Few artists can be credited as being the best-selling artist in any genre. Instrumentalist Ben Tankard is one of the few who can. In this particular genre, loved by its supporters, but rarely supported by radio, gospel jazz is a merging of two distinctive and highly-expressive forms of music, both of which were born from a struggle unique to African Americans.
Ben Tankard is noted as the pioneer of the gospel jazz "movement". The Verity/Sony/BMG recording artist - with 16 projects under his belt - is a mainstay as a Stellar Award winner in the Instrumental CD of the Year category with 10 Stellars to his credit. Also to his credit is the discovery of one of gospel music's finest and best-selling vocalists, Yolanda Adams. Even more amazing is his testimony of receiving his musical gift at a revival when he was placed at a piano, anointed with oil, and then asked to play - which he did. Now, decades later, Tankard has secured a spot in history and has introduced instrumental Christian music to those who never knew it could exist.
Tankard, in this interview, speaks about the genre he loves, what the future holds and how after almost 20 years, God is still making his dreams come true.
Andrea R. Williams: What's your take on gospel jazz artists and gospel jazz music in the industry?
Ben Tankard : Right now, I believe it's still an artist-driven industry as opposed to a genre-driven industry; it's still a stand-alone genre. If you were hosting a Marvin Sapp or Donnie McClurkin or Yolanda Adams concert and said, "We're going to have a gospel jazz artist come out on stage before Yolanda Adams", you would probably get booed off the stage. But if you said, "Hey, how about 20 or 30 minutes of Ben Tankard?", you would probably hear cheers. The name they appreciate more than the genre itself.
ARW: Do you think that people don't understand the term "Gospel Jazz"?
BT: I think what confuses people is the word "gospel". We, as God-sent musicians, try to maintain our Christian approach even though our style is smooth jazz. Angella Christie's music usually focuses more on hymns, but you could listen to my music right after Jeff Lorber or Kenny G. Because I am a Christian - God gave me the talent, I've never been professionally trained - I decided that I would always give the credit back to Him and keep the word "Christian" or "gospel" in the name so that people could be drawn back to Him. I think when we say "Christian Jazz" people appreciate it, but when we say "Gospel Jazz", people's eyebrows go up and they say "What's that?" Wayman Tisdale is well-respected. But then again, he's known as a "smooth jazz artist". As a matter of fact, my new album is called "Smooth Worship Café'". I'm coming with a new name and I own a website named Smooth Worship. Maybe we can get more acceptance for the younger guys who are coming behind so when we say "Gospel Jazz", it's not a term that finds them shooting themselves in the foot.
ARW: From what I've seen, it seems that Smooth Jazz stations are disappearing nationally. Where I live, in D.C., we lost our station and it's now only available on HD. Why do you think that's happening?
BT: I think people like the music; it has commercial appeal. You know, I've heard that some people watch the Weather Channel just to listen to the music. So people definitely like the music. But I don't think there's a profit being made by the advertisers. It always comes down to the dollars. So although people like the music, it's not enough to keep the stations going.
ARW: It seems with a large fan base, it would be able to sustain itself...
BT: There is a big fan base. And I would think it would be self-sustaining as well. My fan base is quite sophisticated. In fact, my whole ministry is geared from taking people from the middle to the top. I don't have a ministry that is really accepted or appreciated by the homeless. Kirk Franklin's ministry is for the underdog and people who are going through, i.e., The Fight Of My Life . But a lot of my fans are Republicans - people with 6 cars, 4 houses and a yacht. You would think with buppies and yuppies, it would sustain itself, but it's not. And what you said about the stations is something that I've heard 3 or 4 times in the last few months. It seems like an epidemic.
ARW: When it comes to Christian jazz, it doesn't seem like the genre is easily inserted into the playlists of most contemporary gospel stations. Do you think that's an accurate assumption?
BT: Yes, I would say that's a very accurate assumption. We are blessed to get airplay on smooth jazz stations. I know that my music is instrumental and the gospel stations may not embrace it. They may play it behind commercials, behind funerals, behind prayers, but in terms of hearing, "Now that was the latest CD from Ben Tankard, Let's Get Quiet", just being honest, you just don't hear that. Outside of what my record company does, I hire a smooth jazz radio promoter for 8 weeks at the top of all my releases. And he plugs all my music into all the smooth jazz stations. I get into the top 10 and I got as high as number 6 on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Chart. But that's because I intentionally went after that. There are a million smooth jazz café' programs, but with gospel, there's gospel, contemporary gospel and that's it. If I pop up on the Richter scale, usually it's because I charitably included a song on the album with someone who is singing. Stations played the vocal cut because I had Shirley Murdock singing "Jesus Is Love". Or I will pick something where Yolanda [Adams] is singing, but in terms of playing the instrumental track, they usually don't play it. But I did do a rendition of Al Green's "Everything's Gonna Be Alright" and they played that a lot.
ARW: What can gospel jazz artists do to bring the genre into the mainstream?
BT: The only thing that's going to make a change - it has to come from the record companies (who are dollar-driven, not ministry-driven) - someone has to break out of the pack...like Kenny G's "Songbird" and it has to sell 5 million copies and win two GRAMMYs. Then every record label in the world will look for their own gospel jazz instrumentalist to duplicate that success. And the dollars that the label will put behind that artist to promote them will be the foundation that the genre stands on. It will have arrived - not because they like the music so much, but because there are other artists that have sold millions of copies. That's the only way it's going to happen. And I don't mind being that guy [chuckles]. I don't have a gold album yet. My best-selling album sold 360, 000 copies. But I do have 15 gold albums and 6 platinum albums being involved with other artists such as Yolanda and Take 6. But I am still looking for my own.
ARW: I know you mentioned the GRAMMYs, but it seems with the Stellar Awards, there aren't many entering records in the Instrumental CD of the Year category. How can we encourage artists in that genre to get more involved and submit their material?
BT: The Stellar Awards are plagued with not enough entries. I have won 10 Stellars and there have been times when I had to wait on the sidelines for 2 or 3 years because I was the only entry. The Stellar Awards said they couldn't say, "Ben Tankard is the nominee and Ben Tankard is the winner" so I had to wait. I have been doing this for about 19 years now with 16 releases, usually about every 18 months. But there have been years that I wasn't able to win because I was the only entry. There have been others who have done it on their own, Hubert Powell, Bryant Pugh, very talented guys. I have been blessed; I have a fan base that isn't driven by radio airplay. My fans buy my product whether they've heard it or not. Almost everyone who comes up to me after a concert says, "Man, I have eight of your CDs". I have been very blessed. I have worked hard, too, and kept my shoulder to the wheel. I'm not one to get into arguments with my record company; whatever they don't do, I do. It's a marriage.
ARW: Tell me about your upcoming project.
BT: Let's Get Quiet did very well. The record label, Verity/Sony/BMG, is such a good partner of mine. They say "here's half of the money, bring us another album and when you're done, we'll give you the other half". They also say, "Take a year [to record the project], if you want to". I recently started on the new record called "Smooth Worship Café'". I will be turning it in before Christmas and it will probably release around Easter. Right now, it's just an instrumental project. But I ran into Regina Belle at the Stellar Awards and asked her if she would be interested in singing on my project and she said that she would be honored. The project will be more of the same, but more hymns and more worship this time. It's still going to have that smooth jazz style.
ARW: Any final thoughts?
BT: You know, for 18 years, I pined about not having made it in the NBA. I got injured when I was in NBA camp. Every season, I'm in the dumps thinking, "Man, I could have been in the NBA". Well, I got a call from the NBA a little over a year ago, and they said, "We've been looking for you." They wanted to hire me to produce motivational music to pipe through the headphones of the players while they're practicing. So I still ended up being an NBA employee. It allows me to be a blessing to the younger players. I've been a good husband, father, pastor, musician, and artist for 18 years and God still found a way to give me my dream.