Benny Golson: Old School

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Benny Golson celebrating his 80th birthday with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra at Washington, DC's Kennedy Center; Jan. 24, 2009
By Margot Schulman
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Benny Golson celebrating his 80th birthday with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra at Washington, DC's Kennedy Center; Jan. 24, 2009
By Margot Schulman

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Leave it to old friends to dredge up stories from the past at a birthday party. Of course, not everyone gets to celebrate on the stage of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and even fewer have the opportunity to be embarrassed by a surprise visit from Bill Cosby.

But Benny Golson began his storied eight decades in Philadelphia, as did the slightly younger Cosby, who happened to be performing on another of the Kennedy Center’s stages on the January night that Golson was being honored. The comedian began by surveying the saxophonists in the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra regarding the size of their reeds. After hearing a few replies in the three to four range, Cosby countered with Golson’s youthful claim of using an eight. “That’s not a reed,” Cosby recalls telling the nascent tenorist, “that’s a floorboard.”

After Cosby hammered out a burlesque of a piano solo, the curtain fell for intermission. Cosby was escorted offstage past a clutch of starstruck faces while the evening’s guest of honor quietly and unassumingly strolled over to a folding chair in the corner. Somehow the dichotomy seemed appropriate for a musician who seems to accept his legendary status with a shrug, always more eager to get back to work than to bask in the limelight.

Looking forward to the birthday concert over room service in his Philadelphia hotel room last December, Golson insisted that the occasion hadn’t placed him in a particularly nostalgic frame of mind.

“I don’t like to look back too much,” he said. “What’s done is done; I want to see what’s looming up before me. I want to realize things that don’t exist now. I want to be able to find things awaiting my discovery of them, perhaps give them a name or a direction that they didn’t have before.”

The staggering breadth of Golson’s career was well encapsulated on the Kennedy Center’s stage that night, which he shared with old friends like Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton and Ron Carter. The musical selections ranged from big band to solo piano. The saxophonist shared the stage with a band of legends from his past and another recently formed group that resurrects the Jazztet name. Canonical standards from the composer’s pen appeared in contexts familiar and unusual (a particularly physical arrangement of “Blues March” for the Uptown String Quartet). A video documentary offered stills of Golson with Hollywood heavyweights from his decade-plus tenure as a film and TV composer, culminating in a sweetly rambling tribute by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, who cast Golson as himself in their 2004 film The Terminal.

As has become traditional, the concert followed by one year the presentation of the BNY Mellon Jazz Living Legacy Award (Kenny Barron was presented this year’s award following Golson’s performance). The honor stands alongside Golson’s 1995 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master Award.

Despite all of that, Benny Golson remains the same soft-spoken, erudite gentleman who speaks of penning “Whisper Not” or “Killer Joe” with the same workmanlike pride with which a carpenter would discuss a finely crafted cabinet. You’ll never find Golson referring to his playing or writing in the soul-searching, mystical manner of some of his more ephemerally minded counterparts, not even with the religious overtones of another old friend, John Coltrane. As evidenced by the program of midtempo swingers and lyrical ballads that evening in D.C., Golson adheres to a decidedly more cerebral, romantic approach.

“As far as I’m concerned,” Golson offered, “my music should always, now and then, have meaningful melodic content, something you come away humming. Athleticism doesn’t really mean anything. It shows that you can do calisthenics, but nobody can hum any of that stuff. I’m from the old school, I guess.”

When Golson says old school, he means old school, extending the club beyond early compatriots like Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey to Verdi and Chopin, both of whom are represented on Golson’s latest CD, New Time, New ’Tet (Concord Jazz). The album is the debut of the third incarnation of the Jazztet, the six-piece band Golson co-led with the late trumpeter Art Farmer in the early ’60s and again in the mid-’80s.

Golson and Farmer had met several years earlier when both were playing with Lionel Hampton’s band, in a lineup that also included Clifford Brown, Quincy Jones, Monk Montgomery and Gigi Gryce. That tenure was short-lived, however, due to a dispute over money.

“The guys were getting $19 a night, and I told the road manager I had to have $22,” Golson recalled, laughing now at the meager sums involved. The road manager agreed, but when word reached Hampton’s wife, Gladys, who handled the band’s business affairs, she refused. “So we drove from South Carolina to Washington, and I left, got onto the train and said goodbye. That’s when they went to Europe, and the band was sneaking out of the hotel windows and doing all of this recording outside of Lionel Hampton. Quincy wrote me a card saying, ‘Sorry you didn’t come, Benny, we’re making so much money.’ I said, ‘Damn me and my principles!’”

Farmer crossed Golson’s path several times over the ensuing years, and when Golson devised the idea of forming a working sextet in 1959, he rang the trumpeter with the proposal. “Art started laughing,” Golson recounted, “and when he stopped he says, ‘You’re not going to believe this. I was thinking of putting a sextet together and I wanted you to be my saxophone player.’”

The pair recruited Farmer’s twin brother, Addison, to play bass, trombonist Curtis Fuller, drummer Dave Bailey and a 19-year-old pianist Golson knew from Philly named McCoy Tyner. By the time they recorded their debut album, Bailey had left and been replaced by Lex Humphries; shortly thereafter, Tyner got the long-awaited call from Coltrane that formed the saxophone legend’s classic quartet. The line-up shifted repeatedly over the years, notably including Cedar Walton, Grachan Moncur III and Tootie Heath; Fuller returned to the fold for the Jazztet’s 1980s incarnation.

Even in 1959, the Jazztet’s sound could be considered conservative; the band made its debut at the Five Spot in Greenwich Village, instantly becoming the answer to a jazz trivia question by sharing the bill with Ornette Coleman during his infamous first East Coast stint. To this day, Golson has never recognized the legitimacy of the avant-garde, in the person of Coleman or his free-jazz successors.

“We intuitively think that change means for the better,” Golson said, “and let’s hope that’s the case. But sometimes things change and they’re not as good as the things that they evolve from. Sometimes people get so efficient that they’re deficient.”

Maintaining the instrumentation but overhauling the lineup of the classic Jazztets for this third go-round, Golson enlisted a group with impressive pedigrees and a similarly tradition-minded outlook: trumpeter Eddie Henderson, trombonist Steve Davis, pianist Mike LeDonne, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Carl Allen. While much of the material adheres to the usual Golson template—originals by the leader and Davis, a revisiting of “Whisper Not” with Al Jarreau on vocals, familiar material from Monk and Sonny Rollins—there are surprises, in the form of the aforementioned arrangements of classical pieces and even a tune by ’80s soul group DeBarge, which Golson is the first to admit is “an aberration.”

“It’s today and yesterday, really,” Golson says of the new Jazztet. “It conjures up memories of yesterday, but it’s an extrapolation of what yesterday was because we’ve moved ahead. We want to do newer things, things that we would not have considered before, like something by DeBarge or a classical piece by Chopin. Music is music and the way it comes out depends on how you treat it.”

The constant reappearance of his most well-worn standards may seem to run counter to his forward-looking philosophy, but Golson insists that drawing on the past is not the same as dwelling on it. “New ways of doing old things sometimes are just as important as new things, because the old things have been refurbished and don’t look the same. They don’t feel the same. They don’t taste the same. So extrapolations—that is, new ways of doing old things—are consequential too, as in the case of Chopin and Verdi. I just hope they don’t come back to haunt me for what I’ve done.”

Golson is once again attacking some of those familiar tunes, albeit with his pen rather than his horn, and for a somewhat unexpected audience: children. Although he’s long been averse to most efforts to put lyrics to his pieces, Golson is turning many of the titles into children’s books. In these stories, which he plans to accompany with CDs of the music, “Whisper Not” becomes a warning against disturbing a sleeping giant; “Stablemates” the tale of a donkey rooming with horses; “Along Came Betty” a whimsical yarn about a woman instigating a trend for two-toned shoes.

While those titles are instantly recognizable, Golson cited a few that were considerably more obscure—and, he declared, deservedly so. “I Found My True Love in Mexico,” “I’m Finger-Poppin’ and Hip-Shakin’,” “The Maharajah and the Blues”—these were some of the embarrassing titles Golson dredged up from his earliest attempts at composing, tunes never recorded and deeply buried. “People think of me as a writer, but nobody knows the dogs that I’ve written,” Golson says with a laugh. “They were godawful, but I keep them to remind me not to get too big a head.”

This was in the earliest part of Golson’s career, as he struggled on the fertile North Philadelphia scene alongside his friend John Coltrane. The childhood friends got together and emulated their idols—Coltrane, then playing alto, in the guise of Johnny Hodges; Golson attempting to replicate Arnett Cobb’s solo on “Flying Home.” Their paths, like so many other young musicians’, were irrevocably altered the first time they heard the new sounds of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. But while Golson saw his future clearly, his mother convinced him to head off to Howard University as a fallback to an uncertain music career.

“My mother, in her wisdom, said in case you don’t make it—which is to say, in case you’re not as good as you think you are and hope to be—you should have something in your back pocket to lean on. If you don’t make it you could teach school. But I was a rebel all through college. They hated to see me come in. I always said, ‘Why?’”

That inquisitive nature has guided Golson throughout his career. It led him to leave Howard and hit the road with R&B saxophonist and vocalist Bull Moose Jackson. In Jackson’s band at that point was pianist Tadd Dameron, who taught Golson more about composing than anything he’d gleaned during his college years. Much later, it led him to abandon his horn altogether and strike out for Hollywood, eager to experiment with new techniques and the confluence of sound and image that only film scoring can provide. It still leads him to seek out new challenges today. While some of his dream opportunities are now impossible—playing with Oscar Peterson or recording with Duke Ellington—there are others, like performing with a symphony orchestra, that don’t seem unrealistic.

“I feel that there are things that are possible for me to do that I’m not aware of yet,” Golson speculated. “And since creativity never retires, there’s a possibility I may be able to do some of those things. Creativity is alive and well and affects everything we’re all about as a society: music, medicine, automobiles, architecture, everything. I’m an old man now, but I’m still not satisfied. That thing [pointing to his saxophone, which lay in its open case on the hotel room’s bed] is so demanding, and it’s capable of doing everything, but it’ll only do it if I tell it to. That’s a part of the adventure. It gives me something to look forward to when I wake up every morning besides breakfast. What can I do today better than I did yesterday? What can I discover today that I didn’t know existed yesterday? Of course, that’s being poetic.”

Then there are the surprising turns that Golson’s tastes occasionally take, which may not manifest themselves through his music. “I like country and western music. I don’t want to delve into it, but some of the lyrics in those tunes will break your heart.”

Of course, he never expected to return to the jazz life once he left it for Hollywood after the first Jazztet disbanded in 1962. Upon moving west he had cut all ties to his jazz past, insistent on being recognized as a legitimate film composer. “I didn’t want to be viewed as a jazz musician,” he said. “I wanted to do comedy and drama, not just hip jazz things. So I turned down every gig and eventually they stopped calling. My bridges were burned out of existence and the nest egg that I’d saved up felt like an elevator out of control. I could have gone home to sleep or taken my wagon to the pawn shop and slept where my stuff was.”

He eventually did earn his name in show business, however, garnering extensive credits including M.A.S.H., Room 222 and The Partridge Family, none of which could ever be mistaken for “hip jazz things.” But after eight years of allowing his horn to gather dust, he felt compelled to return to it once again.

“I thought I’d never play again,” Golson said. “I didn’t like how I was sounding, and to add to that problem, I didn’t know what I wanted to do conceptually. It was frustrating. So the easiest thing was to put it down. I gave my mouthpieces away, my flute, my soprano, and then I got the itch again. Trying to come back was like getting over a stroke. I had no embouchure, no corn on my thumb where you support the horn. When I picked it up it was like a piece of plumbing from underneath the kitchen sink rather than a saxophone. I wasn’t the same person, and my concept had intuitively changed, even though I wasn’t playing. It took me 10 years to feel comfortable again.”

Asked if his composer and performer sides were in conflict, considering how at odds they seemed at that time, Golson said, “I call myself a musical bigamist because I love them both. When I play, I don’t think about the writing aspect, and when I write I don’t think about playing.”

In either case, Golson determinedly follows his own muse; as accessible and audience-friendly as all of his work may be, from jazz tunes to classical chamber pieces, he forever composes and performs with an audience of one in mind: himself. “I’m not an entertainer,” he claims. “I don’t do it to please people. Yet I’m not obdurate, I don’t cast the people out. I have the people in mind to the extent that I hope they like what I do. I don’t discount them, but I must answer that thing inside of me first rather than trying to please them. I’ve been with groups where they wanted to walk the bar and step over drinks and sing with the crowd and sway. But I’d rather be in the group called artists, where my first obligation is to the music and myself.”

Unerringly tasteful, Golson still keeps in mind that at the very heart of artistic success is something elusive and alchemical, something that can’t be taught or really even consciously realized. “I’ve heard bands where all the notes are right, they’re razor-sharp, but the spirit, the soul is lacking. It’s hard to put a name on it; we usually say ‘that thing’—‘that thing’ that touches the deepest grotto of the heart’s core.”

It’s now been nearly 30 years since Golson returned to performing, a span longer than many entire careers—longer, in fact, than the entire lifespan of his friend Clifford Brown. He has recently been recounting his history in detail, trimming an autobiography that currently stretches over more than 1,000 pages to a more palatable (for publishers, anyway) 300. As for what will follow the final period in that book as it now reads, Golson declares himself happily uncertain.

“How much time do I have on Earth? There’s no guarantee, because the future’s always going to have an indistinguishable face. We’re not prescient, but to some extent we can give it a face of our own making. Not always, but sometimes. And sometimes that’s called success and sometimes it’s not.”

At 80, Golson shows no signs of slowing down, looking like a man 20 years younger. But the toll of those years was revealed as he reviewed old photographs while helping to prepare the video that screened at the Kennedy Center concert.

“In so many of those pictures, I’m the only one left alive,” he recalls mournfully. “A lot of my friends are gone. That’s depressing, not that I want to join them. Time is corrosive, but time can be very rewarding sometimes. Life is full of surprises, disappointments and rewards. I choose life rather than the alternative.”

Originally published in May 2009

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