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date: 07 May 2021

Benford, Tommy [Thomas Phoenix]free

  • Brian Peerless
  • , revised by Howard Rye

Updated in this version

updated and revised

(b Charleston, SC, April 19, 1905; d Mount Vernon, NY, March 24, 1994). American drummer, brother of Bill Benford. His full birth name appears on his handwritten 1942 draft registration card, which also gives his birthplace as Charleston, West Virginia. His mother died when he was young, and after his father, aunt, and uncle ran into personal difficulties they sent the brothers to the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston, South Carolina, where they received their musical education. These circumstances may account for his confusion over his birth state, which appears as South Carolina in available censuses. After leaving the Orphanage, the brothers joined a minstrel band, moved to New York in the early 1920s, and played with various groups, including that of Elmer Snowden. Tommy performed (for two or three years) and recorded (1926) with the pianist Charlie Skeete and worked with Jelly Roll Morton, contributing to the latter’s classic recordings Kansas City Stomps and Shreveport (both 1928). From around 1928 he was a member of his brother’s band.

After working with Edgar Hayes for several years he went to Europe in 1932 with a quintet led by the clarinetist and alto saxophonist Sy Devereaux; he performed and recorded there with Coleman Hawkins (1937), Eddie Brunner, Bill Coleman, and Eddie South (all 1938), in a duo with Joe Turner (i) (1939), and with Willie Lewis (1938 – September 1941), with whose band he returned to the USA from Lisbon. Following his return he played with Noble Sissle (1943) and Snub Mosley (1946–8) and in a band led initially by Bob Wilber (autumn 1948–1949) and later by Jimmy Archey (1950–52). During the 1950s he worked as a freelance musician with numerous leaders, among them Rex Stewart (1953) and Muggsy Spanier, after which he toured Europe in the revue Jazz Train, directed by Eddie Barefield (1960–61); he recorded with Linda Hopkins while in Switzerland (1960). In the 1960s he worked mainly in New York; in 1963 he played with Joe Thomas (iv), Edmond Hall (in Boston), and Danny Barker. He was at some point a member of the Saints and Sinners, and during a period of semi-retirement worked with Franz Jackson (December 1968). He then played and toured with Clyde Bernhardt’s Harlem Blues and Jazz Band (1973–9, 1981) and with Bob Greene’s World of Jelly Roll Morton (1973–4, 1982). The Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers, holds the Tommy Benford Collection (1937–92), including correspondence, memorabilia, and photographs.

Selected recordings


with J. Turner: The Ladder/Loncy (1939, Swing 71)

with D. Wellstood: The Stride Piano of Dick Wellstood (1954, Riv. 2506)

As sideman

J.R. Morton: Kansas City Stomps (1928, Vic. 38010)

Shoe Shiners Drag/Shreveport (1928, Vic. 21658)

Little Lawrence (1930, Vic. 38135)

C. Hawkins: Crazy Rhythm (1937, Swing 1)

Out of Nowhere (1937, HMV K8511)

E. Brunner: I Double Dare You/Montmartre Blues (1938, Swing 30)

B. Wilber: Limehouse Blues (1949, Cir. [USA] 1064)

S. Bechet: I’m Through, Goodbye (1949, Cir. [USA] 1059)

R. Stewart: Dixieland Free-for-all (1953, Jzt. 1202)

C. Bernhardt: Sittin’ on Top of the World! (1975, Barron 401)

B. Wilber and K. Davern: Soprano Summit (1977, World Jazz 13)

D. Hyman: Music of Jelly Roll Morton (1978, Smithsonian 006)


  • J. Chilton: A Jazz Nursery: the Story of the Jenkins Orphanage Bands of Charleston, South Carolina (London, 1980)
  • P. Carr, A. Vollmer, and L. Wright: “Have Drum, Will Travel,” Sv, no.100 (1982), 124; no.111 (1984), 105
  • W. Balliett: Jelly Roll, Jabbo and Fats (New York, and Oxford, England, 1983), 45
  • B. Franklin: “Tommy Benford: a Short Talk,” Cadence, 16/9 (1990), 13
  • Obituary, C. Hillman, JJI, 47/7 (1994), 20
  • D. Griffiths: Hot Jazz from Harlem to Storyville (Lanham, MD, 1998)
  • B. Franklin V: An Encyclopedia of South Carolina Jazz & Blues Musicians (Columbia, SC, 2016)
Jazz Journal International
J. Chilton: Who's Who of Jazz: Storyville to Swing Street (London, 1970, rev. and enlarged 4/1985)