Friday, November 13, 2009

Benny Golson: Exceeding Even His Own Expectations

To the average person, Benny Golson might be most recognized as “that guy who appeared in the end of that Tom Hanks movie.” This would, of course, be a reference to the cameo Golson made as himself in the pinnacle scene of Steven Spielberg’s 2004 feature, The Terminal. To jazz enthusiasts though, he is known as the man behind such standards as “Killer Joe,” “I Remember Clifford,” “Along Came Betty,” “Stablemates,” “Are You Real?,” and “Whisper Not,” while establishing a unique voice as a tenor saxophonist in such groups as Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, and his own Jazztet with Art Farmer.

When he first began playing music, Golson did not foresee a career in the jazz world though. At the age of nine, Golson started playing classical piano, and for the next five years, he “went at it assiduously.” He hoped to become a concert pianist, which, of course, “got a few chuckles in the ghetto. You know, everybody’s playing the blues but I’m talking about Chopin.”

It wasn’t until he was a teenager that Golson was converted to jazz. As he recalls, he went to see Lionel Hampton at the Earle Theater. At that point, Golson had never seen a live band and “it was so exciting. It was like a whole revelation. Something new was happening to me... I was like a Beatles groupie, but silently, ‘cause my heart was pounding and I was bungee-jumping and sky-diving inside.”

As the curtains opened, saxophonist Ornette Cobb walked towards the front of the stage to take a solo, and Golson recalls, “when he started playing this solo, right there the piano started to fade.”

From that point, Golson was hooked, and after doing his homework everyday, he would “turn on the radio and listen for saxophone solos.”

Golson may have been a real innovator in terms of listening technique though. He recalls that in science class one time, his teacher hit a tuning-fork, and then placed it on his forehead. He was amazed to find how the sound enveloped him, so he found a way to listen to records with that same intensity, placing the stylus from the phonograph in his teeth, which he then dropped to the record surface. Golson told the audience, “I think I discovered stereo because man, that band jumped in my head.”

He had one problem though: synchronization. It took some work to move with the record at the right speed, but once he got it, he started showing some of his friends. Golson remembers, “we could always tell who was doing that because they came out on the scene with smudges on their faces.”

His mother soon caught on to his appreciation for saxophone and asked him whether he wanted to play one. Golson said “yes,” so she continued, ‘well, what kind would you like?’ At the time, he did not know the correct nomenclature, so he told her, “the kind that’s got the curve in it,” referring to the tenor.

Golson recalls that his family “was still on welfare,” but the next day, his mother came home carrying a long case in her hand. He was hoping maybe he’d get “an old, dirty, greasy” saxophone from the pawn shop, but when she opened the case it was a brand new tenor. The only problem was, he thought it would come together, but the instrument came in a set of pieces.
Thoroughly confused, Golson’s mother suggested they take the instrument down to a neighbor who played the saxophone. After he had demonstrated how to put the instrument together, the neighbor put on a recording of Duke Ellington playing “Main Stem,” and he proceeded to play along with Ben Webster’s solo. Golson couldn’t believe the sounds coming out of his own saxophone.

The neighbor then handed the instrument to Golson, who had no idea what to do, and he remembers it sounding like “an animal being led to slaughter.” Being that it was summer, when he started to practice his saxophone everyday, all of the windows were open, and he recalls, “everybody on the block could hear me, and everybody wanted to kill me.”

Before long, he gained a reputation as a saxophonist though, and he knew he was getting better when he would go to the market and people would ask whether he knew “Stardust” and “Don’t Blame Me.” In order to get the neighborhood on his side, while he was “doing all of the horrible stuff,” he learned the melodies to those tunes.

Golson learned those pieces, but he was more interested in emulating his idols, including Don Byas, Ben Webster, and Coleman Hawkins. In particular, he remembers transcribing Hawkins’ hit recording of “Body & Soul” from 1939. Hawkins became one of his greatest influences, and Golson learned this solo so well, he ended up playing it at several school functions. He gained a reputation as the kid who played “Body & Soul.”

As he got older, Golson became close friends with John Coltrane, another young musician in Philadelphia, and the two worked together to figure out the music scene. Golson remembers they went to see Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie play in town once, and Parker “was so different.” They went to get his autograph and then walked with him to another gig he had at a jazz club three or four blocks away. Coltrane carried Parker’s case on the left, and Golson walked along the right quizzing Parker about what kind of horn he used, “what kind of reed, what kind of mouthpiece.”

The two starstruck teens went home and tried to mimic what Parker was doing with a new reed and mouthpiece. Coltrane called up Golson a few weeks later asking, “did anything happen?” Golson said, “no,” and Coltrane replied, “me neither.” Looking back, Golson said, I guess it “was more than the mouthpiece and the reed, but he was playing so different, I didn’t try to grasp the style, it just sort of opened my mind up to other possibilities.”

Not long after, the two fledgling musicians drove up to New York for the first time. They figured they would see famous people everywhere, but they could not pick out a single recognizable person on the street, so they thought they’d head up to the Apollo Theater. Unfortunately, it happened to be a rhythm and blues revue that night.

Just when they were about to give up hope, Golson spotted Thelonious Monk walking down the street towards them. The two looked at each other, struggling to think what they might say to him when he passed. Golson, sixteen at the time, figured he was hip, so he took the appropriate stance, dropping his right shoulder and letting his arm dangle by his side. When Monk finally approached, Golson asked, “Mr. Monk, can you tell us where something is happening?” Monk scoped out the two and then replied, ‘you kids are too young to be messing with dope.’

Afraid he’d blew his chance, Golson inquired, “no, we want to see the musicians,” to which Monk replied, “you’re not going to see the musicians. Everybody’s sleeping. They worked last night.’

Golson and Coltrane returned to Philadelphia, a bit disappointed at their lost opportunity, but when all of their friends asked ‘what happened?’ Golson would told them, “yeah we went up to New York. We were hanging out with Monk.’

Back home, they still had trouble sometimes getting recognized for their talents. They thought they were doing well playing for a local group called Jimmy Johnson and the Ambassadors, but one night, Johnson sent his son over to tell the two saxophonists their gig that night was cancelled. Golson’s mother, realizing that the job couldn’t have possibly been cancelled only two hours in advance of the show encouraged them to head down to the theater anyways and see if it had gone on without them. Sure enough it had, and the two sulked back to Golson’s house. Golson told the audience he was just about ready to cry—although he and Coltrane were “too hip to cry in front of each other”—but his mother was waiting there to comfort them, and she told the boys, ‘don’t worry, one day the two of you will be so good they won’t be able to afford you.’

Only a few years later, the two would indeed make their mark on the jazz world. At the recommendation of Philly Joe Jones, Coltrane was called up to join Miles Davis’ band. About a week after Coltrane went up to New York to start rehearsing, he called on Golson to see if he had some tunes, as Davis was short on material. Golson had a knack for writing even then, and he’d been handing pieces out to people whenever he had the chance. He did not want to be too cocky though, so he just sent up one new composition of his, which had an odd lilt to it. To Golson’s shock, Davis ended up recording this piece, the now standard, “Stablemates.”

This was quite a boon for Golson, as many of the people whom he’d given charts too before realized they had other compositions by this young writer who was recorded by Davis, and he started to gain a reputation as a budding composer.

According to Coltrane, Davis really dug the new tune, but years later, Golson got to meet Davis himself, at which point Davis simply asked him, “what were you smoking when you wrote that?”

Golson was restless to get out of Philadelphia himself, so he took the first gig he could find that would get him on the road, joining Bull Moose Jackson and his Bufallo Bearcats, a rhythm and blues group in which Tadd Dameron was playing piano at the time. Dameron took Golson under his wing, teaching him some of his thought process behind composition and arranging. Before too long, fans began giving credit to Dameron for Golson’s arrangements, as he so matched his style. Golson happily told the audience, “I owe my beginnings as a composer to Tadd Dameron.”

It may have been a small beginning, but this got Golson well on his way, and throughout the 1950's he had the opportunity to play as a sideman in several notable groups, such as Lionel Hampton’s Jazz Orchestra, the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, where he brought in several fellow young Philadelphians, Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, and Jymie Merrit.

Speaking about Blakey, Golson told the crowd Art was “the biggest liar in the world, but the best drummer I’ve ever played with in my whole life. That man did not know how not to swing, and he was didactic. He was a natural teacher: intuitive. He was not academic, but he knew all the right things. He just had the ability to swing, and he could sound like Art Blakey no matter whose drums he was playing and whose cymbals he was using.”

In the early 1960’s, a few years after leaving Blakey’s group, Golson decided to put together a sextet with Art Farmer that eventually became know as the Jazztet. It was Golson’s responsibility to bring in the piano player, so he called a young guy he’d heard down in Philadelphia recently: McCoy Tyner, who was himself eager to hit the road at that time.

As Tyner drove up to New York for the first time though, his car broke down on the New Jersey Turnpike. Golson did not have a car at the time, so he couldn’t meet him, but he called a friend to go pick him up. Eventually Tyner made it and played with the Jazztet for about a year, but it was John Coltrane who had been gracious enough to pick up Tyner in the middle of New Jersey, and before long, Tyner left to join Coltrane’s group.

Looking back, Golson is happy that Tyner went to play with Coltrane though, because with “the way McCoy was playing, he really belonged with John Coltrane.”

As the 1960’s progressed, Golson started working more on orchestration under the tutelage of Henry Bryant. He did not have much use for it on the New York jazz scene, but soon Quincy Jones and Oliver Nelson convinced Golson to join them out in Hollywood, working in the movie business. Before long, he was writing music for such landmark television programs as Mission: Impossible, The Partridge Family, and M*A*S*H.

In fact, it was because he lived in Los Angeles that Golson became subject for The Terminal. When the project was first proposed to him, he was a little leery. He’d auditioned for movies a few times before. Twice Woody Allen had asked him to come play a part, but each time he got to the audition and found it was a cattle-call, which left a bad impression.

Spielberg specifically sought out Golson though. In the film, Golson plays the only person from the famous photograph “A Great Day In Harlem,” which the main character, played by Tom Hanks, does not have the autograph of. He is seeking out Golson to complete his collection. As Golson told the audience though, “at that time, Sonny Rollins was still alive, Hank Jones, Horace Silver, Marian McPartland, Johnny Griffith.” He had to ask Spielberg, “why me?”

Spielberg had plenty of people he could have used to fill the role, but he told Golson he had wanted to use him because he used to go and see him play when he was a student at California State University Long Beach. Golson was surprised to find that Spielberg and Hanks loved jazz as much as he did, and he continues to keep in touch with both of them.

It is safe to say that Golson’s mother made a fair prediction as to the careers of those two teenage boys. John Coltrane, of course, went on to redefine the direction of jazz with touchstone albums such as Giant Steps, My Favorite Things, and A Love Supreme, creating his famous sheets of sound, and giving prominence to the free jazz movement. Golson, oddly, the more talkative of the two, took a quieter route to the top, but he has nonetheless made a profound mark on jazz with both his compositions and blissful tenor playing. Golson himself has become an idol to which others aspire to follow.

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