Jazz musician and composer David Benoit is photographed at his Palos Verdes Estates home on May 14, 2009. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Palos Verdes Peninsula High School

Hermosa Beach native David Benoit and his rise to fame as a jazz pianist

David Benoit is a man of many talents. His jazz albums can be found in record stores as near as Hollywood Boulevard and as far as Manila, Philippines. His voice can be heard every morning on KJazz 88.1, the number one jazz radio station in the nation. And his repertoire consists of film scores, orchestral conducting, accompaniment, and solo piano.

Benoit remains one of the most prominent jazz pianists in today’s music industry and is credited for shaping Los Angeles’s smooth jazz movement from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Over the years, he has released 25 studio albums, performed at The White House for three presidents, conducted both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra, been nominated for three Grammy awards and composed several film scores including “The Stars Fell on Henrietta.”

Placing his accomplishments side-by-side, one may be quick to assume Benoit was some sort of child prodigy; playing piano since age seven (the age both Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans began classical training), composing short symphonies at age 10 (as did Benjamin Britten) or given a recording contract at age sixteen (like Ritchie Valens). But unlike these young celebrities, Benoit’s story begins in a familiar beach town, home to some of the South Bay’s best waves and the popular Lighthouse Cafe nightclub: Hermosa Beach, Calif.

Jazz musician and composer David Benoit photographed at his Palos Verdes Estates home on May 14, 2009. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

In 1960, Robert Benoit, along with his wife Betty and their three young boys, moved from Bakersfield to Hermosa Beach so he could earn his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Southern California. The family rented a small house on Longfellow Avenue and lived the typical beach town life: morning surfs, weekend strolls down The Strand, late nights on the Hermosa Beach Pier. It wasn’t long before Robert’s youngest sons, Dan and Phil, grew addicted to the Southern California beaches. They surfed nonstop and became involved with school athletics.

Robert’s eldest son, David, was different.

“I was quiet, shy, really thin, [and] not athletic,” David explained in a Los Angeles Times interview. “I wasn’t good at sports, I wasn’t good at school.”

So in 1966 when the Benoit family purchased their own piano, David, who was now 13 years old, gravitated toward it. While he loved the piano, David was no Mozart. He was unable to read sheet music and played most songs by ear, but the piano kept him company while his brothers were out catching waves. Eventually, David’s parents signed him up for music lessons, and after a few years, he joined Mira Costa High School’s band.

David’s musical debut mirrors that of many high schoolers; Mom and Dad sign their kid up for music lessons, and the child goes on to play with his or her school band. But here’s where Benoit begins to distinguish himself from these young musicians: instead of viewing music as an extracurricular activity, David turns the piano into his main study.

“In high school, I was playing piano all the time,” he said. “When I got home from school I would immediately start practicing, or I would ditch class to play the piano.”

Benoit could not wait to get his hands on the piano keys. When the school band room and home piano no longer amused him, Benoit frequented local jazz clubs. At the time, there were two prominent jazz clubs in Hermosa Beach: The Lighthouse, only an eight-minute drive from his home, and The Polynesian Room, a fifteen-minute drive south.

He spent a majority of his weekends playing gigs in jazz clubs, and while the constant jam sessions hurt Benoit’s report card, they helped expose him to different musicians on the local jazz scene. Benoit remembers one teacher telling him: “I don’t think algebra is your thing. You should go into music.” And that’s exactly what he did.

“I don’t think algebra is your thing. You should go into music.”

A few years later and Benoit, age 18, is still striking the piano keys, but this time professionally. Los Angeles nightclubs hired him for hours at a time, and he dropped out of El Camino College to pursue a career as a background entertainer.

“I used to have a gig down in Orange County where I would be up all night playing Top 40 songs,” Benoit explained. “I played six nights a week, five sets a night.”

This added up to 36 hours of consecutive playing each week.

“I remember I would be driving home and falling asleep in the car,” he said.

Benoit continued to live and breathe jazz clubs. He frequented The Parisian Room in La Brea, known for famous artists like Big Joe Turner and Ella Fitzgerald who performed there.

“The Parisian Room was primarily African American so I was the only white guy in the entire club,” Benoit recalled. “But it was here where I learned how to play real jazz.”

Benoit also spent a lot of his time at Donte’s in North Hollywood.

“Donte’s was where all the straight-ahead bebop players would play after a long day’s work in the studios,” he said.

These jazz clubs, all of which are now long gone, exposed him to different styles, techniques and musicians. By the time he turned 21, Benoit had the experience and training needed to be successful. However, he was still searching for an opportunity to propel his career, and according to Benoit: “It all came down to being at the right place, at the right time.”

The place was Silvery Moon Studios. The time was 1975, and Benoit was nearly twenty-two years old. He was driving around Hollywood one day when he passed by a studio with the words “Silvery Moon” printed in bold across the front door. Being the curious man that he is, Benoit parked his car and walked right into the studio without prior invitation.

“They had this really beautiful Steinway,” he recalled. “I asked someone if I could try it out, and he said ‘Sure, just start playing.’”

Then, in the middle of his piano session, Richard Baskin, film composer and son of Baskin-Robbins co-founder Burt Baskin, entered the room and told Benoit: “I like the way you play. I want you to play in this movie that I’m doing.”

Benoit accepted and within a few weeks, he was working with Baskin on the music for Robert Altman’s “Nashville.” The film’s success was the opportunity of a lifetime. He was signed to his first record label, AVI Records, and went on tour with singer Lainie Kazan as her personal pianist and music director.

Unfortunately, his first records failed to gain popularity and his repeated work as a sideman was hurting his solo career. It wasn’t until 1981 when Benoit got a surprise call from his manager that his path truly changed as a musician.

“It all came down to being at the right place, at the right time.”

“They want you to play in the Philippines,” announced David’s manager via a landline. At this point, Benoit was confused. “Who am I opening for?” he asked. “And what’s the name of the club?”

Turns out, David Benoit was the act, and he was invited to play for three nights in a concert hall alongside a full orchestra.

“Basically what happened was I had a hit record in the Philippines that I didn’t know about called ‘Can You Imagine,’” Benoit explained.

Before Americans even knew Benoit’s name, Filipinos praised his music and sent a limo and paparazzi to greet him at the airport.

“Traveling to the Philippines was a life-changing moment for me because that’s when I realized this is what I should be doing,” Benoit said. “It confirmed that I wanted to be an artist, work with orchestras and make my own music.”

Shortly after his Philippines tour, Benoit left AVI Records and signed as a solo artist with GRP, a label he stayed with for 17 years and produced three Billboard-topping albums, including “Freedom at Midnight and Waiting for Spring”.

From there, Benoit’s career excelled — completing film scores, conducting orchestras, hosting radio shows — turning him into the man we know today.

Today, Benoit continues to perform, conduct and compose music in Los Angeles. Benoit’s extensive career has established him as a jazz music authority, and while his music can be heard far and wide, his roots will always trace back to the Mira Costa High band room and the hole-in-the-wall jazz clubs of Hermosa Beach.