Joel Benefiel plays pretty for the people

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By Debra Lyon-Dye

Funky bar, gifted jazz keyboardist, quiet night, regulars nodding approval. No crowd, no loudmouths, just music. It doesn't get any better.

Since 2003 Joel Benefiel has held court at the Island Hotel's King Neptune Lounge on Friday evenings. He has brought jazz greats from around the world, organizing Jazz & Blues concerts for local jazz aficionados.

Joel - solo, duet or trio - sharing a lifetime of musical experience.

Joel grew up in then rural Sarasota, riding horses and playing piano at the age of five. At age seven he was sailing on Sarasota Bay. His father was a rancher, cattle breeder and charter fisherman.

At Florida State University Joel majored in Piano and Composition, studying with Paul Ramsier. His formal education was cut short by the Korean War. He flew as a combat air crewman for four years as a Navy airman.

He returned home to Sarasota where he married, started a family, and built his own home. He was a brick layer and general contractor while trying to break into the music business.

Joining his parents in a move to Naples in the fifties, he supported his growing family by playing piano, laying brick, carpentry, and teaching sailing. "At that time, there were only ten thousand people in all of Collier County."

Then, a booking agency offered him work on the road; he had a jazz trio at the time. "My format was bass, piano and drums, as it has been most of my career." The trio played carnivals, Latin clubs, and venues from Sarasota to the Midwest.

Joel also toured Europe playing jazz at private and USO clubs, as well as doing Radio Free Europe broadcasts.

In New York City he signed with Joe Glaser's Associated Booking Corporation to play Florida's hottest spots. At that time the east coast of Florida was lined with the best hotels. Places where Johnny Carson and other stars frequented.

Later he signed a five year contract with the Sahara Corporation in Las Vegas. He was arranger, conductor and jazz organ player for a seven piece show. From 1962 to 1967 the show played all of the Sahara owned hotels in Vegas. "It was a great learning experience."

He left Vegas to go to Atlanta, hoping to return to college. Joel planned to study law at Georgia Tech. "They wouldn't accept my prior credits and I could feel life pushing me in the music business." Continue he did.

In Atlanta clubs he shared the stage with jazz greats such as Ramsey Lewis, John Patton, Miles Davis, and Jimmy Smith. "We were the house trio and they came every month and played for eight days."

In Atlanta Joel also began a career in the martial arts, studying and then teaching karate and Aikido. As a black belt he fought competitively until the age of 42. The mean age of his opponents was 21. "This was one of the most important times of my life. It was very humbling. I learned patience and humility. I learned the importance of the mind, body, and spirit trilogy."

In the early seventies Joel returned to Naples. He got his Captain's License, ran boats for charter fishing and had his own boat built. He went after big game fish in the Keys. "I fished during the day, played at night, and walked around half asleep most of the time."

In the eighties he sensed a change in the fishing business and expanded his musical career in the big hotels popping up around Florida. He played at the Ritz Carlton hotels for fifteen years. "I was lucky, I got to choose the personnel and it was first rate."

During his extensive career, Joel has played at many concerts and festivals, appearing with stars such as Tony Bennett and appearing on the Regis Philbin Show.

Finally, in 2003, Joel had "had enough of rude humanity" and he and his wife Kay traveled the Nature Coast until they settled on Cedar Key.

Joel took a sabbatical from music, walking, fishing and enjoying friends. One of those friends, Skip Drake, connected him with the Island Hotel and the rest as they say is history.

Future plans? Music, of course, and Joel and his wife are looking at a live aboard - to get back to the water. He is also taking the advice of friend and poet Carol Frost and writing his memoirs. "I asked her how? She said, S-T-A-R-T."

Should be easy for a man of so many talents.