Benny Golson and Curtis Fuller Jazz in Our Time
The Kennedy Center, Millennium Stage
Washington D. C.
March 7, 2007
The Washington, DC metropolitan area is a curious town for the avid jazz listener. Only one club attracts nationally known musicians on a nightly basis, and it has seemingly altered its booking policy to focus on more commercially viable acts that do not attract the "purist." As a result, some of the most attractive venues are outside of the traditional listening context. For example, the Smithsonian's IMAX Jazz Café offers music each Friday evening for a nominal cover charge. However, the audience is an odd collection of office workers seeking to unwind with a few drinks, groups of children, tourists who mistakenly wander in, and young couples on an awkward early date. The jazz listeners gather in front of the stage, hoping to hear glimpses of brilliance over the incessant chatter. Nevertheless, the intrepid booking staff attract many wonderful artists, and for $10 and no minimum one can enjoy Mundell Lowe, Bucky Pizzarelli, Jimmy Bruno, Houston Person or Scott Hamilton in a four hour stretch.
The Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage is another odd venue, offering free performances each night at 6:00 p.m. in the Grand Foyer, where local performers and national acts perform classical, bluegrass, rock or jazz. Those on their way to other performances, tourists, and the merely curious usually comprise the audience, though the space is also utilized in conjunction with ongoing festivals attracting a more homogeneous crowd. The Kennedy Center's Jazz in Our Time, for example, was an 8-day event earlier this month, honoring and showcasing mainstream jazz artists.
As part of that series honoring jazz greats of the past, last Wednesday evening the Millennium Stage featured an event billed as Benny Golson and Curtis Fuller. Rarely does one have an opportunity to hear these legends together in Washington, if at all, so I left work early, making the arduous journey from one clogged highway to another halted interstate and arriving at the show with less than two minutes to spare. One should always expect Golson to act as the amiable raconteur, and he fulfilled such expectations wonderfully; his effervescence and exuberance were palpable, inviting each listener to shareif only for an hourhis exceptional joy of living.
Golson started with "Whisper Not," his 1956 composition which, like many other examples of his work, has entered the jazz pantheon. His tenor tone was round and very "present," slowing my pulse immediately with the recognition of a much loved instrumental voice. His low blasts served as a prelude to subsequently skipping arpeggios, leading to a floating melodic line. Trombonist Curtis Fuller contributed his characteristic incisive articulations which, if I had been closer to the stage, would surely have changed the part in my hair. Pianist Mike LeDonne, making a very rare Washington appearance, displayed his best McCoy Tyner sound, with right handed runs and left-handed block chords propelling the group. Drummer Carl Allen, though in the background, literally beamed, making it apparent he was enjoying himself.
Golson introduced the second composition with a story, explaining that in 1950 he "wanted to leave Philadelphia so bad that he joined "Bull Moose Jackson and his Buffalo Bearcats. His band mates included "Philly Joe Jones, Tad Dameron, Johnny Coles, and Jymie Merritt. When playing the clubs, he noticed that there was inevitably a well-manicured man, in an El Dorado, with a woman on each arm and sitting at the bar. He was often referred to as "Killer by his colleagues. "This man was a pimp," Golson explained, "and I wrote this tune about him. Of course, Golson immediately began with his classic composition "Killer Joe." The formula was familiar: Golson's brief solo was followed by Fuller's deft command of the language and Mike LeDonne's tasteful contribution. The listener shouldn't be seeking the exploration of new terrain in this context and by musicians who have proven themselves many times over; it was an instance of the familiar exerting a soothing effect, and the ease of the performers enveloped the audience.
At the tune's completion, Golson went on to say that in 1958 he received a call from Art Blakey, asking him to serve as a substitute at New York's Café Bohemiathe very next evening. A third and forth evening were requested by the revered drummer-leader of The Jazz Messengers. A week in Pittsburgh followed. "Didn't you go to Howard University in D.C.? Blakey asked. "Well, come to DC for a couple of weeks. Of course, Golson became a new member of the organization. As such, Golson was asked to recommend new players for the band. He suggested trumpeter Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merrit, all of whom were from Philadelphia. The new band's first series of shows was in Europe, where Golson wrote "Are You Real," which became another jazz standard. Illustrating the point musically, Golson stated the familiar theme, with Fuller filling out the melody's distinctive harmonies, before Golson was left to solo. At this point, the unit seemed fully at ease, and Carl Allen exploded with his propulsive playing.
On 125th Street in 1956, Golson next explained, he was at the Apollo Theater in New York. It was an August summer day between shows. At the corner of 8th Avenue and 126th Street was the bar of choice for many of the musicians. Golson witnessed Walter Davis, Jr. walking erratically as he exited. Golson assumed that alcohol was to blame; but as Davis approached the group, he cried as he delivered the news that Clifford Brown had been killed in an automobile accident the prior evening. Golson wrote "I Remember Clifford the next week while in Los Angeles, and the tune has become one of his most beloved. Fuller exited the stage after the story, allowing Golson to begin alone, with a breathy opening line of almost crushing naked emotion. The melody was simply stated but swathed in memory and loss. With Allen contributing tasteful accents, Golson continued for only a few minutes and stopped almost in if in mid-thought, perhaps seeking to draw a parallel to Brown's own suddenly halted life. The band stopped with him. But Golson's genial and generous nature would not allow him to conclude a performance so abruptly.