“The Soloist” – David Benoit taught Jamie Foxx how to play

Ben Hong

La Philharmonic cellist taught "Soloist" star Jamie Foxx

“The Soloist” was the soloist at the Norris Pavilion in Rolling Hills Estates on Feb. 20. No, not Jamie Foxx. This was the REAL soloist, the guy who taught Foxx how to (pretend to) play the cello. He’s also the musician on the soundtrack of the hit 2009 movie about a wayward journalist (aren’t we all?) who discovers a shopping cart-pushing musical genius.

Ben Hong, who joined the L.A. Philharmonic in 1993 at age 24 (the youngest musician in the orchestra at the time), joined the David Benoit Trio, plus a couple members of the Asia America Symphony, for a concert Benoit described as “classics to jazz.”

As for Hong’s contribution to the movie, Foxx is quoted on the actor’s website as saying, “The guy who shows up to teach me how to play the cello is nothing like what I expected. I thought it would be a stiff guy. My guy is like a Ninja cellist. He’s a really fit, good-looking Asian dude, and he comes to my place with his cello strapped to his back. The first time he came, there were some ladies at my place. When he started to play, they just went all dreamy over him.”

Yeah, Jamie, the musicians get all the babes. The pretty girls want to date these tuneful souls; the smart ones avoid marriage. It’s the old adage: What do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless.

David Benoit, music director of Asia America Symphony Association (AASA) since 2001, said, “I worked with Ben Hong once before, about 10 years ago for an anniversary celebration for the L.A. Philharmonic and we hit it off, so this was our second time together.” Benoit is a five-time Grammy nominee for his contemporary jazz albums and has composed movie and television scores, most memorably the later Charles Schultz “Peanuts” animations.

“The Feb. 20 program was typical of our concerts; we ran the gamut from Bach to Benoit,” said Benoit, laughing. “We’re actually did some of the music from ‘The Soloist’… Another exciting work is the piece that was written for the inaugural of President Obama by John Williams.”

Added to Benoit’s trio for this concert were violinist Yun Tang and clarinetist Darryl Tanikawa, whose day job is executive director of AASA. David Hughes plays bass and Jamey Tate is on drums. “We had kind of a little chamber jazz group going,” said Benoit.

How is Hong’s jazz playing?

“It’s actually pretty good; he swings pretty well,” said the pianist. “It’s fun to get the jazz and the classical players together.”

Future performances presented by AASA include a concert this Saturday night at the Pavilion with Meg Okura (violin and er-hu).

“Meg is an up and coming violinist from Japan who now lives in New York and is a Julliard graduate,” said Benoit. “She’s a classical violinist who has moved into jazz. In fact, she just e-mailed me and asked if we could play ‘Freedom at Midnight’ [an up-tempo Benoit composition written in 1985]. That will be a lot of fun; she seems like she wants to rock out. She also plays the er-hu, a Chinese violin, a two-stringed instrument. When you hear it, you’ll think you’re watching a Chinese movie.”

On April 18, the full Asia America Youth Orchestra – another of Benoit’s joyful duties as director and conductor – performs at the James Armstrong Theatre in Torrance and will play a Benoit original entitled “Native Californian.”

The final concert of the season will be June 5 at the Japanese-American Cultural and Community Center in downtown L.A. “A Night at the Movies” features the full Asia America Symphony plus guest soloist Dave Koz. If you don’t know the name, tune in to David Letterman’s late night show. Koz is often featured as a guest soloist on saxophone.

“Dave’s my old buddy. He has charts for a full symphony, so he’ll be doing all the old movie standards; ‘Pink Panther’ and a lot of Mancini music,” said Benoit.

Where do you find all the great talent that performs with AASA and the Youth Symphony?

“Well, the word is getting out and people are sending players our way,” said Benoit. “Usually, it’s just referral. One of our young players will find another player, parents will call me. I’ve developed a bit of a reputation for working with kids, plus I have a lot of friends in the South Bay who are music teachers, like the Dietz brothers and others, who I went to school with at Mira Costa. You know me, I’m Hermosa Beach born and raised. I’ve been in this community forever.” ER


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