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Book Review

Whisper Not: The Autobiography Of Benny Golson


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Whisper Not
Benny Golson and Jim Merod
335 Pages
ISBN: 9781439913338
Temple University Press

Philadelphia has always been a cradle for outstanding jazz talent, though when it comes to durability surely none can match Benny Golson, who began playing seventy years ago. At 87, Golson—an NEA Jazz Master—still leads small ensembles and fronts big bands who play his charts. "Killer Joe," "I Remember Clifford," "Stablemates," "Whisper Not" and "Along Came Betty" are bona fide jazz standards that have cemented the tenor saxophonist's place in the jazz pantheon. Golson continues to make his mark in the studio too, as the originals on his most recent outing Horizon Ahead (OA2 Records, 2016) demonstrate. Yet as this autobiography co-written by Jim Merod underlines, Golson's significance and legacy go far beyond a handful of standards that remain basic currency for straight-ahead jazz bands the world over.

Merod, the man behind the BluePort Jazz label and author of The Political Responsibility of the Critic (Cornell University Press, 1987), brings an erudite though not overly scholarly touch to Golson's tales, while the liberal sprinkling of literary references are just the stock in trade of a Professor of Literature and Humanities. Avoiding the typical chronology of many jazz autobiographies, the narrative of Whisper Not instead jumps back and forth in time, with Golson reflecting on the main signposts in his career, and the key individuals who shaped his music and life and vice versa.

Any readers looking for salacious detail will be disappointed, as apart from a passing admission of serial infidelities during his first marriage—"I was an adulterer of the highest order"—Golson, a dedicated family man, has led a drug-free, disciplined life with religion as one of his pillars.

Golson's first pillar, however, was always jazz. From the moment that Golson's mother bought him his first saxophone he seemed destined for a life in jazz, describing how his, and childhood pal John Coltrane's commitment to the music, even at an early age, was "almost pathological."

Teenage epiphanies included seeing Lionel Hampton's band and later Dizzy Gillespie with Charlie Parker. Of the former, Golson waxes lyrically: "This lyrical thunder, this majestic, joyful sound, changed my life."

Following stints in Jimmy Johnson's Ambassadors—from which he and Coltrane were unceremoniously axed—and a tour with Billy Eckstine, Golson soon began writing and leading his own bands. When Golson formed Jazztet with Art Farmer the band included a nineteen-year-old pianist called McCoy Tyner. Coltrane soon prised the pianist away from his close friend for his own group, though Golson is gracious enough to admit that "John's quartet was where McCoy belonged."

Arguably, however, the most significant person in Golson's life was his mother, whose fierce sense of duty, hard toil and unrelenting sacrifice not only gave Golson a sound base from which to kick off from, but likely instilled in him the terrific work ethic and humility that are central to his persona. Golson describes the privations and injustices of rented accommodation for poor black families in 1930s Philadelphia as "an extension of pre-Civil War conditions," adding that "black landlords were seldom more compassionate or helpful than white landlords." Golson also acknowledges the racial hierarchy that was exhibited in attitudes amongst blacks themselves, based on the relative darkness or lightness of their skin.

These sort of insights into race and race relations, and the socio-economics of Depression-era urban America are fascinating but too infrequent to elevate Whisper Not above the usual biographies/autobiographies of famous jazz musicians. The relative lack of socio-political/historical depth in Golson and Merod's collaboration is arguably the major weakness in an otherwise engaging read.

On the other hand, perhaps Merod and Golson felt they didn't need to labor the point. Golson's observation on present-day America, for example, says plenty. "Although I love my country, no-one needs to travel far to witness conditions similar to those of the Third World," Golson states. "America's inner cities are hollowed out by despair and impossibility."

In a career of many highlights, and inevitably a few low points, perhaps Golson's greatest impact was on the fortunes of Art Blakey. Though his tenure as musical director Blakey's Jazz Messengers was brief, Golson's writing brought musical refinement to the group, while his insistence on greater professionalism— better time-keeping and uniform suits—and his handling of money matters steadily increased the band's fortunes.

Through Golson's unstinting efforts, Blue Note was persuaded to record the Jazz Messengers—Golson had invited a doubting Alfred Lions to one of their gigs— small clubs gave way to more upscale venues and the band broke into Europe for the first time.

With Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'" a juke box hit—Golson had brought Timmons into the band along with Lee Morgan and Jymie Merritt—the Jazz Messengers duly toured Europe and its fees sky-rocketed. Golson eventually left Blakey after eighteen months, a time in which he helped redirect the group's musical approach and establish itself as one of the major bands of the era.

Golson's move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film composition and his abandonment of his horn to that end marked a bold career move (the year of the move is not specified) for Golson, and one not without risk. He and wife Bobbi—who had given up a promising career as a ballerina so that Golson could pursue his own dream to the fullest—did not have an easy ride; Golson relates having no work for the first two years and how he and Bobbi were forced to pawn instruments, jewellery and furs to get by.

Golson's subsequent success, notably composing for the hit TV show M*A*S*H*, and later collaborating with director Steven Spielberg on the film The Terminal, is already well documented. Less well known, however, is the story of Golson's return to his first love, the saxophone, and the trials and tribulations in reconstructing a career as a band leader in the early 1980s after a decade or so immersed in the studios of California. "Returning from the tyranny of creative loss," says Golson of the transition, "was a musical resurrection for me."

A significant part of the book is given over to Golson's recollections of and appraisals of the musicians he most admired. Yet despite paying homage to giving personal insights into the talents of Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis and many others, Golson reserves some of his highest praise for slightly less celebrated figures. Interestingly, Golson describes Earl Bostic—who fired Golson from his band for larking about—as ..."the most astute saxophone technician I have ever heard. Technically, no-one has touched him yet, not John Coltrane, Charlie Parker or Marcel Mule." On the subject of Tadd Dameron, Golson opines: "Nothing in the world of instrumental music ever sounded like his melodic offerings." Of the pianist's arranging skills, Golson notes: "Dameron was in a class by himself." Of today's musicians, Golson singles out Geoffrey Keezer as: "the only contemporary pianist whose genius approaches that of Art Tatum."

Women musicians, in this as in so many similar works, are all but absent in the narrative, reflecting the lack of opportunities and the prevailing sexism during the so-called Golden Age of Jazz. Golson, however, acknowledges that the times are changing in this regard. He compiles an admittedly partial list of contemporary female instrumentalists and recognizes the artistic power of women, adding that he hopes women's talent as jazz instrumentalists can be recognized without reservation. Perhaps more than the four paragraphs or so dedicated to this subject might have helped the cause in addressing the ongoing gender imbalance.

An honest portrayal of one of the twentieth century's most significant jazz figures, the personality behind the music, with Merod's significant input, is sympathetically revealed, making Whisper Not essential reading for Golson fans. If the book has a message as such, it's that unrelenting dedication to one's art, focus, determination and a willingness to take risks are the cornerstones of success. There's a lot in Golson's story, as in his music, that could inspire young, up-and-coming jazz musicians today.

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