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Artist Profiles

Benny Golson: Along Came Benny

By Published: August 21, 2008
Dameron became a huge influence on Golson's writing. Duke Ellington's compositions and Count Basie's arrangers were significant too, "but Tadd was actually showing me things at the piano. He did an arrangement for Duke and he let me copy it, because I wanted to see what he was doing."

From 1953 through 1954 Golson performed with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, there meeting Art Farmer, Clifford Brown and Quincy Jones. Then, following a few years with Earl Bostic—a technical saxophone master—he got a call from Quincy Jones to join Dizzy Gillespie's band. That year, 1956, began a period of creative fecundity for Golson. His writing and compositional talent began to be recognized. Coltrane had joined Miles Davis, who needed a tune for a Prestige record label date. For Miles, Golson gave Coltrane "Stablemates," a song that refers to a jazz club in Boston called the "Stables" and musician friends from that venue. Instead of the usual 8- or 16-bar sequence, it goes to the bridge after 14 measures. "I ran into John on Columbia Avenue in Philly and he told me Miles dug it so much that he recorded it! Miles validated me. That got me started as a jazz composer."

On tenor sax, Golson was swayed by Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas and Lucky Thompson; Golson's robust, harmonically-rich sound apparently appealed to Art Blakey, who slyly convinced Golson, by this time a New York resident, to go on the road with him in 1958. Golson became the musical director of The Jazz Messengers, contributing tunes such as "Blues March" and "Just By Myself." Golson also convinced pianist Bobby Timmons to write a bridge for a hip ditty that became "Moanin,'" which became a massive hit for the group.

Benny Golson

Timmons returned the favor in an extra-musical way. The Jazz Messengers had a gig in the Spotlight Room in Northeast Washington, D.C. Timmons had met a woman, who wanted to bring a friend. So Timmons asked Golson if he would say that the friend was with him.

"So I went to the door, and she came in, but I really didn't pay attention because it was kind of dark. I went on about my business. When I got up on the bandstand, I happened to look down at her. I said, Oh my goodness! My legs turned to rubber; I had to lean against the piano. I asked Bobby, 'Who's that over there?' He said, 'That's the girl you let in!'

"When I got off the bandstand I said: I've never seen anyone before like you. You think I could have your phone number? She said, 'Well if you want my phone number, you can look in the phone book.' I said to myself, she thinks she's cute. I'm not going to bother with her. The next morning I was in the phone book! Then she invited me to her house, and I met her mother, and others. She had friends who would say, you're going to take up with a jazz musician? Most of those people are divorced, separated, and my wife Bobbie and I are still together after 50 years."

However, there were tough times along the way. After his short but fruitful tenure with Blakey he put together an ensemble, The Jazztet, with Farmer and trombonist Curtis Fuller. He began studying with Henry Brant, who had orchestrated Spartacus and Cleopatra (with Elizabeth Taylor) and is a 20th century pioneer of 'spatial music.' Several friends in Los Angeles—Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson and Leonard Feather—began imploring him to come west. In the mid '60s he did and ended up penning themes and scores for M*A*S*H, Mission Impossible, Room 222, The Partridge Family, Mannix and more. But not at first.

As a composer, Golson didn't want to be pigeonholed in Hollywood as a jazz guy or simply as an orchestrator, so he stopped playing the saxophone and even turned down an offer to orchestrate Gordon Parks' The Learning Tree. "My wife thought I was crazy," but he wanted to compose not just orchestrate, which makes "a hero out of other people and my name would never be up there... I wrote the comedy things, over at Paramount. Wrote dramatic stuff, mood stuff, love themes with a big string section."

Benny Golson "But before then, man, my nest egg was going down like an elevator out of control. At that point everything was in the pawnshop: my horn, cameras, Bobbie's jewelry and furs. It took me two years to get started. See, I had to pay rent. I had this house up on a hill, a pool; the whole back of the house was glass, upstairs and downstairs were beautiful. I was scared to death. But then I started to make the money. When things started to roll it was okay."

After a decade or so he got tired of that scene and routine, so Golson came back north, picked up his horn, honed an oblique and rhythmically unorthodox style on tenor sax and began making gigs again. One such gig was quite special: a cameo performance and appearance in Steven Spielberg's 2004 feature film, The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks.

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