Benny Golson: Fortunate Whispers

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In addition to making significant contributions to the jazz canon’s batch of standards, saxophonist Benny Golson appeared in a pair of films and was photographed in “A Great Day In Harlem.”

(Photo: Oliver Rossberg)

Jazz was a young music when Golson stood on that Harlem doorstep sometime in July or August 1958. (The precise date has been lost.) Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor were barely on the radar. The first jazz record was only 41 years old, about the same span of time that separates us from the death of John Coltrane today.

Few jazz musicians of importance had marked a 60th birthday yet, not even Louis Armstrong. The two oldest players in the Esquire photo were Zutty Singleton, 60, and Sonny Greer, 62. Old age in jazz was still uncharted territory in 1958. No one yet knew what a 65-, 70- or 80-year-old trumpet or saxophone player might sound like. Bunk Johnson, perhaps?

“The mind doesn’t change,” Golson observed with some experience in the matter of age. “Only the body. Sometimes the mind makes appointments the body can’t keep. Arthritis, feeling tired, things like that. When you’re young, you’re always ready to go. But the thinking doesn’t change. In fact, if one has talent, it’s like good wine. You add things to it. It gets better. You renew yourself. You take the older things, push them to one side and make room for the newer. Creativity never retires, unless you give up. I wake up every morning at this age and intuitively think, ‘What can I do better today than I did yesterday? What can I discover today? What things are awaiting my discovery?’ Enough is never enough. You want to get from here to there, then you get there and you want to go somewhere else.”

Golson’s uncle was a bartender at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. One of Golson’s earliest memories is being taken to the now-legendary site of the earliest bop jam sessions and seeing the house band with Thelonious Monk, Joe Guy and Kenny Clarke. “I was 11 and didn’t know what the heck it was all about,” he admitted. “But Sugar Ray Robinson was there and my uncle introduced me to him.”

A conversation with Golson doesn’t go long before the subject of another of his childhood associations—John Coltrane—comes up. The two knew each other as boys in Philadelphia, and in some ways, Golson seems to measure himself against Coltrane, even though they took vastly different paths. Perhaps it’s because they started at the same time and in the same place.

“Look at my friend John Coltrane,” he said. “He was great, but he wanted to go farther. I haven’t gotten there yet. Where is there? Wherever it is, we want to get there as soon as we can.”

Where they began as adolescents, though, was the height of the swing era in 1940. Golson was 12, Coltrane 14. When they turned on the radio, they heard anyone from Jan Savitt to Count Basie playing live music. “You know who my favorite band was then?” Golson asked rhetorically. “Glenn Miller. And I loved [tenor saxophonist and singer] Tex Beneke with that Southern drawl he would sing. I loved that. ‘Moonlight Serenade’ and the movies, Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives.”

Golson might have loved Miller and Beneke, but he didn’t imitate them. His epiphany came at 14 in the Earle Theater. “It was the first time I ever saw a band live,” he said, “and it was Lionel Hampton. When the curtain opened I was bedazzled. The bright lights were shining on these gold instruments. The music was like a hand reaching out and grabbing me. Then Arnett Cobb stepped out from the reed section to the edge of the stage, and, lo and behold, a mike came up from the stage floor. When he started to play, the piano paled. I wanted a sax. We were just getting off of welfare, but I thought I could get one at a pawn shop. One day [my mom] brought a brand new one home, and wow. That’s when it all started.

“I was listening to records,” he continued. “Coltrane and I were doing the same thing. There were no school jazz programs. Then right in the middle of all this, along come Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Coltrane and I are trying to learn the traditional stuff, and not very good at it. Then this new stuff comes out. So, we’re trying to pick up on this new music before we’ve learned the old stuff. We had a kind of oath of determination to try to imbibe this music and make it part of our psyche.”

Golson and Coltrane were like two peas in a pod then. Golson listened to Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. Coltrane played alto and loved Johnny Hodges. “But he was always a little ahead of the rest of us,” Golson said. “When we got to where he was, he was always somewhere else. He had a penchant for that—to always reach. But his reach never exceeded his grasp. He always got to it.”

Was it a place Golson might have followed? “Truthfully,” he said, “I wouldn’t have known what I was doing. He was somewhere else then, and I was not in that place.”

Does Golson believe that Coltrane is being remembered for the right reasons today? He asked what I meant. Is it his music, I explained, or the quasi-religious and mystical dimensions of his persona that surfaced on A Love Supreme? What other musician, after all, defined his music in such overtly spiritual terms that it produced a San Francisco church in his name? (Golson himself crafted an impressive orchestration of A Love Supreme in the ’90s.)

“I don’t think [he] would have been a part of that,” Golson said. “I’m sure he would have shivered at that prospect of a Coltrane church. He was really not religious when I knew him. Whatever happened in his search happened later when we were no longer together. He was like Picasso, in that he went through many periods; many styles. He was always changing and evolving into something, searching.”

Perhaps because Golson was once such a close witness to Coltrane’s processes, he respects his outcomes even if he cannot entirely embrace them. Coltrane may have ended in the tangle of the free-jazz movement, but Golson had seen him master so much.

He’s decidedly less sympathetic to others associated with the music, though. He won’t mention any names, lest he might harm a fellow musician. Yet he makes no secret of his views on the larger free-jazz musicology.

“Bogus,” he said. “Completely and without any doubt. The lie cannot live forever.”

Many years ago, Golson said he approached a prominent young apostle of the new music. His mind was open and he was eager to understand its value.

“[This man] told me himself it was bogus,” Golson recalled, “though without knowing it. Do you know about bass and treble clefs? The clefs are there only for convenience. You would have too many lines without the clefs. But they have nothing to do with concepts. I asked how he arrived at what he’s doing. He said he played in the ‘tenor clef.’ It was ridiculous. There is no such thing.

“He was a clever man. He took what he didn’t know, and made it into something that seemed unique. He said that he played off the melody, not chords. This was his system, to which he gave a fancy name. What do you think Sam and Cephus said in the cotton fields when they were buck dancing and strumming the banjo? ‘Sam, I think that was a G7 in bar 10?’ Of course not. They played off of the melody. It was intuitive. What do you think professional musicians do today when they don’t know the song a singer is doing in some strange key? They play off the melody. It’s nothing new.

“Then one day I picked up the International Herald Tribune and read a story proclaiming this man a jazz genius who has come up with a new system. He plays off the melody.”

Golson rolled his eyes and slapped the table. “How can people be duped? Free jazz was a way out for a lot of musicians who couldn’t play the changes of ‘All The Things You Are.’ It opened the door to fakery.

“Not that it was invalid,” he added. “There were guys who could play both—like John. That’s why Coltrane was a great musician. He mastered it all. Whether you like where he ended up or not, he’s entitled to our respect.”

Golson presently is completing a book targeted to college and university jazz curriculums, which he hopes to publish later this year. Among the chapters, “The Bogus Genius.”

Golson’s genius is far less controversial. It lives in the easy warmth and fluency of his tenor lines, but his immortality might reside in a catalog of compositions that have taken root as major jazz standards, now with a life of their own.

Although he had recorded about a dozen sessions between 1950 and 1955, it was as a composer that he made his first serious impact when Coltrane brought Golson’s “Stablemates” to Miles Davis in November 1955. The Davis Quintet (and shortly after Coltrane with Paul Chambers) recorded it for Prestige, thus cementing it into the canon of modern jazz titles. Since then, it has been recorded 114 times by Golson and others. Other Golson standards include “Along Came Betty” (78 times), “Killer Joe” (94 times), “Whisper Not” (189 times) and, most famously, “I Remember Clifford,” with 282 recorded versions, according to Tom Lord’s Jazz Discography.

What kind of royalties come from such a songbook? “It varies according to how many plays I get,” he said. “How many recordings, how many performances. BMI keeps track of that. Sometimes it’s close to half a million in royalties. Sometime it’s $200,000. It might not be anything.”

He continues to play those songs today, because he knows his audiences want to hear them. “As much as I play them,” he said, “I try to make something fresh out of them every time. I don’t have any set solo routines. And when I play ‘Clifford,’ it’s a reflective mood for me because I remember all those times we were together. They were the songs that gave me my reputation. I owe them my best, because of what they’ve done for me. No, I don’t mind playing them, any more than I mind signing autographs. It’s a privilege.”

Composing them came with no guarantees, though. “You can’t get up and say, ‘I think I’ll write a hit today,’” he said. “You have to wait and see what the reaction is from the people who pay to see you. When I wrote those tunes, ‘Stablemates’ and ‘I Remember Cifford,’ I had no idea what would happen to them. My wife told me that ‘Killer Joe’ was too monotonous. You never know.

“What gives a composition validity is the knowledge of the person writing it, the experience he can draw on,” Golson continued. “But when you get to the meat of it, it’s in the intervals, what follows what. That’s what a melody is. When I write my songs, I’m conscious of intervals. Art Farmer was conscious of intervals. That’s why he played so beautifully. You get the right intervals in place and you’ve got something that will live past your time—Duke, Coltrane, Bill Evans, Claude Thornhill.”

As a composer, Golson has occasionally served as his own lyricist on songs such as “From Dream To Dream” and “If Time Only Had A Heart”—mainly to deny the opportunity to others. “You have no idea how many sets of lyrics I’ve gotten to ‘Along Came Betty,’” he complained. “I get some every year. Once, a person had the audacity to write a lyric to ‘Whisper Not’ and record it. Legally, I had to get them to take it off the market. I guess they think they’re doing you an honor, when they put words to your songs, and you should be happy about it. But I have to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ I have never approved any of the attempts.”

Not quite never. Leonard Feather added an approved lyric to “Whisper Not,” which Al Jarreau sings on the new Jazztet CD. And Quincy Jones penned the “Killer Joe” lyric. But generally, Golson remains protective of his songs’ integrity. Not even a Jon Hendricks lyric to “Stablemates” made the cut. “I told him, ‘Jon, don’t do that anymore,’” he said. “That’s not the kind of tune for a lyric. Nobody can put a lyric to a tune of mine legally without permission. I usually hate those attempts to take a jazz tune and put a lyric to it. Worse is putting words to improvisations. It’s not my cup of tea.” DB

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October 2018
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