Benny Golson: Setting Standards
“ I realize I'm one of the fortunate ones and it didn't have to be that way. ”
Great jazz artists have always set themselves apart in two areas: They display a highly developed degree of instrumental prowess, coupled with an unmistakably individual voice. Far more elusive, however, is that proverbial needle in the haystack: the jazz player who not only speaks with 'lan, but also composes his own distinctive material. One of the few remaining jazz luminaries to belong to this latter, more select pack is Benny Golson, known not only for his robust tenor saxophone stylings, but also because he composed such renowned standards as "Killer Joe," "I Remember Clifford," "Blues March," and "Stablemates."
Part of a distinguished coterie of musicians who came out of Philadelphia's thriving jazz scene during the '40s, '50s, and '60s, Golson remains a vital artist as he begins his 75th year. In preparation for a brief tour that brought him through the Northeastern part of the country, Golson took some time to chat by phone with All About Jazz from his home in Los Angeles.
All About Jazz: You know, you're just one of so many talented jazz musicians who claim Philadelphia as their hometown. Is there something in the water there that spawns great jazz players or what?
Benny Golson: I think it was just the time when all of us were born. We all had similar interests, just like everybody decides to go to the beach on the same day.
AAJ: Do you still have some ties with people in Philly?
BG: A few, but most of the ones that went on to come professionals left and came to New York City. A few stayed behind and will never leave, like Jimmy Oliver, a legendary saxophonist who's there for life. But I remember he inspired so many of us when we were starting off and he's still there.
AAJ: I know there's still a healthy scene there with guys like Bootsie Barnes.
BG: Yeah, Odean Pope I think still lives there and then there's John Swana. He's a fantastic trumpet player and it seems he won't leave, but he plays his brains out!
AAJ: Tell me about your influences as both a player and composer.
BG: I started out wanting to be a pianist and as I got into it I fancied that I wanted to be a concert pianist. That got a few chuckles in the ghetto, you know. But at 14, I heard the saxophone and my first influence was Arnett Cobb. I went to the theatre one day and I heard him play 'Flying Home' and that changed my life. Then after that, of course, it was Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, and then John Coltrane and I went through the ranks together.
As far as writing, I suppose that Tadd Dameron was my first influence. I was amazed at what he could do with a small number of instruments. Initially I heard him with Charlie Rouse on tenor and Fats Navarro on trumpet, but the way he handled that quintet was most unusual I thought. He was a master at writing for a small number of instruments. Then a few years later when I went out on the road with my first professional band he happened to be the pianist with the group, so there I was thrown right in with my idol. I could have easily sent him to the hospital for picking his brain so badly and he was responsible for really getting me started as a writer.
AAJ: For a period in the mid-'60s you spent some time in Stockholm.
BG: Yeah, I spent a few months over there and ran into some great musicians. Bent Arne Wellin was a great trumpet player and a great writer and I run into him every now and then. He writes great stuff and people never hear of him; it's such a shame.
AAJ: At some point you got involved in writing for television and movies.
BG: I thought that was going to be my lot in life. I began selling my horns, but something told me to hold on to one saxophone and a special mouthpiece and sure enough I came back. I ended up playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
AAJ: Do you still do some composing for films?
BG: Not much any more. The last thing I did was a four hour mini-series called The Sophisticated Gents. It had an all-star black cast and that was about ten years ago. But what's been happening lately is that these rap groups sample music and stuff like that and several of these groups have sampled my music and they have to give me 60% of it [royalties] and that was a phenomenon.
AAJ: Yeah, that seems to be a big thing these days and it's great that so much of your catalog is currently available.
BG: I don't take it for granted. I realize I'm one of the fortunate ones and it didn't have to be that way. You know, because a person doesn't 'make it' is not necessarily because he's not talented, but it's because he doesn't have the other element in the equation after the talent and that's opportunity. You have to have that. Without that everything is academic and you could spend the rest of the life playing in your bedroom. That's why I said I was one of the fortunate ones. I was thrown into some very advantageous positions.
AAJ: How do you split your time these days?
BG: I still write and I still play. I'm in Los Angeles about one month out of the year and I spend about five or six months a year in Europe playing festivals and such during the summer months.
AAJ: Most recently I read that you are finalizing a textbook and an autobiography.
BG: Actually the autobiography is finished and my attorney is trying get a publishing deal on it and I'm finalizing the text book by putting examples in so we'll see what happens with that.
AAJ: Who do you currently play with?
BG: It depends on who is free. I usually use Buster Williams on bass. I usually use Mike LeDonne or Mulgrew Miller on piano and Carl Allen is usually my drummer. If I have a fifth man it's usually Curtis Fuller on trombone or Eddie Henderson on trumpet or Randy Brecker or someone like that.
AAJ: In his later years organist Bill Doggett used to come through Cleveland a lot and I got to know him quite well. I remember at one point asking him if he ever considered cutting back on his schedule or retiring and he commented that he intended to keep playing up until the final moments. How about yourself, do you see a time when you'll retire?
BG: I feel pretty much the same for as long as I can. When my body tells me that I can no longer do it, then I have to listen. But now, it's obeying me pretty much. When I have to start obeying it, then it might be time.