlike most anything you’ve ever heard.
Eddie Benitez with special guest Turiya Mareya and the Art of Peace Latin Jazz Ensemble, Dizzy’s 344 7th Ave San Diego California (East Village Downtown)
Tonight 9 pm. Tickets: $20.