Benny Golson: Along Came Benny

Greg Thomas BY

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If the ear accepts it, that's it! You can iconoclastically set those rules to the side.
Benny GolsonBenny Golson, tenor saxophone stylist and jazz composer of first rank, refuses to rest on his laurels. At almost 80, he's an elder statesman of jazz who could easily cruise and live off the royalties of "I Remember Clifford," "Whisper Not," "Along Came Betty" and others among his 300 compositions. But such a notion is anathema to him.

"At this late date, I still find music to be an adventure. There are things that I haven't done yet. I don't want to look at what happened, I want to look at what's coming up. When I wake up, I intuitively ask myself, what can I discover today that I didn't know about yesterday? That makes it an adventure. And jazz is all about improvisation. Nobody comes to hear the melody chorus after chorus; after the melody, they want to know what you've got on your mind. What is your impression of this tune? What feelings do you get from it?"

Listening to Benny Golson speak, whether waxing philosophical or musicological, sharing hilarious stories or recounting difficult periods, induces feelings quite similar to those his tunes evoke. He's dignified, eloquent and melodic and evinces a graceful humility and down-to-earth manner. He's one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. But according to his long-time pianist Mike LeDonne, Golson's modest demeanor belies the fact that he's also a genius.

These attributes of spirit, mind, and voice were honed in Philadelphia, where Golson was born on Jan. 25, 1929. He began playing piano at nine, desiring to become a concert recitalist. But at age 14 he heard Texas-born tenor saxophonist Arnett Cobb perform "Flying Home" with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and the piano began to pale. His mom, always supportive, had financed his piano lessons and when he asked for a sax, she obliged, paying by lay-away.

By 16, he was participating in practice sessions with other notable jazz apprentices of his generation: pianist Ray Bryant, trumpeter Johnny Coles and saxophonists Jimmy Heath and John Coltrane. Many of those sessions took place in Golson's living room in Philly. On one occasion, he and Coltrane were listening to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker records after being told that their gig had been called off...an hour-and-a-half before the hit.

"I was in high school and we had a job with one of the local big bands, Jimmy Johnson and His Ambassadors. My mother comes in and asks, 'Why do you have those long faces?' We told her our gig was cancelled. 'Nobody cancels a gig that close to the job! I betcha they're playing without you.' I can still hear John, with his naiveté, say, 'Oh no, Mrs. Golson, they wouldn't do that.' She says, 'Look, if it were me I'd go up there and see.'

Benny Golson

Sure enough, the lads discovered that their spots had been taken. "We walked home and John says, you were right, Ms. Golson. She saw we were in such pain that she came over and squeezed us and said, 'Don't worry baby, one day you all will be so good that they won't be able to afford you.' We didn't believe it.

"Years later, we're playing at the Newport Jazz Festival and John was in the tent warming up on his soprano. He had just recorded My Favorite Things (Atlantic, 1960) with his quartet. And Art Farmer and I had formed the Jazztet. Suddenly he took the horn out of his mouth and started laughing. He said, 'Remember what your mother told us? Well those guys are still in Philadelphia and we're here!"

After high school Golson attended Howard University in Washington, DC, where, in the late '40s, jazz was not tolerated. He couldn't even play his saxophone at the audition, only clarinet and piano. In less than three years he left Howard in disgust. (Ironically, Howard honored him a half century since and has established a scholarship in his name.) He had already begun to compose and his attitude about the musical rules his teachers were trying to impose was, "Well, can't you break the rules if that helps you accomplish what you're trying to achieve?"

One of his most famous songs, "Killer Joe," is a prime example. (The title of the song refers to a composite of various pimps Golson witnessed in the major cities to which he traveled.) Unlike the common five (dominant) chord to one (tonic) chord progression, "the dominant didn't go back to the tonic. I went from the sixth to the tonic. Now, everybody knows that tune. If the ear accepts it, that's it! You can iconoclastically set those rules to the side."

He left Howard University, moved back to Philly, got married to his first wife and worked music gigs on the weekend. During the week he drove a truck and even got a job in a lampshade factory for extra money. Benjamin "Bull Moose" Jackson, an R&B singer and saxophonist, brought his band to town and needed a sax man. Golson began touring with the group, which had pianist Tadd Dameron, drummer Philly Joe Jones, trumpeter Johnny Coles and bassist Jymie Merritt (whom a few years later Golson brought into Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers along with fellow Philly men Lee Morgan and Bobby Timmons).

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.

In August, 2008 Golson introduces a new group, Benny Golson's New Jazztet at the New York club Smoke and will go into the recording studio directly thereafter to lay down a series of new tunes and arrangements. The New Jazztet features Golson on tenor sax with Eddie Henderson (trumpet), Steve Davis (trombone), Buster Williams (bass), Carl Allen (drums) and Mike LeDonne (piano). In addition to composing a fresh arrangement of Sonny Rollins' "Airegin" and his own "Come Back Jamaica," Golson intends to test out arrangements of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," a portion of an opera by Verdi and even a song by DeBarge, an R&B group big in the '80s.

Why would a senior giant of jazz saxophone and composition take such radically eclectic risks? "Creativity never retires. Anybody who's worth his or her salt never says, I've done this and I've done that—now I'm finished. Music is open-ended; there is no end to it. Hank Jones put it this way: 'The horizon is always ahead.' That's right. It's perpetual. You want to go on, you don't want to stop."

Selected Discography

Art Farmer/Benny Golson/Jazztet, The Complete Argo/Mercury Sessions (Mosaic, 2005)

Benny Golson, Terminal 1 (Concord, 2004)

Benny Golson, One Day, Forever (Arkadia Jazz, 1996-2000)

Curtis Fuller, Blues-ette, Pt. 2 (Savoy, 1993)

Jazztet, Moment to Moment (Soul Note, 1983)

Art Blakey, Moanin' (Blue Note, 1957)

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Berbera van den Hoek

Bottom Photo: Belltown

Featured Story: Ed Newman

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