Giants of Jazz: Legendary Musicians Bring Their Unique Fusions to the Stage

Jazz greats Herbie Hancock and George Benson (centre couch left side) — seen here in a 1982 group photo with fellow legends Wynton Marsalis (left), Bobby McFerrin, Ron Carter (right side, centre couch) and Joe Henderson (right) — are among the headliners at Toronto's TD Jazz Festival, which begins June 23 and runs for 10 days. Photo: Chuck Fishman/Getty Images

Canadian jazz fans are rejoicing after it was confirmed that two of the greats, Herbie Hancock and George Benson, will take the stage at Toronto’s TD Jazz Festival this summer. Pianist and keyboardist Hancock, 83, has had to cancel shows in Toronto twice, due to the pandemic.

Hailed as one of the greatest guitarists in jazz history, Benson, 80, returns to the festival after an 11-year absence, with a program of “iconic cuts from his legendary albums.” Both performers have pushed the boundaries of jazz, adeptly fusing pop, soul, R&B and hip hop into their sound, over their respective six-decade-long careers.

Chicago native Hancock was a child prodigy: He performed Mozart with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at 11 and switched to jazz in high school. He has contributed standards such as Watermelon Man, Cantaloupe Island and Maiden Voyage to the canon. Hancock is also credited with the first jazz-hip hop song, Rockit.

His album, River: The Joni Letters, a tribute to Joni Mitchell, won a Grammy for album of the year and another for best contemporary jazz album in 2008. The 14-time Grammy recipient and Oscar winner is bringing an all-star band with him, including trumpeter Terence Blanchard.

Benson, born and raised in Pittsburgh, played with Dexter Gordon and Frank Sinatra before achieving crossover success as a singer with 1976’s pop smash “This Masquerade.” He also recorded the original version of “The Greatest Love of All” for the 1977 Muhammad Ali biopic The Greatest (famously covered by Whitney Houston in 1985) and is renowned  for his 1978 version of “On Broadway.”

“Fundamentally, groove is at the root of so much of their music, no matter how innovative or experimental they are,” said TD Toronto Jazz Festival’s artistic director, Josh Grossman, of each musician’s enduring appeal. “Regardless of knowledge of jazz or musical education, all kinds of audiences can just groove along to their music … and those seeking a deeper musical understanding can always find it.”