Ben Pruitt: A Legacy In Jazz And Education From Little Rock To Detroit

Feb 28, 2017

WEMU’s final Black History Month talk was with alto saxophonist and educator, Ben Pruitt.  He is now retired from The Detroit Public Schools, but not from music.  His Ben Friend’s Big Band performs regularly at the legendary Baker’s Keyboard Lounge and The Jazz Café in The Music Hall Center For The Performing Arts.  When Ben visited the WEMU studio, he shared his favorite music from Ray Charles, Hank Crawford, David “Fathead” Newman, and The Jazz Crusaders.  

These musicians were important to his development as a soloist and young improvising musician.   Ben also explained how young musicians can develop bad habits to compensate for instrument problems and why it is important to maintain your instrument in good working condition.

  Born in Little Rock Arkansas, Ben attended the city’s segregated schools in the 1950s.  Despite an inconsistency in teachers from year to year, Ben Pruitt persevered as a musician and received a college scholarship.   He began his professional career in Arkansas in 1961 after graduating from Arkansas Agricultural and Mechanical - now known as Arkansas-Pine Bluff.  After teaching in Arkansas where he conducted award-winning bands for five years at Walker and Columbia High Schools, Ben moved to Detroit in 1966. He directed the Detroit Public Schools instrumental music ensembles at Wilson Junior High (1966-1972), Henry Ford High School (1972-1987), and Cass Technical High School (1987-1999). In 1999, Ben Pruitt accepted the position of supervisor and director in the office of Fine Arts for the Detroit Public Schools.   Pruitt also toured nationally with the Joe Simon Rhythm and Blues Band led by international jazz legend Charlie Gabriel. In 1977, 1996, and 1999 The Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association named Ben Pruitt their Teacher of the Year.

  Ben’s students agree on his excellence as an educator.  Two of the outstanding trumpet players who learned how to improvise in jazz from Ben are John Douglas (now with Detroit’s Sun Messengers) and Dwight Adams – a national first call trumpet player.  Ben is also exceedingly proud of the student, drummer Ali Jackson, now with The Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra directed by Wynton Marsalis.   Ben Pruitt made significant contributions to music in Detroit as an educator and continues to do so with his Ben’s Friends Big Band.  He and his legacy are worthy of celebration.  We are grateful that Ben could visit WEMU to share his Black History Month story.

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— Linda Yohn is the WEMU Music Director, and host of 89.1 Jazz. On twitter @LindaYohn or email her at studio@wemu.org