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Benny Golson Remembers John Coltrane

An excerpt from "Whisper Not," Golson's new autobiography

Benny Golson at 17, in 1946
John Coltrane (seated) and Benny Golson, backstage at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. Coltrane is looking for a reed and Benny is warming up. This is the only known shot of the boyhood pals, who became lifelong friends and colleagues

The newly released memoir of Benny Golson, now 87, is precisely the sort of thoughtful, finely crafted work you’d expect if you’ve ever seen him in a concert setting, where his erudite history lessons can be just as compelling as his rhapsodic saxophone playing and epochal tunes.

Not surprisingly, some of the book’s most moving sections concern Golson’s soul-deep musical and personal kinship with John Coltrane. Here, JT is proud to publish an excerpt focusing on the future masters’ adolescence, and on Coltrane’s rent-making forays into R&B during the late 1940s.

John Coltrane and I were fortunate. Our musical careers were progressing, and we hoped to soon take flight under our own power, no longer merely imitating players who preceded us. We felt the stirrings of artistic liberation and professional ambition. As kids with talent and ambition, on occasion we pondered our future successes. What would be our jazz legacy, our place in music history? The question “How long will it take for us to get there?” often dominated our thoughts. Our artistic efforts became herculean. Both of us sought maximum understanding of this new music delivered to our hungry souls by Bird and Diz. Of course, we wanted to hear more of their live performances, since we had experienced how powerful their music was onstage, alive and direct. We wanted to see our heroes in action, but we would have been satisfied to see them walking or talking together in our neighborhood. We intuited, however, that we would likely never see them again on Philadelphia streets.

John Coltrane and I decided we had to go to New York. We had no other option. A friend who played the alto saxophone, Joe Stubbs, had a clean 1941 two-door Buick. If we paid for the gas, we inquired, would he drive us up to New York on his day off? He agreed and off we went. We had no idea what to expect in New York, especially since we would be arriving in the middle of the week. We didn’t even know where to find our heroes. It didn’t matter. Just being in New York would be a thrill, because that was where all of the great jazz players lived.

We arrived during the day. All the clubs were closed. The Apollo Theater, on 125th Street, came to mind. Maybe we would meet someone backstage. We traveled up to Harlem but that idea was foiled. Nothing hip was happening there. However, standing backstage wondering what to do, we saw someone vaguely familiar walking toward us. Wait. Holy moly-it can’t really be Thelonious Monk!

Indeed it was Monk, but we had a problem. Which one of us would approach the great man? John was too shy. We couldn’t let Monk walk by undisturbed. Trying to appear hip, I blustered, “Hey, Mr. Monk, what’s hap’nin’? Is there any action?” He looked at me, annoyed, and scolded us. “You kids are too young to be lookin’ for drugs.” We quickly explained that we were aspiring saxophone players from Philly. We were not looking for drugs. We just wanted to hear some of the musicians we loved from our records. Monk told us that we’d have to come back that night, which was impossible for us, he thought, because we had to go home. Joe Stubbs did have to get home, ready for work the next morning. Monk was right about that part.

I chuckle about that day. There we were introducing ourselves to Thelonious Monk, as if we were part of his world. Consider where we were all soon headed. Monk was already a great pianist and a great composer. Not many years later, Monk, who sent us home and warned us away from drugs that day, requested John’s partnership in a groundbreaking quartet that ran for nine months at the Five Spot Café down in the Village. Amazing! Our place in the stream of time-did it begin with Bird’s arrival alongside Diz that glorious night in Philadelphia, or did it start in Harlem, when we waylaid a very patient Thelonious Sphere Monk?

I look at all these moments, their mystery and generosity, and cannot get to the bottom of time’s meaning. It is elusive. John Coltrane was unusually serious minded and extremely talented. Time made John Coltrane its confederate. John devoured each challenge as it presented itself, and his career took quantum leaps. That day, we drove back to Philadelphia incredulous that we had actually seen and talked to Thelonious Monk. We had been to the mountain. We became heroes to our friends in Philly after word emerged about our meeting with the enigmatic Thelonious Monk.

Philadelphia boasted many jazz clubs at that time, and John and I continued to gig often. John, however, soon got a very strange gig. Word came to me that John was working at a club called the Ridge Point Café. We called it the Point because of the street configuration there, where instead of bisecting each other, three streets crossed-Columbia Avenue, 23rd Street and Ridge Avenue-such that the shape of the building at that intersection resembled a large slice of pie-much like the famous Flatiron Building in Manhattan. The bar’s shape mimicked the building. The bandstand was at the wide end of the pie. The tip, or the point, was the main entrance.

All that was interesting, but the Point was not a bona fide jazz club. Eddie Woodland, a tenor player, usually held forth. Woodland was a “boot ’em up” tenor player with a circus aura, who held audiences in the palm of his hand by walking the bar with bravado. Crowds loved him, but for some reason he took a leave of absence. Maybe he was sick. Then word went around that my pal John was playing at the Point, and I knew John wasn’t that kind of saxophone player. The Point was definitely not a hip jazz club, and the regulars expected every artist to walk the bar. Our families both had telephones now, but I decided not to call John and ask him about his odd gig. I would just walk in during the matinee on Saturday afternoon, without telling him I was coming.

I remember walking to the club that day. The music was clear even from the street, at a distance. First, I heard the persistent loud drum backbeat. Next I heard the saxophone. It was clearly Eddie Woodland doing what he did so well, pleasing the people, walking the bar, revving the crowd. I figured John wasn’t there after all. Another false rumor. Eddie was playing extremely well that afternoon. He was really “on it,” as Tommy Flanagan would have said. The sax was hollerin’, the joint was rockin’. The groove, though different than usual, had me swaying in time as I stepped in the door.

I could not believe what I saw. This wasn’t Eddie at all, but John! John Coltrane was up on the bar at the small end, at the tip of the mud pie, honking, grooving, preparing to go down to the far end and back to the bandstand again. He was cranked up, playing low B-flats, nimbly stepping over drinks like a mountain goat on slippery terrain. He didn’t see me right away. But when he came up from one of his low horn-swooping movements, he looked in my direction. His eyes got wide and he stopped right in the middle of a group of low B-flats. He took the horn out of his mouth, stood straight up and said, “Oh, no!” I fell against the wall, dying with laughter. I’d busted him. He was humiliated, but he finished his slumming bar performance.

When John came off for intermission, he was remorseful. “Oh, why did you have to come? I thought I could get through the week without you guys knowing.” The hidden irony, of course, was that John did not really breach any etiquette or protocol. Many of us so-called hip jazz musicians were soon doing the same thing. Gigs helped pay bills. The rent man cares not a jot about styles of music, only his remuneration. Such gigs were not a waste of time or talent. Despite John’s momentary embarrassment, that type of work also rounded us out musically, giving us experience with the broad expanse of jazz. These gigs showed us how to make a living. So we did our work and catalogued our lessons. I am a broader, better musician for having done similar gigs. John came to feel that way, too, something you can hear in his playing, if you know what to listen for, especially when John plays the blues.

John later took a job with Daisy Mae and the Hepcats, who did not play jazz at all, but John made good use of the experience and played authentically what Daisy Mae required. Daisy was a singer who played a cocktail drum with a foot pedal. She had to stand when she played the long, vertical drum, using only brushes on the top. Wearing floppy ties, the group sang together, rocking and swaying side to side, rendering their version of “Rag Mop.” They were an entertaining group, but you’d never hear “Cherokee” or “Hot House.” John took the job seriously and did it well. Looking back, I can say that we all played non- and sub-jazz modes and styles when we had to. Necessity breeds creativity and success.

In 1947 John got an offer to join King Kolax, a Midwestern traveling band that used a tractor trailer (for hauling horses) that had been converted into a bus with seats and several beds. The trailer was low to the ground (for easy entrance of the horses). The band toured the central states and then went on to the West Coast. Earl Coleman, the vocalist on Charlie Parker’s version of “Dark Shadows,” told me that he was at a West Coast private jam session with John Coltrane when Bird walked in. John, who was still playing alto at that time, handled it extremely well. He sounded so good that Bird inquired about the alto player tearing it up. When I asked John about this, he confirmed it. Did he tell “Mr. Parker” he was one of the two young guys who followed him to the Downbeat Club in Philly? He laughed and said no. John was shy about such things. However, when he returned home from Los Angeles, he had a few things to show us. We wanted to hear everything step by step, note by note.

John enjoyed regaling us with his adventures. He had played with Bird in a live session and met a whole raft of musicians we had heard only on records. He also brought back a new tune of Bird’s, “Relaxin’ at Camarillo.” When he played it for us in my basement, the first couple of bars sounded out of kilter. The upbeat was where the downbeat should be and vice versa. The guys listening thought it was just not right, so it took us awhile to get how hip this new song was. Most of us were still learning, with John now in the lead.

While we were together in Philly learning how to play, John Coltrane was always a bit ahead of the rest of us (except for Jimmy Heath, who was also brilliant in his own way). I always admired how quickly and gracefully John took on new challenges while the rest of us were still considering what he had just taught us. As I look back, it’s as if John were not exactly from our time period. John’s mind was always on tomorrow. He looked forward constantly, asking, seeking. How could he improve today in order to discover things belonging to the future? John never lingered in one place. History failed to earn his attention. John was a searcher, consistently ahead of his time. He reached for musical excellence and artistic perfection in absolutes-ironic, in retrospect, because he was already in the process of creating jazz history.

Excerpt and black-and-white photos from Whisper Not: The Autobiography of Benny Golson, by Benny Golson and Jim Merod. Used by permission of Temple University Press. © 2016 by IBBOB, Inc. a California Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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Originally Published