To honor Benny Golson’s 83rd birthday, I’ve posted a DownBeat feature piece that I had the opportunity to write in 2000, and the proceedings of two mid-’90s encounters on WKCR — two 6-hour Sunday afternoon Jazz Profiles show from 1995, on which Mr. Golson was present and chose the selections, and a Musician Show from the following year, on which he played recordings by his heroes and contemporaries, and spoke about them in his inimitable manner.
Benny Golson (Downbeat):
The first question to decide in an account of Benny Golson is the proper sequence of his job title. To wit: Is he a tenor saxophonist-composer or a composer-tenor saxophonist?
Either description works; Golson, now 71, is an icon in both arenas. Several dozen of his tunes — he holds full copyright on most — are essential signposts of modern jazz. During the ’70s he broached the mainstream, writing scores for shows like “M.A.S.H.”, “Room 222,” “The Partridge Family” and “The Mod Squad,” for numerous made-for-TV movies, and for a host of national advertising spots. Instrumentally, Golson’s sound — an immense tone, by turns airy and burly, informed by a harmonic knowledge wide as the heavens that grounds stories replete with lyric detail and operatic flourish — is singular on the tenor tree.
Golson is an avuncular, erudite conversationalist, whose narrative deploys polysyllabic words in correct context. He continues to carry himself with the seemingly unflappable aplomb and no-nonsense professionalism that allowed him to flourish and keep focus through a half-century of music business encounters high and low. He’s seen chitlin’ circuit juke joints, tobacco warehouses, TOBA theaters and inner city lounges that defined “funky” before the word became a musical category; moved comfortably in sophisticated nightclubs and posh concert halls in the capitals of the world; performed his famous requiem “I’ll Remember Clifford” on an enormous organ in the aerie of Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, where Johann Sebastian Bach served as kapellmeister 300 years ago. But even Golson’s cool was challenged when Howard University, where he matriculated from 1947 to 1950, called a few years back to inform him that they were instituting a scholarship in his name.
“This was unreal,” Golson exclaimed during a late-December conversation in the living room of his well-appointed Upper West Side highrise. “I almost cried. During my third year at Howard, I became a rebel, and took to doing my assignments the way I felt that I could. I didn’t want to follow the rules. Why can’t I have octaves? Why can’t I have fifths if I want? Why must the dominant always go to the tonic? Why can’t I come from the leaning tonic? I started asking things like that, and they looked at me like I was crazy.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back came one day in class when the teacher played our composition assignments on the piano. When she got to mine, after the first chord resolved to the second, that red pencil made a big X, then she made another red X at the next resolution. She looked like Zorro with the whip. She didn’t get to the end. She looked at me, almost disgusted, and said, ‘Oh, Mr. Golson, what have you done?’ I tried to think of all kinds of ways that I could show my contempt. I stood up with my hands in my pocket, and rolled from side to side, the way Thelonious Monk used to, put my head back looking halfway up the ceiling, and said, ‘That’s the way I heard it.’ I don’t remember what she said, but it didn’t go over too big. The next day, I put my things in my little broken-down car, and drove off into the sunset.”
As we speak, Golson is conceptualizing separate commissions for March festschrifts in Switzerland and at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and a symphonic piece commissioned by the Guggenheim Foundation. He’s just finished mixing his fifth album for Arkadia Records, “One Day Forever,” which is distinct in his oeuvre, tempering the longueurs of nostalgic retrospection with the spiritual imperative of relentless inquiry. It includes a lively 1996 session with the front line of the Jazztet (Golson’s musical soulmate Art Farmer, who died in 1999, and trombonist Curtis Fuller), the well-wrought band that established Golson as a leader at the cusp of the ’60s, and relaunched his performing career in the ’80s. Shirley Horn oozes sophisticated weltschmerz on Golson’s world-weary lyrics to the title track and “Sad To Say.” The date ends with a crystalline performance by the classical pianist Lara Downes of Golson’s “On Gossamer Wings,” a melodically redolent opus that evokes the ambiance of Chopin and the 19th Century masters who fueled Golson’s imagination as a pre-teen piano aspirant in Depression-era Philadelphia.
No matter how mean times got, Golson’s mother — a “country girl” from Mobile, Alabama who came to Philadelphia in her teens — kept an upright piano in the house; two of his uncles played it with regularity, and the youngster became fascinated with it as he emerged from toddler years. Eventually she hired a piano teacher, one Jay Walker Freeman, for the then-substantial fee of 75 cents a week.
“After a few years I fancied that I wanted to be a concert pianist,” Golson recalls. “Of course, that was aberrational in my neighborhood. All you heard there was the Blues! Yet I proceeded to try to follow that idea, and got very good at it. My mother used to buy records by Lil Green and Big Bill Broonzy. I’d say, ‘How can she listen to that horrible music?’ I was somewhere else with the European music.
“I changed after I heard Lionel Hampton’s band at the Earle Theater. The curtain swung open, the lights came up, the bandstand rolled dramatically forward toward the audience, everybody was dressed alike, the lights played on the instruments, and the sound of the music live came forth. The icing on the cake came when Arnett Cobb stepped to the microphone and played that solo on ‘Flying Home.’ From that moment, the piano began to pale. My mother let me off the hook, the saxophone took over.”
Golson’s mother supported his new obsession with alacrity, buying him a saxophone as a birthday present when the family was “two years off welfare.” She even took a singing job (“I’ll Get By,” “Evil Gal Blues”) with him and childhood friends Ray and Tommy Bryant. Golson listened to records by Tex Beneke with Glenn Miller (“one of my favorite bands in the war years, with the clarinet on top”), by Bud Freeman and Eddie Miller; he memorized Coleman Hawkins’ solo on “Body and Soul,” Ben Webster’s solo on “Raincheck” and Lester Young’s solo on “D.B. Blues.”
Then, Golson relates, “Don Byas walked into my heart, and occupied a large part of the space there. I couldn’t believe the velocity with which he moved over that horn, and his huge sound was overwhelming — so natural, not strained or manufactured. Don’s articulation was amazing. He played wide intervals, jumping over the notes like skipping up or down a pair of steps.”
One day Golson speculated ten cents (“I figured I couldn’t lose anything”) on a fresh-from-the-jukebox Savoy disk with Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce.” “It was the strangest music,” he recalls. “Had I wasted my dime? But the more I played it, the more I began to like it.” Soon after, Golson went with his friends John Coltrane and Ray Bryant to a concert at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music by a sextet featuring Byas, Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Al Haig on piano, Slam Stewart on bass, and Sid Catlett on drums.
“My life’s first beginning was when I was born of my mother and father; the second was after that concert,” Golson declares. “Charlie Parker was wearing a double-breasted pinstriped suit with all the buttons buttoned, and it looked too small for him, like he was going to explode! When he bent over to make that 4-bar break in ‘A Night In Tunisia,’ John and I were grabbing at each other; we almost fell out of the balcony! He was playing alto then like Johnny Hodges and I was trying to play like Arnett Cobb. This wasn’t just a good performance. We heard music that we had never heard before! What was it all about? How could we get close to it? When the concert was over we went backstage and got all the autographs.
“Then we followed Charlie Parker out of the theater and onto Broad Street. He was walking to the Downbeat to play with a local rhythm section — Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland and Nelson Boyd on bass. John carried his horn for the four blocks, and I asked him what kind of horn he played, his reed and mouthpiece — all these dumb questions. But he was nice to us. We were too young to go inside, so we stood outside the club all night, dreaming; when they finished, we walked all the way home to North Philadelphia.”
By the time Golson entered Howard, he was, as he puts it, “trying for all I was worth to play bebop.” He gigged on the vibrant D.C. scene, violating the school’s curfew (“I had a agreement with the door monitor to let me back in; when the door was locked, I jumped over the wall, which wasn’t too high”), and frequently made the three-hour drive to Philadelphia for weekend jobs.
After his dramatic departure from school, Golson returned to Philadelphia, and some months later, on Ray Bryant’s recommendation, landed a gig with the guitarist Tiny Grimes and his Swinging Highlanders in Atlantic City. “It wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I had no other offer,” Golson says. “So I took the cup of tea. We wore Scottish kilts and the little tam with the tassel on it. On the first night I put on my kilts, and I had to walk the bar. All the ladies were pulling up my kilt. Well, I had my underwear on, but nobody told me I had to wear a bathing suit until after the fact.”
It wasn’t all fun-and-games; Grimes, who had been Art Tatum’s guitarist for the first part of the ’40s, took from that experience a penchant for playing any tune, without warning, in any key, keeping everyone on their toes. And although Golson spent the first half of the fifties playing a succession of similarly functional jobs, he gleaned consequential information from each of them.
“I saw John Coltrane stepping over drinks on the bar,” he relates. “We all did it. But none of it was a waste of time. It gave you a feeling straight across the board what jazz was all about, where it came from. You function according to the situation; if the situation changes, then you change to meet the situation. No sesquipedalian words in the Rhythm-and-Blues!”
Golson dates his interest in composition to the realization that his home-grown symbology for transcribing solos was insufficient. “I became pretty good at writing down what they were playing, and realized that if I could do this, then maybe I could write music other people could play,” he says. Duke Ellington was an early hero; so was Tadd Dameron, whose arrangements Golson played as a teenage member of a well-drilled 17-piece orchestra in Philadelphia led by the young Jimmy Heath. Later, during 21 months on the road with the popular R&B singer Bull Moose Jackson, Golson became close to Dameron, the band’s pianist; soon he was allowed to recruit serious Philly brethren like trumpeter Johnny Coles, bassist Jymie Merritt and drummer Philly Joe Jones.
“We started to play some of Tadd’s things in between Bullmoose Jackson’s hits,” Golson relates. “Moose enjoyed playing these pieces more than the things he was making his money at, although we never recorded any of them.
“Tadd showed me everything he knew. Once he was doing an arrangement for Duke Ellington, and let me copy it, which I did for nothing, because I was able to eviscerate what he did, lay it bare, and look at its component parts. He taught me to be a dearth writer. He didn’t make two horns simulate a large band, but it didn’t sound abbreviated either. With two or three horns, you draw upon each instrument’s outstanding characteristics. The trapset has the bass drum, the snare drum, the cymbal, the ride cymbal, the hi-hat cymbal; the piano is really three instruments — the high end, the mid-range and the low. You have to be selective about notes, and pick the two outstanding ones.”
In June 1953, Dameron hired Golson for an extended summer engagement in Atlantic City with his Dameronia nonet. Then Golson briefly worked with a Lionel Hampton unit that included Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Quincy Jones, Gigi Gryce, and Jimmy Cleveland. He toured with Johnny Hodges (Coltrane and Richie Powell were in the band), then joined alto saxophone virtuoso Earl Bostic (“the technician of all technicians”) from August 1954 until June 1956. Bostic afforded Golson many opportunities to write, including a kaleidoscopic modernist arrangement of “All The Things You Are” that the leader so enjoyed digging into that he doubled Golson’s fee. During this time Golson penned tunes like “Out Of The Past” and “Whisper Not,” distributing lead sheets “all over the country” to general indifference. Then he moved to New York.
“I hadn’t recorded anything, but I was no stranger,” Golson states. “When I was in high school, one of my uncles was a bartender at Minton’s Playhouse, and I visited him a lot! Teddy Hill would let me in because I was his nephew. And the various Rhythm-and-Blues groups I played with always came through New York, whether to play the Apollo or meet for rehearsals. I’d stay over, see the bands, get to know musicians. But New York is a strange place. You can’t go back and forth. Either you’re here or you’re not. When I moved, things started to pick up.”
Specifically, John Coltrane presented Miles Davis with “Stablemates,” Davis recorded it, and, as Golson puts it, “people retrieved my tunes from under the rug or out of the trash, and started recording my stuff.” Meanwhile, Golson, who was “getting restless” with the tedium of Bostic’s repertoire, took to detuning the leader’s electric guitar on Delta and Panhandle gigs, escalating the mischief until one night in Seattle, during a Bostic clarinet solo, he raced to the front of the stage, tenor in hand, and pretended to hurl it into the crowd. A week after Bostic let him go, Dizzy Gillespie hired him to replace the departing saxophonist-arranger Ernie Wilkins, another Golson influence.
“People associate Dizzy Gillespie with the high notes and fast velocities, the force and the power — but he was a compassionate trumpet player,” Golson emphasizes. “He and Art Farmer were unique in being able to play unexpected notes that were so beautiful and fit so well that your heart intuitively would say, ‘Yes, yes!’ It’s always good to know for whom you’re writing; the rewards are so much better if you write for personalities, as Duke Ellington did or Count Basie’s arrangers. You know they’re going to do your music justice, and often enhance what you’ve written, which is one of the real rewards.”
In 1958-59, Golson worked with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, where he found a perfect template on which to stamp his sensibility. He recruited Philly heroes Lee Morgan (from Dizzy Gillespie’s band), Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merrit, and incorporated Blakey’s extraordinary four-limb independence and command of drumkit sonics in new compositions like “Blues March,” “Along Came Betty” and “Are You Real?” He established the orchestrational sound that defined every subsequent iteration of the Messengers.
Conversely, playing with Blakey irrevocably altered Golson’s attitude towards his instrument. “One thing that Art taught me to do — painfully — was to project,” Golson notes. “During my early gigs with him, he might play one of those drum rolls he was famous for four bars before the end of the chorus. They had a way of getting louder as they went along, so loud that it drowned me out, and I would stand there pantomiming, for all intents and purposes. One night he added a few downbeats on the bass drum and a few strokes with the cymbal to underscore what he had done, and then, to make doubly sure I got it, he screamed across the bandstand to me, ‘Get up out of that hole!’ Then it all sort of came together, and I started trying to play more forcefully.
“One night during my first week with Art at the Cafe Bohemia, Thelonious Monk came in. When I came off the bandstand, he said to me, ‘You play too perfect.’ I knew it wasn’t a compliment. Art Blakey was standing on the side, snickering like that little dog in the cartoon. Monk let me stew for 15 or 20 seconds, looking at me all the time through his sunglasses with the bamboo temples on them, and he said, ‘You’ve got to make mistakes to discover the new stuff.’ I thought about that. The next night I came in, and played like a man taking leave of his senses, trying to get away from the well-worn patterns I’d fashioned for myself, like mathematics — and music is anything but that. I was jumping off cliffs and bridges, standing in front of trains! That started to move me out of where I was before — ‘mellifluous,’ ‘sweet.’ ‘charming’ are words people used. I wanted more fire and articulation. I had a lazy tongue; that old style, where your tongue doesn’t touch the reed much, and your fingers do all the work. But the tongue also has to work, to define, to separate notes and ideas. That’s what I worked on. I guess I’m still working on it.”
In 1959, Golson decided it was time to venture on his own, and formed the Jazztet with Art Farmer, a companion on numerous ’50s projects. “What attracted me to Benny was the warmth of his ensemble writing,” Farmer recalled in a 1994 interview on WKCR. “He writes melodies that sing and stay in your head once you hear them, and constructs a harmonic framework that the improviser feels very comfortable with — not that it’s always easy — to construct their own melodies during their improvisation. I don’t know where I would be without his tunes.”
Piggybacking off a high-visibility debut at Manhattan’s Five Spot opposite Ornette Coleman’s quartet in its first New York appearance, the Jazztet had a successful four-year run, playing numerous engagements and making six records before it disbanded in 1962. With a young family to raise, Golson became more involved in New York’s commercial scene; in 1967, at the urging of Oliver Nelson and Quincy Jones, he moved to Hollywood, shed “tenor saxophonist” from his c.v., and after a humbling initial rough patch became a profitably busy studio freelancer.
“For seven or eight years I didn’t play my horn at all,” he says. “I could have used it as an ornament or put dirt in it and planted flowers. I did not like my sound or my style, what I was playing wasn’t reaching my heart, and I didn’t know what to do about it. I was studying composition privately, I wanted to do some things I hadn’t done before in composition; once I moved I put all my energy into that, and the playing fell aside. But the thinking process was working the whole time, and when I finally picked up the horn again in the late ’70s, I sounded different, although it took about ten years before I felt comfortable again. I had to get my imagination oiled up.”
Golson emerged from improvisational hibernation in 1980 fully committed to hardcore jazz. “I take more chances now,” he says. “I don’t know if I can jump over the hurdle, but I’ll feel compelled to try. To move ahead you have to take chances, otherwise, you’ll level off, and time, in its indefatigable forward course, will relegate you to history. “
Golson and Farmer hewed to the freedom principle when they reconstituted the Jazztet in 1983, and that spirit underlies every Golson album and performance from then until “One Day Forever.” “We used less written music the second time around,” Golson says. “Let’s allow the personalities to express their inner thoughts rather than see how they can play as an ensemble what I’ve written. Jazz is all about improvisation. Nobody comes to hear the melody chorus after chorus.”
Speaking of melody, Golson has tickets for a Metropolitan Opera performance of “Il Trovatore,” and our conversation is winding down. Before we part, he offers a few final words of wisdom.
“Schools teach the rules, and we should know them,” he offers. “But I concern myself with ‘Why?’ And ‘Why not?’ ‘You can’t because the rule says you can’t.’ ‘Why not?!’ I do what I do because I want to do it. And at this late date, I want to get better at what I do. I’m not a young man any more. But why should I be satisfied with what I’m doing? I’ll never be satisfied.
“I often use young players. Many of them are innovative, and are ascendant when they join me. Hearing them keeps my mind sharp; I don’t get jaded with the music that surrounds me. That helps me retain the spirit of adventure that all jazz musicians should have — walking two steps into the darkness of the unknown, waiting for things to jump out at you, to free things from the confines of your imagination, things sometimes you didn’t even know are there. After I left Howard, I drove a furniture truck. Jazz is so much better!”
Benny Golson Profile (10-15-95):
[MUSIC: Messengers, "Are You Real" (1958-Olympia)]
TP: I’d like to start with the third degree right away and take you back to Philadelphia and your early days in music. You were born in Philadelphia in 1929. Was music always part of your background? Was your family musical? Was it something you took to right away?
GOLSON: No, I didn’t take to it right away. I had two uncles who played piano, and at that time I fancied that they were absolutely extraordinary. But as time went on, I realized that they weren’t very good at all. What used to amaze me… It seemed like we always had an upright piano wherever we were, and before school, pre-school age (I guess I was 3 or 4 or something like that), I used to hear them play this piano, and when they would finish I would go over and look at the keys and wonder how did they get those keys to say all of the things that they were saying musically. As I got older, I decided that I would try to see what I could do. I think I was even worse than they were. But I kept at it; it fascinated me. Finally, my mother asked me, “Would you like to take piano lessons?” Well, I’d never thought of that. And I said, “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.” Well, that was quite an investment during those days. I mean, the piano teacher would come to the house, like they did during those times, 75 cents a week for the lesson. Which was quite an investment. I mean, at that time things were a little mean.
I really got into the piano, so much so that after a few years I fancied that I wanted to be a concert pianist. Of course, that was quite an aberration in the area I lived. All you heard was the Blues there! Yet I proceeded to try to follow that idea…
TP: So your reading skills were well developed as a child, I’d take it, if you were going in a Classical direction.
GOLSON: Oh, yes. I’ll tell you about that in a minute. My teacher used to give piano recitals. This was the time to show off all the students and let the parents know that they’re not wasting their money. I was scared to death every time these things came up, once a year. But I got very good at it…until I heard Lionel Hampton’s band, live at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia, and a fellow named Arnett Cobb came out to the microphone and played that solo on “Flying Home.” And from that moment on, the piano began to pale. My mother let me off the hook, because she wanted me to learn to play the piano and play the organ in church, and I had agreed to all this because it sounded okay at the time. But she let me off the hook. The piano just sort of fell by the wayside, and the saxophone took over.
TP: I guess the hormones were starting to rise, and the saxophone was a more charismatic instrument.
GOLSON: Oh yeah, I was into it by then.
TP: Had you had any experience with wind instruments prior to hearing Arnett Cobb?
GOLSON: Absolutely not. That was all foreign to me. It was all piano as far as I was concerned.
TP: The name of your piano teacher.
GOLSON: Jay Walker Freeman. Nobody ever asks me that. He left me after about five years, I guess, and he went to teach at a university. By the time I got to college, though, I didn’t really want to pursue the piano. I wanted to pursue the saxophone, but piano was mandatory for the first two years — so I’d had a little head start.
TP: As a kid, what sort of repertoire did he have you playing? I take it you were at a point where you were able to play certain pieces in the repertoire. What interested you and what were you performing?
GOLSON: I remember, I guess at the height of my brief career as a pianist, on one of the recitals that I’d rehearsed quite… Everything we had to commit to memory for the recitals. There was a piece called “The Bumblebee.” Not “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” but it was certainly reminiscent of it, and it moved along quite swiftly. The night of the concert… Sometimes when you hear your name called, it strikes fear in your heart. “And now, Benny Golson.” And at that moment, I forgot everything. I couldn’t even remember how it started! And as I was walking up to the stage, I was thinking, “So this is how it ends.” I couldn’t even remember what note it started with. It was incredible! But as soon as I got to the piano, I put my hands over the piano, and it was sort of automatic. I was so scared that I played that piece faster than I have ever played it. And my teacher marvelled at it. That was my high point. Then after that I took a dive.
TP: Concurrently, playing Classical piano, were you listening to Jazz and vernacular music on the radio or records or whatever? Was that part of your experience?
GOLSON: I used to hear the Blues. My mother used to buy these records by Lil Green and Big Bill Broonzy and things like that, and I used to say, “How can she listen to that horrible music?” No, I wasn’t there. I was somewhere else with the European music. I changed later.
TP: After hearing Arnett Cobb, I guess, or around that time.
TP: What brought you to the Earle Theater to hear Lionel Hampton if you were so exclusively interested in Classical music?
GOLSON: Young curiosity. That was it. I mean, Earl Bostic was in that band at that time, the technician of all technicians. He came out and he played, as we said, snakes. He played everything playable on that darn alto saxophone. And I just sat there and listened. But when Arnett Cobb came out… See, I wasn’t prepared for any of this. The whole thing got me. Watching the curtain swing open, the lights come up, the bandstand roll dramatically forward toward the audience, everybody dressed alike, the lights playing on the instruments, and the sound of the music coming live… I’d never seen anything like this. I was overwhelmed by it. And the icing on the cake was Arnett Cobb coming out playing that solo. I became a groupie.
TP: On Arnett Cobb, huh?
GOLSON: Sort of, yeah. [LAUGHS]
TP: So did that then start taking you into studying other tenor saxophonists, the major stylists of the time?
GOLSON: Oh yeah.
TP: Let’s talk about the process of your development as a tenor saxophonist.
GOLSON: Arnett Cobb was my first influence. He was the one responsible for my going in that direction. Quite naturally, being an aspiring saxophone player, you start buying saxophone records. Believe it or not, I listened to Tex Beneke with Glenn Miller, and that was one of my favorite bands at that time, and Bud Freeman and Eddie Miller, and Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster. But somehow, Don Byas walked into my heart, and occupied a large part of the space there.
TP: Which of his performances did you hear that affected you? Perhaps you could go into detail, taking yourself out of being an aspiring 14-15-year-old saxophone player, and talk about Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas and what they were doing in the 1940’s.
GOLSON: Well, I heard Coleman Hawkins before I heard Don Byas, his classic solo on “Body and Soul.” It was so popular that it was on all the jukeboxes in our neighborhood — and it was a Black neighborhood. You could walk down the street any day and hear Coleman Hawkins playing “Body and Soul,” which is quite unusual today, to go to neighborhoods and hear anything like that. But eventually, I heard Don Byas play on a recording with Dizzy Gillespie, “52nd Street Theme.” I couldn’t believe it, the way he got over that horn. He became my idol at that moment. Of course, I continued to like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, but Don Byas to me had something a little special. His sound and the velocity that he had when he moved over the horn. It didn’t sound strained or manufactured. It sounded quite natural, the way he did it, and I was straining like I don’t know what to try to do that. I was a neophyte then.
TP: Were you going around to hear a lot of bands at that time? When the big bands would come along with a tenor player, would you try to catch them in person?
GOLSON: I was a little too young to go to the clubs.
TP: But at the Earle Theater you’d go to hear bands?
GOLSON: Oh, yeah, whenever I could.
TP: So did you get to see Don Byas with Count Basie, let’s say, coming through?
GOLSON: No. By the time I got to see him live, I got to know him as a friend… No, during that time I didn’t, unfortunately.
TP: I heard a story from Jackie McLean where Charlie Parker had come back from Europe, Jackie McLean was maybe 19, he said, “How was it there?” and Bird said, “I had a wonderful saxophone lesson over there.” Jackie McLean thought it might be Marcel Mule, the great Classical saxophonist, but Charlie Parker said, “No, it was Don Byas.”
TP: Did this interest you very much then in Bebop and the new music coming up in the 1940’s?
GOLSON: Oh, definitely. It changed my life. Dizzy Gillespie changed my life. My life had two beginnings, Ted. When I was born of my mother and father and when I heard Dizzy Gillespie.
TP: When was that?
TP: Earle Theater?
GOLSON: No, it was Academy of Music, a concert. Elliot Lawrence’s band was there, featuring a young new trumpet player at that same concert, 17 years old, named Red Rodney. Don Byas was there with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Slam Stewart on bass, Al Haig, I’m not sure who the drummer was. But the rhythm section hadn’t really caught up to what Charlie Parker and Diz were doing. John Coltrane and I and Ray Bryant were there, and when we heard them play this music we just couldn’t believe it. John was playing alto like Johnny Hodges and I was trying to sound like Arnett Cobb, which is completely different. Ray Bryant was sounding somewhat like Eddie Heywood and other piano players of the time, I guess. When we heard them play, for example, a song that was so strange, it was quite aberrational to us then, John looked at me and said, “It sounds like snake charmer’s music.” I looked at him and agreed, “Yes, it does!” It was “A Night In Tunisia.” We’d never heard any Jazz like that. It was foreign! They played an interlude, and Charlie Parker made the 4-bar break where he doubles up. We almost fell out of the balcony! We’d never heard anything like that. It wasn’t just a good performance. We heard music that we had never heard before! I mean, our blood must have been boiling in the veins, we were so effervescent. We were so taken by all of this, that when the concert was over we went backstage (and of course, as kids; I think I was 16 and John was 18) and got all the autographs.
But we followed Charlie Parker out of the theater and into the street. Now, Don Byas was my idol. But what Charlie Parker was doing that night was so completely different than I had ever heard, I had to try to find out what it was about. So we proceeded to walk up… He was on his way over to another club about four blocks away called the Downbeat, where the local rhythm section was going to be playing with him. The rhythm section was Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland and Nelson Boyd on bass.
TP: In 1945?
GOLSON: Right. They were just a little older than us, and they had a jump on us. While we were walking on Broad Street, John asked him could he carry his horn, so he was carrying his horn for him, and I was asking him what kind of horn did he play, and what kind of reed, and what number reed, and what did he do — all these dumb questions. But he was nice to us! [LAUGHS] And when we got to the club, we were too young to go up there. The club was on the second floor. So we just stood outside all night, until they finished, dreaming, “What if? Suppose.” When it was over… We were in South Philadelphia, where the club was. We never had any money. So we walked from South Philadelphia back to North Philadelphia.
TP: A dangerous walk sometimes.
GOLSON: Oh, it wasn’t dangerous at that time. We weren’t aware of anything but the music that we had been hearing that night, and we were dreaming, forecasting… We were trying to be some kind of harbingers. We wanted to be a part of what this was. And we didn’t know what it was, and we didn’t know how to even start.
John called me a little bit later, and he said, “Did you try any of that stuff that Mr. Parker was telling us?” I said, “yeah,” like what kind of horn and the reed and the mouthpiece. He said, “Did anything happen?” I said, “No.” He said, “Me either.” We didn’t even realize it wasn’t those physical things; it was what the man had in his mind, his concept!
TP: I take it you subsequently took every possible opportunity to hear Charlie Parker play, when he’d come through Philadelphia.
GOLSON: Not only Charlie Parker. Whoever it was. Whoever it was, I figured it could help me, as it were, to climb another rung in the ladder, to wherever. And we didn’t know wherever we were going, but wherever it was, we wanted to try to go anyway, and find our way along the way — searching.
TP: What was your studying process? Would you listen to his records, transcribe the solos, or did you have a teacher in high school?
GOLSON: You bet. All of the above. I had a teacher. We would listen to the records. In fact, that’s how I got interested in writing. Writing the solos out. I had my own crude way of doing it, because I didn’t know the syncopation, so each note that they played, I just made a circle, a goose-egg. So I had the right notes, but I was the only one who could play it. I was the only one who knew the syncopation to it. But I realized later that that wasn’t good enough; I had to actually learn how to write it the way they were playing. Then I got pretty good at that, and then I realized, “My goodness, if I can do this, then maybe I can write music so other people can play it, and groups of people can play together.” That’s when I started to become interested in arranging.
TP: This gives me an opportunity to combine two questions, your arranging and your contemporaries and peers in Philadelphia. You just mentioned some very heavy names, John Coltrane, Ray Bryant, Philly Joe Jones, Nelson Boyd, Red Garland I guess had come to Philadelphia after his time in the Army… Talk about your coterie, your circle of friends, the types of situations you performed in, and where you were musically at the time. Well, you told us that you were into Bebop.
GOLSON: I was trying to get into it, but it was quite hard for us. It wasn’t like it is today where the musicians from my time period try to encourage the young ones coming along. It was just the antithesis of that. When I was coming up, the older musicians who played the other style, the other style being the style before Bebop…I hate that name, but before that style…tried to discourage us. They would make very disparaging remarks, like: “Where is the beat?” “Where is the bass drum?” “Where is the melody?” “You guys sound like you’re playing with a mouth-full of hot rice.” They didn’t understand. They put us down. And the more they put us down, the harder we tried to find out what it was all about. Jimmy Heath, he was there; he was playing alto at the time…
TP: He and John Coltrane were a few years older than you?
GOLSON: John was two or three years older than me, and Jimmy about the same. Percy Heath wasn’t even a musician then. He was a pilot in the Air Force, I think, he came home, and he learned how to play quickly. It was amazing how quickly he learned how to play. Then he became a part of the scene. Then other musicians you probably wouldn’t know about, if I mentioned.
TP: Well, name some names.
GOLSON: Calvin Todd was a trumpet player there who had a big band. He was young, a teenager or in his early twenties, and he had a big band that was pretty good. Jimmy Heath had a big band, and John and I were in that band. Nelson Boyd ended up being the bass player, Specs Wright…
TP: That’s the band that tried to play a lot of Dizzy Gillespie’s arrangements.
GOLSON: You bet.
TP: That’s very advanced for a group of teenagers.
GOLSON: That’s right. All the seats in that band were coveted. I’ll tell you, everybody wanted to be in that band. But John Coltrane and I were fortunate enough to be in it, somehow, and we were so happy about it. And it wasn’t about the money. We weren’t making any money. But we were having a lot of fun, and then we were learning as we were going along. Tadd Dameron wrote some things for the band because he liked the idea that these kids were trying to do something of value, trying to move ahead. Another arranger named Johnny Acea wrote some things for us. Leroy Lovett. These were all professional arrangers. Then Jimmy was trying to write some things, I was trying to write some things. So they helped us. It was like giving birth. Every time you’d write something, you had a chance for somebody to play it, and you’d sit there hoping that the baby turned out to be normal.
And our parents encouraged us. We’d go down to Jimmy’s house, and his parents were so sweet and loving… We would push the furniture to the side, and make enough room for 15 guys, and have a big band rehearsal. We’d rehearse during the summertime, the windows were up, and the whole neighborhood would sit out on the steps and listen to the band. And the same thing at my house. Just move the furniture out, move everything into the kitchen. We couldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been for the support of our parents.
TP: A lot of your contemporaries playing saxophone were captivated by Lester Young, and their styles went in that direction, and you haven’t mentioned him in your list of influences. Did you admire him at that time?
GOLSON: I loved Lester Young and I love Lester Young. But I can’t be two people at the same time, so I had to make a choice. And it had to be the school that I chose — Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Ben Webster, and later Dexter Gordon. Lester Young was fantastic, but I chose not to go in that direction. Unfortunately, people overlook Lester Young, I guess because he was laid back the things he played. But I heard him play things that were fast! Incredible. He knew what he was doing.
TP: You entered Howard University at age 18, which would have been 1947?
GOLSON: It was ’47.
TP: Did you go there as a music major, with the intention of developing your musicality in the academic environment?
GOLSON: Yes, with those things that you mentioned. But the curriculum that I found myself in was one wherein I would wind up being a teacher. Which was a little discouraging. Because I stepped back and looked at it, and I said to myself, “These teachers had someone teach them what they’re teaching me. They’re going to teach me what they have been taught, and I in turn will teach someone else what I have learned from them, and they will teach someone…” I said, “When am I going to get a chance to use it?” There were a lot of rules, you know.
My third year there, I became a rebel. They would say things like “the fifth, the dominant has got to resolve to the tonic, this note has got to resolve here,” and I thought to myself, “Well, suppose it resolves somewhere else instead of there?” “No, no, no, you can’t do that.” That discouraged me a little bit.
So I took to doing my assignments the way I felt that I could do them. Why do them any other way. I remember the straw that broke the camel’s back. I went to class one day, and she put the assignments on the piano and played them. The classes were small, maybe 10 or 12 of us in the class, and she’d play. “Ah, Neapolitan 6th, Mrs. Brown.” “Oh yes, deceptive cadence here; oh, very good.” Then she’d play the next one. “Oh yes, I see you’ve done this. Oh, very nice. But you must not use fifths. Ah, no parallel…” Then she got to mine, and she played the first chord. But the first chord had to resolve to the second chord, and that red pencil made a big X, then she went to the next one and she made another red X. She looked like Zorro with the whip. Finally, she didn’t get to the end of it. She turned around, almost disgusted, I guess, and looked at me and said, “Oh, Mr. Golson, what have you done?” I tried to think of all kinds of ways that I could show my contempt. So I stood up and my hands in my pocket and I sort of rolled from side to side, the way Thelonious Monk used to do, and put my head back looking halfway up the ceiling, and said, “That’s the way I heard it.”
TP: To which she responded?
GOLSON: I didn’t go over big at all. I don’t remember what she said, but it didn’t go over too big. The next day, I put my things in my little broken-down car, and left — drove off into the sunset. No, I wanted to do something else. I didn’t want to follow the rules. Why should you do everything always the same. Music is an adventure. It should be an adventure! It’s not just something that happens when you walk down a corridor of time. You want to find doors when you walk down that corridor. You want to open those doors and find some surprises.
TP: Well, before we send you off into the sunset, I want to find out what Washington was like for you, because there was a very strong musical community there.
GOLSON: Oh, it was great. Absolutely.
TP: Were you gigging after classes, on the side, let’s say?
GOLSON: Yeah, and that was a no-no. But I had a agreement with the monitor on the door at night. He would let me in. And when the door was locked, the wall wasn’t too high; I’d come over the wall. I was even going to Philly doing gigs on weekends. I was playing at a club about six blocks from campus called Little Harlem that was frequented by a lot of people. I came up to do a set, and there was one of the theory teachers sitting on the front table. We’re not supposed to be doing that! I said, “Oh, man, this is a drag. They’re going to kick me out.” It was over. I had to play. And he sat there. He was cool. Sterling Thomas; I’ll never forget his name. After the set was over, he said, “Can I see you a minute?” I said, “Yeah, this is it.” I went over, and he said, “That was a nice set.” [LAUGHS] That was it.
TP: What sort of music were you playing? Was it a Bebop set?
GOLSON: I was trying for all I was worth to play Bebop.
TP: Who were you playing with?
GOLSON: A trumpet who’s dead now, from Cleveland, Ohio — Carl Fields. A piano player who later became Billie Holiday’s pianist, Carl Drinkard. Fats Clarke was the drummer. I can’t remember the bass player’s name. But we were trying as hard as we could to do that. Whatever the risk was, I had to do it.
TP: Also in Washington at that time… Well, John Malachi had left Billy Eckstine and not gone back out…
GOLSON: He was there during that time. And subsequent to that he went out to play with Al Hibbler. Leo Parker was still around, in and out of town during that time. Charlie Rouse was there. We looked up to him, because he had sort of “made it.” Wesley Anderson, the trombone player, he was pretty good; he was in and out of town. There was a tremendous saxophone player there named Carrington Visor(?). He lives in Los Angeles now. Oh, that guy could play.
There were a lot of good musicians there, and there were a lot of clubs. During that same time, there were a lot of clubs in Philadelphia. It was like they’d found a new way to life as far as Jazz was concerned. Then unfortunately, they died.
TP: Also in Washington and Philadelphia you had the theaters, and still throughout the ’40s the bands were coming in; in Philly, the Earle Theater and Academy of Music, and in Washington primarily the Howard Theater.
GOLSON: Well, there was more than that in Philadelphia. There was a theater out in West Philadelphia that was called The Fay’s, then they later changed the name to the Fans for whatever reason. The Earle Theater was the main one; that lasted the longest. But earlier on, there was one called the Nixon Grand, which was only three blocks from my house. Duke Ellington came there, as did Slim and Slam; those are the only two I remember seeing there.
TP: Were you simultaneously a fan of any of the big bands that were coming through, or were you more exclusively into the Bebop combo aesthetic. I’m talking about apart from Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band. Did Duke Ellington thrill you as a 20-year-old, or the Basie band, or the other top bands of the time?
GOLSON: Ted, you have to understand. I was young, I was aspiring and therefore I was highly eclectic. I was trying to get it wherever I could. Fats Waller came there with a band, and yes, I went to hear Fats Waller with Al Casey on guitar. I never saw Duke Ellington’s band there. He was there, but I didn’t see it; I was too young to know what it was all about, I guess. There was a local band, Jan Savitt, who played there. Georgie Auld came through there. I’m trying to think of some of the other bands. But I went to see a lot of them. Some of the music I didn’t particularly like, but I thought I should know what it was about, so I could be broad enough what this thing called music, and Jazz in particular, was all about. So I listened to lots of people and lots of music. As I told you, during the war years one of my favorite bands was Glenn Miller, with the clarinet on top, and the way Tex Beneke used to sing and the way he played. That appealed to me at that time. I didn’t try to play like that. But I loved it.
TP: So in 1949-50, you’re driving off into the sunset from Washington, and where did you land?
GOLSON: I landed back in Philadelphia, on my feet, thank goodness. Right after that, the fellow that used to play with Art Tatum, Tiny Grimes, the guitar player, had a group. Ray Bryant was already in that group. Now, it wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I had no other offer. So I took the cup of tea, and went out with Tiny Grimes and his Swinging Highlanders. We wore Scottish kilts and the little tam with the tassel on it, the whole thing. I remember the first night with them, we were playing Atlantic City, and I put my kilts on. Nobody told me anything. And I had to go step out on the bar and walk the bar.
TP: In kilts.
GOLSON: In kilts. I wasn’t prepared for what happened. And all the ladies were pulling up my skirt, this kilt. Well, I had my underwear on. Nobody told me. And the guys were laughing. I think they purposely didn’t tell me. But then they said, “Benny, you’ve got to wear a bathing suit under it.” I said, “Well, thanks for telling me after the fact!” I mean, I could hardly play. It was incredible.
TP: Well, it sounds like you played some very entertaining venues during your formative years.
GOLSON: Oh yes.
TP: Any others that are particularly memorable you’d like to speak of?
GOLSON: Well, I did some other gigs like that. I worked with Bullmoose Jackson. Now, you might laugh and think what a waste of time, but none of it was a waste of time. You have no idea how those jobs helped to broaden you and help to spread your appreciation for the whole scope of what jazz was about. I played gigs where I had to sway from side to side with funny-looking ties on, and singing “Rag Mop” and things like that. We all did it. I walked in one day and saw John walking on the bar and stepping over drinks. We all did it. We had to survive. But it wasn’t a waste of time. It gave you a feeling straight across the board what jazz was all about, where it came from. Even the Gospel stuff.
TP: In relation to what you’re saying, I gather that in the Bullmoose Jackson band, Tadd Dameron was briefly apart of that, Philly Joe Jones as well… Very strong musicians. Was there any working out of let’s say higher musical ideas off-hours, on the road? Talk a bit about the climate within the band, the attitudes and interactions.
GOLSON: Okay, I’ll tell you about it. Tadd Dameron was there, and it was a complete aberration, an anomaly. Tadd Dameron and Bullmoose Jackson, whose name was Benjamin, were both from Cleveland, Ohio, and they knew each other as kids growing up in Cleveland. Bullmoose ran into Tadd one day in New York and just happened to say, “Are you working?” Tadd said, “No, I’m not working right now.” He said, “Look, I need a piano player, and I know this is really not your kind of thing, but come down, make a few gigs and make some money with me, and when you’re ready to leave, you can leave.” Tadd thought about it and said, “Well, okay.” I’m so happy he did that, because when I joined the band he was the piano player. Oh, you have no idea! Because he was one of my idols as far as the pen is concerned.
Now, someone told Bullmoose Jackson about me, and he approached me about joining the band. He happened to be Philadelphia with his group, and he’d been asking about tenor players in town. I might have taken Frank Wess’ place. I’m not sure. Anyway, Bullmoose and the road manager, who was also the alto saxophone player, wanted me to come to their hotel room to play some music with them — they wanted to see if I could read music. So I went down, and we did, and they liked it, and they said, “Hmm, do you happen to know of any trumpet player who might want to play who can read?” — because they had a lot of written music. I said, “Yeah, I know one. He’s an excellent reader. Johnny Coles.” They approached John, who didn’t have to take a test because they took my word for it; he could read really well. They said, “Do you know a bass player?” I guess he was revamping the whole band. So I recommended Jymie Merritt. Fine. And they wanted a drummer. I said, “Okay.” “Has he got any experience playing this kind of music?” “Yeah, he used to play with Joe Morris; he’s played a lot of rhythm-and-blues dates.” (That was before Rock-and-Roll.) That was Philly Joe Jones. Philly could play anything. We used to have a gig locally, and Philly used to be the singer! You never heard him sing, but he sang great. And he played bass, and he played piano, and he was a comedian, too…
[END OF SIDE A]
We had some arrangements that he had written that belied the sound of the rhythm-and-blues band we were a part of. Then Tadd had showed so many of his things to me that I began writing some things sounding like Tadd. He would pull my leg a little bit and say, “It’s really a drag; people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, that was a great arrangement you did on such-and-such, Tadd,” — and it was an arrangement I had done. He said, “what a drag.” But he didn’t really mean that.
TP: Would he sit down with you first-hand and show you how he was constructing things?
GOLSON: Absolutely, he showed me. This guy was great.
TP: What were some of the devices that made Tadd Dameron specific for musicians out there that were the trademarks of his style?
GOLSON: He taught me how to be selective about notes. When you are a dearth writer… A dearth writer is when you are writing for a small number of instruments. It’s much easier to write for a larger array of instruments. Not easy, but easier. Because you don’t have to approximate, you don’t have to simulate, you don’t have to try to sound like something — you’ve got the sound there. But when you’ve got two horns, you’re not going to sound like a 15-piece group with 15 musicians. So you have to try to simulate, you have to try to give the impression. Then doing that, you have to draw upon all the outstanding characteristics of all the instruments — really. The bass drum, the snare drum, the cymbal, the ride cymbal, the hi-hat cymbal, the piano — which is really three instruments, the high part of it, the mid-range and the low. And picking the best sounding notes. If you’ve got two horns, you’re only going to pick two. You’ve got to pick the two outstanding ones.
I learned those kinds of things from him, and I went on to develop my own kinds of things, too. But he gave me a jumping-off point. I remember while he was in the band he did an arrangement for Duke Ellington, and he let me copy it. I copied it for nothing, because I got a chance to sort of eviscerate what he had done, and lay it bare, and look at it in its component parts there, and that was helpful. I did that, Quincy did, we all did those things. We would get arrangements by people we liked, and look at the score, and tear it apart, and see how did they arrive at this. We had already heard the recording; “so this is how they got that sound — mmm-hmm,” and you file it away.
Then you come up with your own things, too. Walking two steps into the darkness of the unknown is healthy, because in doing so you will always discover things awaiting your discovery of them. They’re there. You just have to find them. And when you find some of these things, you can make them your own. You don’t always have to be eclectic and copy other people’s things. That’s a beginning. But as you advance, you come up with things of your own. And the next thing you know, people are trying to find what you’re doing.
[MUSIC: Tadd Dameron/Clifford/BG, "Theme of No Repeat" (1953); Dizzy Gillespie, "Birks Works" (1957), DG Octet, "Blues After Dark" (1958), DG/E. Wilkins, "Left Hand Corner" (1958), DG Octet, "Out of the Past" (1958), Diz BB, "Whisper Not" & "Stablemates" (1957), Diz BB at Newport, "I Remember Clifford" (1957)]
TP: Listening to those right now, what’s your assessment of these recordings?
GOLSON: I am reminded all over again what a genius Dizzy Gillespie was. I mean, he plays with such compassion. On the opening of “Stablemates” he played that melody with such compassion that one might have thought, if they didn’t know the melody, that it was another kind of song. When people think of Dizzy Gillespie they usually think of the high notes and all the fast notes, and the force and the power — but he’s a compassionate trumpet player. And the thing about him (Art Farmer has it, too) that’s so unique, they’re able to play what I call other notes when they play. Some people play and they play predictable notes. But trumpet players like Dizzy Gillespie and Art Farmer are able to play other notes, unexpected notes. That does something to you emotionally. The notes they play are so beautiful and they fit into the scheme of things so well that your heart is intuitively saying, “Yes, yes.”
TP: I’d also imagine that, as a composer and arranger, it spurs you to fresh thinking when you hear such imaginative soloists interpreting your work.
GOLSON: Absolutely. I’ve always contended that as a writer… I don’t like to use the word “arranger,” because an arranger as such does more; he composes and all of these things. I call them a writer. When people write, it’s always good to know for whom you’re writing, if possible. The rewards are so much better if you write for personality. Duke Ellington did it for his band. Whoever did Count Basie’s arrangements knew who the personnel was at the time. They didn’t come and go too quickly, so you could plan things around certain people, and you know what to expect before you write it. Otherwise, you’re writing vague and hoping that things come off. But if you write certain things with people in mind, you know that they’re going to do your music justice, and many times even enhance what you’ve written — and that’s one of the real rewards. Dizzy was like that. Art Farmer is like that. John Coltrane was like that. They bring so much to it that it helps to elevate what you’ve already done, to make the spotlight a little brighter.
TP: Well, it was a long road from 1953 and your Rhythm-and-Blues experiences up to joining the Dizzy Gillespie band in 1956, and in this conversational segment we’ll seek to explore some of those pathways. Someone called shortly after we began the music in that set, and asked me to ask Benny Golson about Daisy Mae and the Hepcats, which he said John Coltrane also played with. He wondered about your memories of that situation.
GOLSON: Now, whoever made that call is somebody that really knows something. They’ve got the inside track on it. I don’t think I would have mentioned that group by name. But yes, Daisy Mae and the Hepcats were from Philadelphia, and John Coltrane was a part of that group. They used to wear these funny kind of clothes, the funny ties and rock from side to side and sing things, and the little cocktail drums with the foot pedal that hits up underneath of it, and the singing… It was an entertaining group; that’s what it was. But like I said, the rent-man didn’t care about aesthetics. All he wanted was his rent.
TP: What were the rooms like you’d play in with those bands, the milieu and the layout?
GOLSON: People came there to drink and to be entertained. A group coming in there to play some fantastic jazz wouldn’t have made it. They had to have an entertaining group. People were buying the drinks and clicking the glasses, and not only did they want to feel good from what they were drinking; they wanted to feel good according to what they were hearing. And I worked in places like that, too. The same person might remember Jimmy Preston, who was an alto player, and he sang — and it was an entertaining group. We worked every weekend in Lawnside, New Jersey, at a nice place, indirect lighting, state-of-the-art furniture — and we came there to entertain the people. That’s exactly what we did. Jimmy used to get off the bandstand and walk around, and while he was playing with one hand he would take the other hand and drink anybody’s drink. They didn’t know that he was serious about that. That really wasn’t part of the act; he liked to do that! [LAUGHS] That’s what we did. We must have stayed at that place two or three years.
I’m just driving a point here. There were many groups strictly to entertain the people. What’s interesting is that what entertainers do is second-guess the public. In other words, they do what they think the people want to hear. Now, there is nothing wrong with being an entertainer. But the primary difference between an entertainer and an artist is that an entertainer’s first obligation is to play what he thinks the people want to hear. On the other hand, an artist’s first obligation is to do what he feels in his heart. Not annoy the audience, but hoping that they like it. But he has to answer that thing inside of himself first, and that’s the primary difference.
TP: It’s interesting, because let’s say twenty years before that there wouldn’t have been such a distinction between entertainment and art where instrumental jazz was concerned. No? The big bands, the dance bands were playing very creative music, and it was the popular music of the time.
GOLSON: That’s right. But they pulled apart somewhere. After Dizzy Gillespie came on the scene, the road sort of divided, and they got further and further apart. But each music is still consequential. There is nothing wrong with the music that’s played when people are entertained. That’s a certain kind of music, and who is to say that kind of music shouldn’t exist. It should.
TP: And it does.
GOLSON: [LAUGHS] And it does. Absolutely. No one should decry anybody’s efforts when it comes to creativity. Creativity is a global phenomenon. It doesn’t belong to any one person or people, and we all share in it on one level or another, whether it’s taking a safety pin when you lost your button and fastening something or building a rocket that goes to the moon. We all share in creativity.
TP: I’d like to talk about some other stops along your developmental path. You and John Coltrane both worked with, at one time or another (and I’m not sure if it was at the same time), Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges. Discuss the circumstances and the personalities of both those incredible alto saxophonists as leaders.
GOLSON: I think John played with Earl Bostic first. He was the one who told me, although I sort of intuitively knew by things I’d heard Earl do in person with Lionel Hampton… He told me what a technician Earl Bostic was. I didn’t join right after him, but when I came in a few saxophone players later, I discovered that Earl Bostic is probably one of the best technicians I have ever heard on the alto saxophone. There were others who are very good. Al Galadora, Rudy Wiedoft, Marcel Mule in Paris, Dick Stabile is another one… These names are popping into my mind as I talk. Great. But none of them could best Earl Bostic. This guy was incredible, like a machine. I was in awe of his technique. I’m not talking about style, now. I’m talking about raw technique and ability to get over the horn and do things. He was one of the best I’ve ever heard. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody who’s gone beyond him technically, not even John — because John used to rave about him.
TP: Just another question about Bostic as a leader. Was there ever room for, say, creative and modern jazz within his set, let’s say on late sets and whatnot? Was he interested in that? Was he up on the new music of the early 1950’s?
GOLSON: Absolutely. He afforded me many opportunities to write. I remember I wrote an arrangement one time on “All The Things You Are.” It changed keys, it did all kinds of things, and he loved it. One night in particular he really got into it, and it was just fantastic. He was so taken by it… I remember after it was over I knew he was taken by it, because he came to me, reached in his pocket and said, “How much did I pay you for that arrangement?” Whatever it was, I quoted the price. He said, “Well, here’s some more,” and he gave some more money — and I don’t remember the amount either.
Oh yeah, he liked other kinds of music. We played Baltimore once, and we had to play a matinee. During the course of playing a matinee, he showed up on the bandstand with his clarinet, and he played fantastic clarinet. We played “Cherokee” or some tune like that, and we played it through the keys — and he chewed it up. Chewed it up. He was a fantastic musician. I asked him, “Earl, do you have just natural talent? What happened? How did you come to put all this together?” He said, “When I was Oklahoma [I think he was from Tulsa], I knew I was coming to New York, and I had to get ready. So what I did, for years I went to work. At 8 in the morning I started playing, I took a lunch break, and I stopped at 5.” He said, “I did that every day.” And he when he came to New York, believe me, he was ready. Because people like Sweets Edison, Don Byas, they told me when he came, boy, he was awesome. He didn’t have to apologize to anybody.
Now, you asked about Johnny Hodges and John Coltrane. When I first met John, he was playing alto, and his idol was Johnny Hodges. One of my high school chums, who also played alto, told me about a new person who had moved into the projects, and it was John Coltrane. He said, “He’s fantastic. He plays just like Johnny Hodges.” I said, “What?!” This was before Bird and Diz. The music was somewhere else. If I can meet somebody who plays like Johnny Hodges, this will be fantastic. And he’s our age, 18… So he said, “Well, I’ll bring him by your house tomorrow.” So he did. The doorbell rang, and I opened the door, and there was Howard, and standing down on the sidewalk was John, sort of like a country bumpkin, biting the side of his thumb. He came in the house, and we just sort of stood there. Kids are so stupid. He was standing there by the couch with his horn in his hand, and his hat and coat on — [LAUGHS] and I couldn’t think of anything to say except, “Play something!” He was waiting for it. He took his hat and coat off, whipped his horn out, and went into “Sunny Side of the Street.” Well, my mother happened to be upstairs, and after he finished playing she said, “Who was that?” I said, “It’s a new fellow I met named John Coltrane.” After a while we started having sessions at my house, and sometime during that session she would holler down, “Is John down there yet?” He would say, “Yes, Mrs. Golson.” And we knew what that met. We would have to stop and let John play “On The Sunny Side of The Street.”
TP: A small price to pay for rehearsal space.
GOLSON: Oh yeah. I was a little embarrassed by it, so I said to her one day, “Mother, it’s kind of a drag. We try to get together and do some things, learn some new things, and you holler down for these requests, mainly on ‘Sunny Side Of The Street’…” She didn’t let me finish. She said, “This is my house; I’ll ask for what I want.” I guess she was right.
But it turns out that John Coltrane later joined his former idol, Johnny Hodges. He was playing tenor then. I asked him, “Did you ever tell him that at one point he was your idol?” He said, “No, I never said anything about it.” It was like Charlie Parker. He was playing somewhere, and Charlie Parker came in. John was still playing alto at the time, and he was playing so much, Bird said to somebody, “who is this guy?” Of course it was John Coltrane. I heard the story, and when John came back to Philly, I said, “But did you tell him we were the two kids who were walking down Broad Street with him?” He said, “No.” Well, he wouldn’t have remembered anyway.
TP: What was it like being on the road with Johnny Hodges in his own group? Was it all a vehicle for him, or…
GOLSON: Oh, no. He gave other people a chance to play. You know, as you’re coming along and you meet people, that’s one thing. But when you meet them and then you play with them or in their group, it’s like little dreams coming true. And here I was with Johnny Hodges. I used to listen to him with Duke play all these great things, one of which was “On The Sunny Side Of The Street,” and then I’m in his band. But how I got there is, John was already there, and they were enlarging the band to go on a special tour with Billy Eckstine and Ruth Brown and a group called the Clovers. So they needed to enlarge the band. Johnny wanted another saxophone player, and he asked John, “Do you know of any saxophone players?” He said, “Oh yeah,” and he told them to get me, and that’s what happened. So I got there. So I did this tour with him.
TP: Was it mostly blues and ballads and things he was famous for?
GOLSON: That kind of thing, yeah. Billy Eckstine sang his ballad, and Johnny did “Castle Rock,” and he had other things he played, and we played the Clovers’ music, and we played “Mama, Treat Your Daughter Mean” with Ruth Brown, and those kind of things. It was a show.,
TP: So you’re in your mid-twenties, traveling around the country on the Black theater circuit primarily and in the clubs, garnering a really broad range of functional experience. When your first recordings came out, you were not known to the broader public, but you developed a range of contacts around the United States within the jazz community basically. Fair to say?
TP: The events that led you into Dizzy Gillespie’s band.
GOLSON: Fortuitous. I was with Earl Bostic, and we were out in Seattle… Well, let me back up a little bit before that. Because something was happening to me, my mental state I guess you could call it. We were playing the same tunes every night, and for the large part they featured Earl. We played on certain tunes, but the tapestry really was Earl Bostic. I sort of got tired. I wanted to do something else. But I had a job, I was making money. When we went down South, he would bring this electric guitar of his on the scene, and he would play things that people liked in Texas and Mississippi and Oklahoma and wherever. I did some terrible things. During the intermission I would tighten one string and loosen another string, and tighten another string. Now, when he came up, he never did re-tune it. He would just pick it up, turn around and call the number, and kick it off and start playing. I did that one night, and he started to play, and it sounded just terrible — and it was trying to tune it while he was playing it. I guess he didn’t know what happened. It would have been all right if I had let it alone, but I did it again some other night. He started to suspect something. But he still didn’t know it was me, see.
Another night we were playing somewhere. I was getting restless. I guess I wanted to be fired or something. We were playing somewhere, and boy, he really had the crowd… He really knew how to get the crowds. Some of the people were dancing, but most of the people were standing at the foot of the stage. He really had them going. I remember seeing Illinois Jacquet do something with his horn, and I thought that I would do it while Earl was playing his solo. This is what got me fired. He was playing his solo, and he got the crowd going. I went to the back of the stage, behind the drummer, and I took the saxophone loose from my strap, and I came running from to the front of the stage with my horn back like I was going to throw it, then I flung my horn forward like I was going to release the horn — and the whole audience ducked. They ducked down. It was distracting. That bothered him. Well, I guess he had every right to be bothered. And after the show, he said… He called everybody Partner, “Part-noh.” He said, “Part-noh, I think I’m gonna have to let-cha go.” Well, that was in Seattle. He said, “I think you’ve had your time here.”
I understood, and I guess I was kind of happy. But it came at the right time. Because Ernie Wilkins, who was writing for Dizzy’s band and had been playing saxophone, was leaving that same week, and somebody mentioned me, and they said, “Well, I think he’s with Earl Bostic, but give him a call anyway.” I had come back to New York, and they called me, and I was home — and I got the gig. I’m glad I got fired!
TP: You said you’d moved to New York by this time.
GOLSON: Oh yes, I’d moved to New York.
TP: When did you come to New York?
GOLSON: I came to New York around ’55.
TP: Had you making regular trips to New York?
GOLSON: Oh yeah, definitely.
TP: Did you go to 52nd Street, let’s say?
GOLSON: No, that was before my time. But my uncle used to be a bartender at Minton’s Playhouse, and I would come over to visit him. Oh, I visited him a lot. [LAUGHS] And he would take me around. Because I was his nephew, I could go in there. I mean, they don’t allow kids in there, but Teddy Hill would let me in.
TP: This was in the ’40s?
GOLSON: It was before I got out of high school. The mid-’40s, I guess. I was a kid.
TP: What are your memories of Minton’s?
GOLSON: Well, when you came in, there was a place where the bar was in the front room, like, and I can’t remember if you went up some steps to where the band was playing, or you went down or it was on the same level. It seems to me like you walked up some steps. But this is where the bandstand was, and it was a little more intense back there than it was out at the front bar. This is where the musicians were, and this is where the people came to really hear the music. The people that sat out in the front I guess were just concerned with having conversation and drinking, which is fine if they made the distinction, because otherwise they’d be going on concurrently with the other people who were interested. So it worked out all right.
, And I got on that bandstand once. Eventually I did. I can’t remember that tenor saxophone player’s name… Jackie McLean called his name a couple of years ago, and I’d forgotten it. When he called the name, I jumped up. I don’t think he ever recorded, but boy, this guy could play. Anyway, I played there once. Gildo Mahones I remember was there; Joe Guy, a trumpet player, Lockjaw… I can’t remember all the different people there. Some of them, I didn’t know who they were as a kid. I just knew this guy was a trumpet player, or this guy was a saxophone player; I didn’t know their name. But later I found out how famous the place was, after the fact.
TP: Did you continue to see Charlie Parker play, or go out of your way to do it when he was around?
GOLSON: I didn’t know Charlie, didn’t get to know him personally, unfortunately. But I got to know just about everybody else. Sometimes people escape you knowing them. Once I said to somebody who we all know (I can’t remember who it was), “Why is it that we never met?” Just circumstances weren’t that way. But mostly everybody else, I did. All the pictures that I had, all the photographs I had down at the foot of my bed on the wall as a teenager growing up, all those idols… Max Roach and I laughed. I said, “Look, you occupied a very prominent place on my wall at the foot of my bed for years!” [LAUGHS] As did Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins and Dizzy Gillespie. You lay in bed, you look at their pictures and you dream.
TP: Then you play with Dizzy Gillespie and arrange a piece for Coleman Hawkins and…
GOLSON: Yeah, you get to know them all. Don Byas gave me a box of reeds after I got to know him, and it said, “To my man Benny, from Don.” I kept that box until it was falling apart because it was from him.
TP: When you got to New York, a number of your contemporaries were living here, such as Philly Joe Jones, Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Tadd Dameron. So I imagine it wasn’t huge adjustment for you on settling here to begin establishing yourself amongst the very elite group of New York musicians. Or was it?
GOLSON: Oh, no. I was no stranger. Because when I was playing with various Rhythm-and-Blues groups, we would always come through New York. We would play the Apollo, we would meet here for rehearsals or whatever it was, and I’d stay over, I’d go see bands, and I got to know musicians, so I wasn’t really a stranger. But I was a stranger at the same time to the scene, certainly to the recording scene. I hadn’t recorded anything. But I had to be here. New York is a strange place. You can’t go back and forth. Either you’re here or you’re not. So I decided I should move here, and I did — and things started to pick up. When you’re here, people pick up the phone, and you’re wherever they want you in 15 minutes or whatever it is. You don’t have to get a bus or a train. You’re here. And that worked to my advantage, I think.
TP: Was this when your real heavy period of writing began? A lot of compositions from this period, ’55-’56-’57, you’ve performed ever since in various ways?
GOLSON: Actually, the heavy period of my writing began before anybody knew about me. But it’s a strange thing about talent. Talent in and of itself doesn’t mean anything unless you have opportunity. You can be the most talented guy, but you might be stuck out in Wacannomock(?), Wisconsin, and nobody ever knows about you. You do need the opportunity, and I didn’t have the opportunity. When I was traveling with these bands, Earl Bostic, Bullmoose Jackson, I was passing out lead sheets like they were calling cards. Nothing ever happened. I think James Moody recorded one of my things, a blues, and there was a long period before anything else happened.
John Coltrane was playing so great, and Hank Mobley was leaving Miles Davis. Philly Joe had already left, gone to join Miles, and Miles asked him, “Do you know of any tenor saxophone players?” Philly said, “Yeah, yeah.” Miles said, “Can he play?” Philly probably made the understatement of his life. He said, “Yeah, he can play.” As though, “Well, I guess, you know…” So Miles said, “What’s his name?” “John Coltrane.” “Well, see if he wants to join the band.” We found out about it, because we’d been rehearsing and playing jobs together and playing in various bands, and we used to be together all the time, almost every day. So we all found out that John was going to join Miles Davis, and vicariously we all took the trip with him.
I saw him about two weeks later on one of the main streets in north Philadelphia, where we lived, Columbia Avenue, and I said, “John, how is it going?” He said, “Oh, it’s great. But you know, Miles needs some new tunes. Do you have any tunes?” I thought to myself, “Do I have any tunes?!” But if you give people too many, it becomes confusing. The more you do a thing, the less it means. So I didn’t send a whole lot of tunes. I sent one tune. And I didn’t think any more about it, because I’d been giving tunes out half my life, it seemed, and nothing happened. I ran into him about a month later, and I said, “Well, how is it going now?” He said, “It’s going great. You know that tune you gave me?” “Yeah.” “Miles recorded it.” I said, “What?! He recorded my tune?” He said, “Yeah. Man, he dug it.” That was “Stablemates.”
Now, a strange thing happened. All these lead sheets I’d been passing out all over the country, people must have heard the tune, seen my name on it and said, “Wait a minute; is this the same guy that gave me such-and-such?”, and maybe they went and got it wherever it was, from under the rug or in the trash. They started recording my stuff. That’s what got me started. Miles Davis and John Coltrane are responsible for getting me started as a writer. If it hadn’t happened that way, it might have happened some other way, or maybe it wouldn’t have happened at all. You need opportunity, Ted.
TP: Well, Dizzy Gillespie certainly provided an opportunity to record a number of your tunes in the big band situation, like “Whisper Not” and “Stablemates” and “I Remember Clifford”, to be specific.
GOLSON: That came later, though.
TP: In ’57. But I was going to try to get to…
GOLSON: Lead in, huh? [LAUGHS]
TP: Yeah, you know how it is. But I wanted to talk to you about the experience of being part of the Dizzy Gillespie band and how he functioned as a bandleader with you, and some of the personalities you encountered in Dizzy Gillespie’s 1956-1957 big band?
GOLSON: Mmm-hmm. You want to know it now?
TP: Right now.
GOLSON: Yeah, I can tell you. Dizzy gave all of his men so much room to express themselves, those who were soloists. Of course, we didn’t express ourselves individually when we came to play. We had to become a composite person as it were. We were given a greater expression as a group, so we had to strive for that, of course, but when it came to soloing and things like that… Now, Lee Morgan was in the band at the time, 18 years old, young upstart, and yet Dizzy featured him. Some of the songs that he used to play, he gave to Lee to play. He let him play on “Night In Tunisia.” You have to take pride, insecurity and all that stuff, and throw it aside. Apparently, Diz wasn’t affected by those things. He recognized talent when he saw it, when he heard it, and he gave Lee free rein. And he never tried to tell us how to play or what to play. We were our own person when it came to playing the solos. And we had many opportunities. After he broke up the big band, for example, he formed a sextet, and lo and behold he chose me. I thought he was going to pick Billy Mitchell, because Billy had more of the solos, but he chose me and a trombone player from Atlanta named Silly Willie. We did that for just a little bit, then that was the end of it.
He was good, and he was fair. Now, we didn’t make a lot of money. But I learned so much. Diz was one of those didactic kind of people. He was a natural teacher, especially when it came to rhythms. Boy, he had that rhythm down!
TP: For instance, in the arrangements we heard earlier of “Stablemates” and “Whisper Not, were Charlie Persip’s drum patterns Dizzy’s idea or something Charlie Persip worked out?
GOLSON: No, that was Charlie. But other things, like “Tin Tin Deo” and “Night In Tunisia” and “Begin The Beguine”, he told them how to play it, the beats, how to do it. Charlie admitted that. We learned a lot from Dizzy, from the way he played, and just listening to him talk and recalling things that had happened. You pick up a lot like that, you know.
TP: Well, the band was also a clearing house for some very talented arrangers apart from yourself, like Ernie Wilkins, who I know you wanted to say some things about, Quincy Jones, and some others.
GOLSON: I learned so much music from Ernie Wilkins as far as big band writing. It’s too bad that people like Ernie don’t get the credit that they deserve. This was one of the finest arrangers on the scene. He happens to be ill at the moment, and he’ll probably never be himself again. His time is probably limited now, unfortunately, his wife told me. But when he was going, boy, this guy’s music…his voicings was like plugging in to an electric outlet. It was electrifying, almost physical sometimes, the sound, as though you could close your eyes and reach up and touch it and grab it and hold it. That’s the way the music was. And it was fresh. His concept wasn’t dated, even though he was a little older than me. He wasn’t afraid to take chances. He had multiple things going on sometimes. If you looked on paper you’d say, “Hmm, that might not work,” but it worked. I learned a lot from him. I’m sure Quincy did, too.
TP: He seems to be one person who can work effectively in what might at first glance seem like different genres, such as the Basie band… Well, in your mind, in the 1950’s how distinct was the Dizzy Gillespie big band concept from what Basie was doing at the time?
GOLSON: Different, but not necessarily better. Just different. I wouldn’t want you or anyone else to think that just because we were having so much fun, and it was modern, and it was so hitting and forceful and electrifying that it was better than anything else. It was just different. It was different than Basie. It was different than Ellington. It was different than the late Jimmie Lunceford. Yet each one of those names I mentioned was consequential, and they could stand side by side with one another, and exist and give pleasure to a lot of people. Good music.
[MUSIC: Lee Morgan, "Domingo" (1957); BG, "Whisper Not" (1958); J. Cleveland, "All This and Heaven, Too"; BG, "You're Mine, You"; BG 6, "Out Of the Past"]
TP: The next segment will focus on the relationship that in a sense catapulted you from your initial prominence coming to New York and also catapulted Art Blakey from being a well-known drummer to the leader of the Jazz Messengers. Benny Golson had only a year-long relationship with the Messengers, from spring 1958. I’ve heard you tell the story many times, but like Coleman Hawkins’ solo on “Body and Soul,” it’s endlessly entertaining…
GOLSON: Boy, I’ve told it so many times. I had just come to New York, and I decided that I didn’t want to travel at that particular time. This was after Earl Bostic, after Bullmoose Jackson, after Dizzy Gillespie. I wanted to stay in town a little bit so I could establish myself. You’re peripatetic, you’re running around, you can’t get any roots. You’re ubiquitous. You’re everywhere at the same time.
TP: Parenthetically, did the “New York Scene” and the early Riverside recordings from late ’57 happen before or after you left Dizzy?
TP: So you’re starting to record and get your stuff out there.
GOLSON: Right. But this is even prior to that. I got a call one evening from Art Blakey himself, asking me could I come down to sub at the now-defunct Cafe Bohemia. I said, okay, I’d come down. I went down, and we played. They didn’t have a lot of things that were difficult as far as arrangements; it was just a little better than a jam session. At the end of the night he asked me could he come the next night, because he was still having problems with whomever it was, something…a police car or something. I enjoyed the first night so much that I said, “Yeah, I’ll play the second night.” When I played the second night, he asked me, “Do you think you could make some gigs with us?” — which meant that I would have to go out of town. I told him, no, I was sorry, I wanted to stay in New York and be kind of settled. He said, “Okay, but can you finish out the week?” That was my mistake. I said, “Yes.”
I finished out the week. But during the week, I had the occasion to sit down with him. I knew during that time, he wasn’t making as much money as he should have been. I don’t know how I found that out. I said to him, “Art, you should be world-famous. Have you been to Europe?” He said, “No.” I said, “You should have been to Europe many times. You should be making a lot of money. Your name in the jazz annals should be a household word!”
At any rate, at the end of that week he said, “I’m playing Pittsburgh next week. It’s just one week, just six days; can you make it there? I won’t keep you away too long.” Well, now, I’ve already played a week with him. Now I’m of a different mind than I was before because I’ve got a taste of him. So I wanted a little bit more, intuitively, I think, because I said, “Yes.” I must have. So I went to Pittsburgh. And as we neared the end of the week, he said to me, “Now, next week we’re in Washington; do you think you could make that with us?” Now I’ve had two weeks of him and now I’m really digging it. I’m really not speaking with the same mind now, because I said, “Yes!” again. Besides, I went to college there; it was like my second home. And after that I never said anything about not wanting to leave New York again. I became a member of the Jazz Messengers.
TP: Who was the band?
GOLSON: Bill Hardman on trumpet, John Houston from Philadelphia on piano, Spanky deBrest and Buhaina. So we talked some more about the band. I said, “Art, you really should be in a different place than you are musically.” and he looked at me with those big, sad cow-eyes, and said… I never expected this, really, because nobody knew who I was. I was a young upstart in town. He said, “Can you help me?” My goodness, I never expected that from Art Blakey. And I never expected what I said in return. I said, “Yes, if you do exactly what I tell you.” [LAUGHS] I mean, I can’t imagine… The nerve of me!
TP: Well, you’d seen maybe a thing or two during your years on the road with these various groups.
GOLSON: A thing or two. Not more. And he said, “Okay. What do I do?” I said, “Art, you need a new band.” He said, “Okay, tell them they’re fired.” I said, “You tell them.” “No, you tell them.” “No, you tell them.” Anyway, I don’t know who told them, but he said, “Who are we going to get if we get rid of this band?” I said, “Well, I know a young trumpet player. He plays pretty good. He was with Dizzy. He said, “Who is he?” “Lee Morgan.” “Can he play?” I said, “Yeah.’ He said, “How old is he?” I said, “He’s 19 now, I think.” “19!? Well, can he really play? Can he come up to what we’re trying…” I said, “Believe me, we can.” And I added that he was from Philadelphia; I don’t want to leave that out.
“Okay, who can we get on piano?” “There was a guy who used to play with Chet Baker and various other people. He plays nice piano. His name is Bobby Timmons.” “Do you think he could do this?” I said, “Yes.” “Where is he from?” “He’s from Philly.”
“What about the bass player?” “Oh, there’s a guy who played with us with Bullmoose Jackson. He also played with B.B. King.” “Wait a minute. Wait a minute! We’re not playing that kind of…” I said, “Trust me, Art. This guy can play.” “What’s his name?” “His name is Jymie Merritt.” “Where is he from?” “From Philly.” He said, “Wait a minute! What is this Philadelphia shit?!” So I said, “No, they all just happen to be from Philly and I know them, but you won’t be disappointed.” So I called each one of them in turn, and they said, yes, they’d like to be part of the band. We put the band together and I wrote some things for them…
TP: Did you have a sound for the band in mind? The band on Moanin’ has a distinctive aesthetic, where you take advantage of his ability to do a shuffle and put his own imprint on that, or a march, or various styles. It had a cohesion that may not have been evident in earlier versions of the Messengers from the past couple of years. Did you have that sound in mind when you were writing the book, or did it just come out that way?
GOLSON: I’m going to be monosyllabic to what you just said. No. I didn’t have anything in mind other than the music. It just happened to turn out like that, fortunately. But what I did say to him was, “Art, you need something that really features you. I’ve heard you play, and you’re just like any other drummer. After everybody else has played and said what they have to say, they leave the trimmings for you at the end. You need something where you start playing at the very beginning.” Then we were sitting there, thinking. I said, “Now, what could you do?” Then I thought about that introduction he played on “Straight, No Chaser,” where he showed his independence, two hands, two feet doing something entirely independent. I said, “You’ve played everything there is to play, Art,” and I started to play. “Except the march.” Oh, how we both started laughing. I said, “Wait a minute.” And he said, “No! You’re kidding!” I said, “No, I’ve got an idea. I’m not talking about the military. I’m talking about with a little funk and soul in it, like Grambling College. You know how they play, how they jazz up things and make it funky and syncopate.” He said, “No, man, this is a jazz band. We can’t play a march!” I said, “Trust me.” Somehow I used to say that to him all the time — “trust me.” I couldn’t even trust myself. I said, “Let me go home tonight and see what I can come up with.”
So I went home and came up with this thing and called it “Blues March,” because it’s a blues and it’s a march. So we got to the rehearsal, and he said, “Okay, how do we start it?” I said, “You start it.” He said, “What do I do?” I said, “Play like you used to play when you were in the drum-and-bugle corps. Just play some rudiments.” “How long should I play?” “Play as long as you like.” “How are you all going to know when to come in?” I said, “Play the roll off?” “What do you mean?” “JUMP-DUMP, JUMP-DUMP, DURRRRHHH-RUMP-DUMP.” When you do that, we know we’re supposed to come in.” He said, “Oh, man, I don’t think this is going to work.” I said, “Let’s try it.” So he did it and he gave us the roll-off and we came in. The structure of the melody is a little different than just the ordinary blues. but don’t worry about that. After we play the melody, we’ll go to the regular blues.” So we did. And it kind of worked out nice, and he put kind of a shuffle feeling in it. He said, “Yeah! Maybe it might work. And it did. The rest is history.
[MUSIC: Art Blakey, "Blues March," "Just By Myself," "Drum Thunder Suite," "Along Came Betty"]
TP: I’d like to discuss your style as a tenor saxophonist and the evolution of your style. In the liner notes to the St. Germain CD from 1958 you say that the experience of playing that one year with Art Blakey had a huge impact on your approach to the tenor.
GOLSON: Yes, it did. Before I joined Art, I didn’t have much articulation. On some of the things, it’s still not as much there as it is now. But one of the things that he taught me to do, painfully, was to project, to play a little more forcefully. When I went in to sub that night with him at the Cafe Bohemia, and some of the weeks that followed, he would play some of those drum rolls that he was famous for. It might be four bars before the end of the chorus. They had a way of getting louder as they went along. Well, right in the middle of that drum roll, it would get so loud that it would drown me out, and I would just be standing there pantomiming, for all intents and purposes. I guess he thought I didn’t get it. He did that a couple of weeks, and one night he did the same thing again, but he added a few downbeats on the bass drum and a few strokes with the cymbal to underscore what he had done before that. And to make doubly sure that I got it, he uttered some words. He screamed across the bandstand to me, “Get up out of that hole!” And when I heard the words, it all sort of came together and I thought to myself, “Maybe I am in somewhat of a hole.” Because when he does those drum rolls, I just disappear, as if I’m in a hole. So I started trying to play more forcefully.
And someone else helped me. While we were there, when I was subbing that week at the Cafe Bohemia, Thelonious Monk came in one night, and after the set… If you knew Monk, you would appreciate this story more. But let me try to describe it to you. He was standing, when I came off the bandstand, with his hands behind him, and rocking from side to side slightly. He said to me, “You play too perfect” — sort of dry like that. When he included the word… You’ve heard people say, “You play perfect” or something similar. But when you hear the word “too,” that means an exaggeration, a caricature, superfluous, or whatever. I knew it wasn’t a compliment. And while I was standing there, stewing, Art Blakey was standing on the side (he knew Monk so well, I guess he knew what he was talking about), snickering like that little dog in the cartoon. Monk let me stew for about 15 or 20 seconds, looking at me all the time through his sunglasses with the bamboo temples on them, and he said to me, “You’ve got to make mistakes to discover the new stuff.”
I thought about that. Mmm, bingo! The next night I came in, Ted, I was playing like a man taking leave of his senses. I was playing so crazy, trying to get away from that well-worn that I’d fashioned for myself, knowing that this works and that works, and I can do this here and do that there, like mathematics (and music is anything but that). I decided to take chances. I was jumping off of cliffs (metaphorically, of course) and jumping off bridges, standing in front of trains! I was doing some crazy stuff. But that started to move me out of where I was before; that was the beginning of it. Of course, I stopped for a while. But over the years, I’m of the conviction that you have to take chances if you want to move ahead. Otherwise, you’ll just sort of level off. And time, in its indefatigable course, moving always forward, has a way of relegating you to history. You know?
TP: I have to say that listening to things you recorded before Art Blakey, you sound like a very dynamic tenor player with a modern vocabulary, a distinctive approach for people among your generation for your assimilation of Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins. But you in your liner notes were describing your sound as “smooth and syrupy.” That doesn’t make sense to me. Are you being overly self-critical, or is that an objective way of describe how you played pre-Art Blakey?
GOLSON: That’s the way I felt. Other adjectives. “Mellifluous.” “Saccharine.” “Sweet.” “Charming,” some people have said. But after a while, I wasn’t satisfied with that. I wanted a little fire into it and get more articulation. I had a lazy tongue; that old style, your tongue doesn’t touch the reed too much, the notes just kind of flow on your fingers, and your fingers do all the work. But the tongue has to do some work sometimes, too, to define, to separate things and separate notes and separate ideas. That’s what I worked on. I guess I’m still working on it.
TP: It sounds like you had an impact on Art Blakey’s conception of himself as a drummer-bandleader. Because it sounds like your compositions oriented him to focusing on certain sonic components of the trap drum set, and that you got him into presenting his different techniques on the drumset as part of the whole performance rather than just the straight-ahead, more unformatted playing than before. As evidenced particularly on “Drum Thunder Suite,” on which you said to him, as you were telling me off-mike, “don’t pick up the sticks.”
GOLSON: Right. [LAUGHS] I wanted him to use the mallets. I said, “You use the sticks and the brushes all the time. Let people know what you can do.” Let them know that you can play mallets, that you can play no your tom-toms. Do other things. Don’t always just do the same thing. Of course, the mallets are not tools you’re going to use all the time. Sticks are what you use most of the time. But it’s good to color with other things sometimes.
You can’t do the same thing all the time. People want to hear “Along Came Betty” and “Killer Joe” and “Blues March” and those things, and I appreciate it. But you can’t just keep doing that. I have a new thing I’ve written called “Lenox Avenue Soundcheck.” When I first moved to New York, I lived one block from Lenox Avenue, on 7th Avenue. But when I was going to take the IRT, I used to have to walk down to Lenox Avenue. So I was down there a lot. And being on Lenox Avenue, you’d hear certain music coming out of different places, the jukebox, and you’d hear people saying different things, some nice, some not so nice, and the police sirens… You’d just hear a multiplicity of things.
TP: Urban sounds.
GOLSON: There you go. And I decided to write a tune dedicated to all of that.
TP: Next up is a version of “Stablemates” on United Artists from Benny Golson With the Philadelphians with your old friend Philly Joe Jones, who you recorded with a number of times. You mentioned hearing him as far back as 1945 in the clubs of Philadelphia.
[MUSIC: "Stablemates", "Blues On My Mind" (1958)]
TP: You mentioned that after you left the Messengers it was hard for you to play with another drummer for a while.
GOLSON: Absolutely true.
TP: You’ve played with great ones.
GOLSON: You can get used to playing with people, just like you can get used to wearing your favorite suit, or go to the Chinese restaurant and order the same thing all the time because you like it. It sort of grows on you. You’re not aware of it until it’s not there any more. That’s what happened to me. Art Blakey is one of those drummers, Kenny Clarke is another… In fact, both played with us at a concert in Paris. But Art Blakey swings so…how can I put it… His sounds don’t only reach your ear. They reach your heart as well. His style is motivational. What he does makes you do things that perhaps you wouldn’t normally do because of the impetus… He said, “You stand out there and play, and if you’re not doing something, I’ll give you the bass drum.” “What does that mean?” “Every time you hit that bass drum, you’ll grab your rear end and say, ‘Oooh!!'” But it’s that kind of thing.
It’s more than the bass drum, of course. It’s the whole kit that he plays, and the way that he plays it. He’s able to reach inside of your emotions. There’s nothing cursory about him. There’s no wasted effort. There’s nothing wasted about him when he plays. It’s meaningful, it’s logical, it’s reasonable, and it sounds fantastic. And when you get used to playing with this kind of a drummer, even though you play with other kinds of drummers, and they might have even been great drummers, his style was such that you didn’t want to hear any other style. I’m trying to make this up as I go along, because I’ve never had to formalize it into words; it was just feelings before. when you hear him play, that’s it. That’s the epitome of SWINGING. What is there? You’re already in heaven. Where are you going after that? So when you play with another drummer, it’s not that that you’re hearing. Not that the other drummers are not good, but you’re not hearing what you’re used to hearing. And that was the problem.
I happened to mention this to Freddie Hubbard, just in passing, as an aside. And he looked at me and said, “You too?” He had the same problem. I found myself turning around, looking at drummers, which is very unprofessional, and I don’t like doing that. But it was almost irritating. It was almost like the drummers were tuning up, preparing to play all night. Because I wanted to hear them go into what Art used to go to! But of course, I got out of it. [LAUGHS] I can play with other drummers.
TP: One thing you mentioned in a liner note is the way Art Blakey would shape your solos, and the way his accompaniment behind you would almost make your statement take a logical course of its own with him.
GOLSON: Very logical. You’re very observant. Absolutely true. That’s why I said it. He’s motivational!
TP: And he’d set up something different for everyone in the band. I remember a number of years ago he was forming a new band, and he had a big band at Sweet Basil that was being pared down. You’d hear him set up behind everybody a different solo, and as the week went on, you could hear him settling into what he was going to do behind each person. More about Philly Joe Jones and his inimitable style, the great precision and expoobidence with which he would boot you.
GOLSON: Highly inventive, courageous and daring. He would do things that were unexpected. He would do unorthodox things. We were playing once, and he played paradiddles between the bass drum and the hi-hat cymbal, rather than play them with the hands and the sticks on the snare drum. I mean, he did all kinds of things. One thing I liked about Philly, he was a listener. Some drummers will close their eyes, turn their head sideways ride that cymbal, and it’s all about how they feel about what they’re doing at the moment. But Joe would listen. You would play a phrase, and leave a little breathing space, take a little breath before you set up the next phrase, and he might play a drum ruff — FRPPHHH! Just that. It’s perfect, and it sets up the next phrase. Or he might go, BANH-BANHH-BAM-BAMM! Or whatever it is. It’s so logical, so right. And these things just carry along. It’s like flying a plane. You just put your seat back and relax. You can lean on that kind of a drummer.
TP: Take us back to the 1940s. You may not be able to recollect this specifically because you were so young at the time. But you recollect Philly Joe performing in 1945-46, when you were 16 and 17. What can you tell us about his sound then. Had he assimilated Kenny Clarke and Max Roach by then?
GOLSON: I can’t tell you that, Ted. It was too early in my development. I don’t know what I was listening to. I just know I like what he did. I couldn’t define it and break it down into its component parts. All I knew is that I liked it. I didn’t have enough experience. That came later.
TP: The great eye for detail that marks his compositions also marks his story-telling. He’s been writing liner notes for some young tenor players, like Dan Faulk and David Sanchez, which are worth reading for an education in aesthetics and spinning a narrative. Let’s move now to a couple of wild card tracks, one featuring an Benny Golson with Eric Dolphy, alto sax, Gunther Schuller, french horn, Herb Pomeroy, trumpet, on John Lewis’ composition “Afternoon in Paris” from an Atlantic release entitled “The Wonderful World of Jazz,” from 1960.
[MUSIC: w/ John Lewis, "Afternoon in Paris" (1959); w/ Betty Carter, "Isle of May"]
TP: We’ll hear some collaborations between Benny Golson and Art Farmer for United Artists between 1958 and 1959. Your comment about him is that he plays with tremendous integrity and sound selection and intent, concentrated consciousness… It sounds as though he’s the ideal improviser for you.
TP: A couple of words to describe his improvisational personality.
GOLSON: He’s a bright person, first of all. He’s one of the thinkers. He cogitates. He does the same thing when he plays. He thinks about what he’s going to play. But he doesn’t think so much about it that it becomes an intellectual encounter with the music. No. He thinks enough to give it meaning and direction, and coupled with experience, he usually comes up with a nice bill of fare musically for what he’s doing.
TP: That sounds like a textbook recipe for what is an improvisation. How about for yourself? Over the years you’ve made very conscious changes in your style and approach in your sound on the tenor that you want to project for yourself. I was complimenting your solo on “Afternoon In Paris,” which was reminiscent of the way Coleman Hawkins played in one of my favorite periods for him, and you said, “Ted, I don’t play that way any more; that’s in the past; we must move forward.” What is that mixture of forethought, intent, intellect… I guess bringing to bear the intellect on improvisation and the direct flow of thoughts that make a successful one? How do you assess that balance in your own process?
GOLSON: Well, we all have to think to a certain extent when we play. Some players think more than others. Some players don’t quite know how to think. You have to know what to think about when you’re playing.
TP: What do you think about?
GOLSON: I think about whatever satisfies my needs. When we think, we should think about what satisfies our needs. What is it that we need at the moment? Do I need something for my sound? Do I need something for my melodic concept? Do I need something for my rhythmic perception of things? Or do I need them all? And if you do, you’ve got a lot of thinking to do. But experience makes it easier as you go along. The more you do a thing, the easier it gets as it goes along. Mind you, I didn’t say “easy.” The easier it gets. And me, I feel that I have certain needs. I have a lot of them. Beginning with my sound. I am so critical about my sound. I am going through a phase right now where I am talking with the reed manufacturer, and they are making special reeds for me, and when I go back out to the Coast in December I am going to meet with them again. It’s getting close. But there’s just one element I want to get out. That’s me. People say, “Oh, it sounds great to me.” And that’s fine. But I have to satisfy myself first.
TP: You may never get satisfied. It may be that’s what keeps you going and searching for new challenges.
GOLSON: You know, that’s what Sonny Rollins. He said, “No musician ever dies who is completely satisfied with himself.” And I believe that. If I get to like my sound, it might be something else that I’m not happy with. That’s the way it is.
TP: Some musicians will set themselves a challenge on a given night, like a particular tenor player will say, “I’m going to be Lester Young,” and then another night will try to be Coleman Hawkins, or taking it farther… Setting up that type of challenge to spur interest and play something different night after night. Did that have anything to do with your approach? Or was it purely about developing musical ideas?
GOLSON: That was never part of me and it never will be. I don’t set out to sound like anybody. I’m struggling hard enough to try to sound like what I want to sound like. Why would I waste time trying to sound like somebody else and put banners up for them? That’s testimonial to them! I’m not trying to set a testimonial for myself, but I am trying to play things that at least satisfy me and my needs. I can’t waste… I use that word advisedly. I can’t take time trying to sound like Lester or somebody else. There’s enough of that going on now. So many people sound like John Coltrane. John Coltrane was John Coltrane. That should be left where it is. Who is going to best John Coltrane? Maybe the next century. But we should spend more time trying to sound what we want to sound like, expressing our own feelings and revealing our own musical personalities. We don’t need any carpet paper around. We should try to sound like ourselves. And the litmus test is applying ourselves, trying to find out what it is that we want to do, and trying to optimize whatever it is we’re trying to do at whatever opportunity we have. Rather than to walk through anything (I don’t think anybody does that nowadays), we should put forth our best effort, like our lives are on the line.
Case in point. Tom MacIntosh had a group called the New York Jazz Sextet, trumpet, tenor, trombone and rhythm section. At one point, Freddie Hubbard was the trumpet player. I hadn’t thought much about it. But every time we had a rehearsal, when it came time for Freddie to play his solo, he played like he was at Carnegie Hall at 8 p.m. on a Friday night with a full auditorium. That’s the way he played. Me, before that, I would just kind of walk through the changes. This is just a rehearsal. I used to laugh and say, “Hey, it’s only a rehearsal.” But he played like his reputation was at stake. He really did. And I learned something from that. You do the best you can whenever you get a chance to do it. And if you do that, it can become a part of you. But if you spend part of the time minimizing it and throwing it away, then that is time taken away from a good effort that you could be applying to yourself in the direction that you want to go.
[MUSIC: Golson-Farmer, "Fair Weather," "Like Someone In Love," "Five Spot After Dark," "I'll Walk Alone," "Minor Vamp"][MUSIC: "Blues March" (1983)]
TP: We have to cover about 35 years of music, so compression is of the essence. We ended the last show with one of your most famous compositions, and one which took crossover context, “Killer Joe,” performed by the Jazztet, a group that lasted in its first iteration from 1959 to 1962. Let’s talk about the formation of this group and the early personnel. It got you together with Art Farmer, for one thing, on a somewhat permanent basis after several years of musical flirtation, as it were.
GOLSON: That’s absolutely true. Art and I met in the summer of 1953, right after Tadd Dameron’s band broke up in Atlantic City, which included Clifford Brown and Gigi Gryce. They went on to join Lionel Hampton, and the condition that we could all leave was that I would stay there and make sure that whoever was coming in to replace us would play the music right. So they left and I stayed. Then a few weeks later, I joined them in South Carolina. In the band at that time was Art Farmer. In fact, that’s where I met him. Quincy Jones was in the band. That’s where I met him. Monk Montgomery was there, Jimmy Cleveland, and of course Gigi Gryce came along from Atlantic City, and Clifford Brown, who was also there with us. There’s no else I can think of right now who people would readily know.
That’s when Art and I began our relationship, and when we went our separate ways from Lionel Hampton, we wound up in New York doing different things, making ends meet, and we were thrown together many times — radio commercials, TV commercials, jingles, various record dates for different people. Although we already knew each other, we got to know each other even better because we saw each other in between socially many times. So I guess it was inevitable that we would want to do something else, and it just so happened that we decided we wanted to do something different at the same time, without either having knowledge of the other.
So I picked up the phone one day and called him. I said, “Art, I’m thinking about putting together a sextet.” Not a quintet. So many other people had quintets. A sextet with that other horn would make it just a bit different; there are not so many sextets around today. He started laughing. I said, “Why are you laughing? Is this idea that absurd?” He said, “No. You know, I was thinking about putting a sextet together, and I was going to call you later today.’ I said, “Well, why don’t you come by, and we could talk about it.” And he did. He picked two of the personnel and I picked two. He picked his twin brother, Addison Farmer, who was alive at that time, for bass, and he picked Dave Bailey, who now heads Jazzmobile here in town, as the drummer, because they had worked together with Gerry Mulligan. I picked Curtis Fuller. Well, there was no disagreement there. But when I came up with the name McCoy Tyner, he said, “I’ve never heard of him. How is he? Can he play?” I said, “Oh yes, he can play.”
TP: Before you continue, how did you know about McCoy Tyner? Now, there’s an obvious Philadelphia connection. Were you keeping the ties to Philadelphia?
GOLSON: Keeping the ties had nothing to do with it. It was the talent. But the important thing is that I met him in Philadelphia. I went to do one of those Sunday afternoon concerts, and the rhythm section was there, awaiting my arrival. He played so well! So I said, “Let me see what he can really do.” So I played something in a strange key, and he just romped through it. He was only 19 years old! So I kept that in the back of my mind, not knowing if anything was going to happen or if I was going to do anything where he was involved. But the Jazztet came up, and obviously he was the first person in mind.
TP: Were the germs of McCoy Tyner’s mature style present when you first heard him at 19 or 20 or in the Jazztet?
GOLSON: Oh, sure. That’s what appealed to me. Of course, after that he built on it. He didn’t just stay here. He migrated ahead to other things, which is logical for a truly creative person. But it was interesting, so funny because when I approached him about the job on the telephone, it was like he had been awaiting my call. “Yes!” But then I reminded him that Philadelphia was 90 miles from New York, 180 miles round trip every day. “McCoy, can you do this? Are you up to it?” He said, “Well, I really want to move to New York; I’ve been thinking about it.” So as it turned out, to make a long story short, Art and I found an apartment for him and got it. So he and his wife were on their way over, and a friend was bringing them over in a car, and the car broke down on the New Jersey Turnpike. He called me. He said, “Benny, we’ve broken down; can you come out and pick me up.” I said, “McCoy, I don’t have a car. Call me back in an hour and let me explore and see what I can do.” So I found a friend who had a car, and we went out and picked him up, sure enough, and loaded him into this person’s car, and we took off. I don’t know what happened to the person who was bringing him there. It was terrible. I guess we drove off and left. I don’t quite remember what happened. But as it turned out, the person who took me out to pick him up was John Coltrane, because he lived just a couple of blocks from me! And about a year or so later, McCoy joined his band. So the next time I saw John, I said to him (I knew him very well, of course), “A fine friend you turned out to be. You stole my piano player!”
TP: I’ve heard the story, which may or may not be apocryphal, that McCoy Tyner at an early age told John Coltrane he wanted to play with him. And he was friends with Lee Morgan, a young colleague of yours from Philly.
GOLSON: I don’t know if the story is apocryphal, but it’s probably not. At 18 or whatever age that he approached John, he probably did want to play with him, and he let it be known that he did. But I’ll tell you, in the intervening time between when he asked him that (if he did in fact ask him that) and when he joined him, he wasn’t sitting still. He was moving forward in high gear.
TP: I’m sure the challenging compositions and arrangements and the high degree of professionalism required within the Jazztet had a lot to do with McCoy Tyner’s development during that interim period.
GOLSON: It might have had some. But I think he developed more with John. John was going in a better direction for where McCoy’s concept was. I have to be honest about that.
TP: I was just trying to give you a nice segue to talk about the Jazztet. Talk about what you wanted to achieve with this group. It immediately took on a very distinctive identity.
GOLSON: That’s it exactly. That’s the first word. I figured we had to have an identity. Otherwise, we were just another sextet thrown together to do various musical things. To give it that identity, I tried to bring complete organization to what we were doing. Of course, later I abandoned that, because I thought it was too much organization, and the second time we got together it was much looser. It was just a bit too organized the first time out. Too preconceived. I felt we needed to be a bit looser. And for me, and I think for Art too, it worked a lot better when it was looser.
TP: What I gather is that your initial performance was at the Five Spot opposite the Ornette Coleman Quartet in their New York debut. Which sounds to me like quite a scene. So I’ll ask you to use your considerable descriptive powers to give your first-hand impression of the Ornette Coleman Quartet in 1959 at the Five Spot.
GOLSON: I’ll never forget it. Ornette had created quite a controversy about himself and about his music. He had a lot of supporters, people like Leonard Bernstein and John Lewis, even Dizzy Gillespie. Well, Dizzy Gillespie had perspicacity anyway. He was able to look ahead, and he probably saw this music going in another direction that had some validity to it. But not everyone really felt like that, and it was a big question mark. So it was like someone going to a new restaurant. Here you had two new groups, two bills of fare, so to so speak, under the same roof, and the place was jammed.
TP: Very different approaches to music as well. Were you familiar with his early recordings that preceded his New York appearance?
GOLSON: Yes, I had heard some.
TP: But you were somewhat familiar with the compositions and the group. What did you think?
GOLSON: I wasn’t sure. Later, as I got to know Ornette, I called him up and sort of made an appointment, if you will, and I went down, and we talked about it. I wanted to find out what he was doing before I had… I figured I had no right to an opinion until I actually knew what he was doing. So I made it a point to go find out what he was doing. Interesting. Right after that, we started… In fact, the Jazztet played one of his songs; I can’t remember one. We tried to interpret it the way he was interpreting it. And it worked out okay.
Everyone has a right to speak and to have his own voice. No one should be deprived for what they do. Whether we choose to like it or not is up to us. But everyone should have the privilege of speaking. Voltaire said, “I disagree with everything you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.” That’s how I feel. No matter how this person or that person who even I feel about it in a negative way, they have the right to do it, and they should go ahead. That’s the way we move ahead. Otherwise, everything stays the same, and it becomes more predictable and more predictable.
TP: But there you were at the Five Spot with a kind of factionalized audience, two new groups, a packed house every night…for how long?
GOLSON: Both of us stayed there for two weeks, I think it was. Or a month. I can’t remember. But it was longer than a week. It was interesting. We had all kinds of people coming in there. I mean, Leonard Bernstein himself came in. I don’t think Dizzy came. John Lewis might have come. And some other people would have given him support, I guess, by the nature of who they were themselves, showing up there. And we had people come to see us, too. It was great.
[MUSIC: Jazztet, "Park Avenue Petite," "Round Midnight," "Bean Bag"]
TP: Coming up are more albums by Benny Golson from 1961 and 1962 while the Jazztet was still working. The band had a fair amount of success during their couple of years. I imagine you were booked quite a bit and did a fair amount of travel. Talk about the course of the group.
GOLSON: Yeah, in the beginning we did have quite a few bookings, because, honestly, we were new, and with the albums coming out at the time, people were able to hear us, and if they really liked what they heard, then they wanted to see us also. So we were booked in quite a few places around the States. We never did go to Europe, though. But with any group that’s ongoing, things happen indigenously [sic], and it brings about changes sometimes from within the group. For whatever reason. It’s inevitable, most of the time. And we had a change of our trombone player, we changed bass players, drummers and piano players. The only two that didn’t change were Art Farmer and Benny Golson, I guess! But everything else around us changed for a certain period of time.
TP: Did the band begin to open up somewhat? Certainly on the live album we can hear the format opening up and freeing up some?
GOLSON: Yeah, it was a bit looser, and Art and I felt a little better. It was just too organized the first time. It was all right, and it made its mark, I guess, because it was organized and it was different, and hopefully, it was consequential enough that people thought we had something to say that they wanted to listen to. But then, you know how it is. You get used to hearing the same thing, and you feel that you have to make a change. Everything should never creatively always be the same.
TP: Is this a conscious thing for you?
TP: Do you see yourself getting into a rut and say, “I’m going to do something different.”
GOLSON: Yes. Not just for the sake of just being different, but for the sake of fulfilling a need within me. If you just change to change, that’s arbitrary. But if the change comes about, it should come about in a natural, creative way, just as the substance of what you’re doing comes about in a natural way. So the changes come about likewise, or the desire for a change comes about in the same natural way. That’s usually what happens with creative people. You don’t wear a blue suit one day, and then the next day it’s, “I think I’ll wear a red suit just to attract attention.” You’ll buy a brown suit because you’re tired of the blue one all the time — that kind of a thing.
TP: What do you remember about the circumstances of Take A Number From 1 to 10?
GOLSON: Wondering whether or not the idea was going to come off. It wasn’t my idea. It was someone else’s idea. And yet, I thought it might have possibilities, which is why I did it. After we finished it, I thought it was consequential enough to have been recorded and to put it out for the public to hear. It was okay. I don’t know if I’d do it again.
TP: Well, it seems like an ideal vehicle for someone whose interests lie so strongly in the areas of composition and arrangement, and who is so serious about your personal sound on the saxophone.
GOLSON: You’re right. Starting out with myself, just playing unaccompanied, the spotlight is purely on me, and eventually it lines up to the other part of me, that is, the writing.
TP: In my brief acquaintance with Benny Golson he’s never expressed any real satisfaction with his tenor saxophone sound, and I’d like to read a comment you made to Nat Hentoff in 1961 from the liner notes. It may sound familiar to you 35 years later in its sentiment. You say, “We all go through stages. There are, after all, so many roads to take. Now I’m on the right track for myself. I know what I want to do. I’ve been working hard during the past year, for example, on an even bigger tone, with more roundness and warmth, even in the extreme high register. I want to make the whole horn sound warm. I also want to play melodically instead of just running over the horn, as I was at one time, but I’d still like to have a command of velocity at my fingertips when I need it. I feel very much better about my playing these days. At one time I didn’t know whether I was coming or going, but I guess it was necessary to try different ways to be sure of my own.” It sounds like you’ve been consistent in your sentiments over time.
GOLSON: How long ago was that?
TP: It’s a 1961 recording.
GOLSON: I mentioned something about being on the right road. But you know, roads have a way of wearing thin. Roads can become a rut. Really. I’ve found that out since then! So even if you’re on the right road one day, you might want to get on another road another day. And we have to remember, too that today’s adventure is tomorrow’s commonplace. So things have to change. So I said that then, but I wouldn’t say it now!
[MUSIC: From Take A Number From 1 to 10, "The Touch," "Time"]
TP: Benny Golson expressed about as enthusiastic a comment as I’ve heard from him on “Time” — that doesn’t sound too bad. You said you hadn’t listened to it for 25 years. We’ll hear some quartets from 1961-62. At this point, in addition to the Jazztet, were you doing a lot of singles, either with a working rhythm section or travelling around the country with pickups?
GOLSON: I wasn’t doing too much. We were primarily concentrating on the Jazztet. But when we signed with Mercury, they signed the Jazztet, and then they signed Art and they signed me as individual artists. I don’t remember how many albums we did with the Jazztet, but in addition to that we each did one or two albums — I’m not sure. One of the notable things about Turning Point is that the rhythm section with me was Miles Davis’ rhythm section at the time, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. I felt I was stealing just a bit!
TP: How was it different for you to play as a solo voice than in the more arranged format? Do you approach your improvisations differently? Is it simply a matter of having more time to stretch out?
GOLSON: You hit it right on the head. If I’m playing with a quartet (not even with a trumpet, which would be a quintet), much more freedom abounds. If I’m not playing with an arrangement of other instruments around me where I have to fit into slots here and there, if I don’t have backgrounds that have to stay out of the way of me, or I have to rise above them, then I have complete freedom. And in a quartet I do. I can play a melody any way I want to. If you play it with another instrument, then you both have to play it the same. So you have to decide how you’re going to play it. When I’m playing by myself, I might play it this way tonight, I might play it that way tomorrow night. I might add a little something to it one night… Just complete freedom. That’s one thing I enjoy about the quartet. Within reason! [LAUGHS] Provided you’re up to it.
TP: On Turning Point you have the sublime rhythm section of this period, which brings me to the question of what you’re looking for from the different members of the rhythm section. In a piano player what are the ideal qualities?
GOLSON: It’s different things, because individuals have different things to offer. It’s a matter of what you want to hear. Do you want to hear what this one is offering. Do you want to hear what that one is offering? It’s a terrible thing when you hire a person and you tell them you want them to sound like somebody else. You hire him because you want to hear what he does. Either it’s something that you have in mind and he meets your needs, or he has something that appeals to you that you feel you would like to have. So when you hire them, you hire them with these kinds of things in mind — intuitively. It’s not anything you have to go home and turn off the radio and pull the windows down and think about. Intuitively, you know these things.
First in a piano player, I am concerned about his feeling for the piano. A piano is not one instrument. Literally it is. But it can function as three different instruments. It has a distinct sound at the top. It has a distinct sound in the middle, where most piano players are. And it has an even more distinct sound at the bottom end. That bottom end of the piano cannot be duplicated by any of the other instruments in the repertoire of instruments. He’s down there. He’s got that to himself. Solitary air space. Now, a good piano player knows how to use all of that according to what’s happening at the moment, and can make you feel good and can urge you on to try to best yourself — that’s the kind of piano player you want.
When he’s functioning in these different areas of the keyboard, he has something to say that’s going to not only support you, but encourage you because it sounds so good to you. I just had that last week. We were down at Sweet Basil. These three guys, they had something to say. And I’ve got to tell you, I felt like playing every night, every set. That hasn’t happened to me in quite some time. Because I had three guys who knew what to do. They knew what to do as individuals. They knew what to do as a group. I mean, the things that they did together was as though they had gone out and rehearsed without me, and decided what they were going to do to support me. It was so together, it was incredible what was happening up there. And if you can get this, if you can find these kinds of qualities in individuals that you select to be your rhythm section… And the things that I said for the piano basically are the same for the bass and the drums. It’s just different instruments. But it’s a matter of having affinity for the instrument, having affinity for each other as a rhythm section, and having affinity for the soloist who is out front. And if you can get all those things to spark and jibe, if you can get that kind of potential to cross paths with reality, then you’ve got something that’s really noteworthy.
We’re going back in time now. This rhythm section to me was quintessential. It was the best, the essence of what one would expect in a jazz rhythm section. That’s why I chose them. And Miles had no objection, I must say. Very nice. Because he knew what I was going to do!
[MUSIC: "Turning Point," "Little Karin," "I'm Afraid the Masquerade Is Over," "The Best Thing For You Is Me," "Shades of Stein"]
TP: “Shades of Stein” refers to Gertrude Stein, and in your conversation we hear many references to philosophy and literature. Is there any direct relationship you can discuss in terms of your reading vis-a-vis your playing? Your liner notes are eloquent and very much to the point.
GOLSON: I’m not an avid reader. Actually, my wife Bobbie reads more than I do. Anything that comes from what I read is just casual. Gertrude Stein happened to appeal to me because of the way she took a phrase and used it over and over, “a rose is a rose…” I tried to capture that in the melody, because you hear the melody over and over. It got a little boring. To make sure it didn’t get too boring, to break away from it, I made the bridge as far out as I could that time. You could hear where it was going, like up a flight of steps, and the chords were going along with it, and it was a little difficult to play on. But I think we needed a contrast from that Gertrude Stein influence in the beginning to sort of let it stand out by itself. The more you do a thing, the less it means, so I broke away from it.
TP: Is there any implied narrative or story in your compositions, or are they just musical ideas?
GOLSON: Most of them are just musical ideas. But what I do try to capture is a meaning in my titles. I think the title should give one who is about to listen privy to what it is going to be about. Now, with few exceptions, I’ve done that. A few times I fell on my face. I can write a song maybe in a day or two, or in a week, whatever, but I agonize over a title sometimes for two or three weeks or a month, trying to come up with the appropriate title. When you hear a title, it should be more than a title. You should be able to step inside, just a little bit — if not into the house, at least into the vestibule, to get out of the cold.
TP: Improvisers seek their individual voice, and of course the common phrase is to tell your own story, and your antecedents on the tenor saxophone all had their various ways of telling their story.
GOLSON: Playing your own ideas. Most of us play our own ideas as best we can. The reason I say that is because sometimes, intuitively, and depending on where we are in our development and how much we are influenced by the things that surround us… Intuitively many times we will play things that “belong to other people.” It’s their kind of thing. It might be a lick. It might the way something is played, a certain inflection. The way Sweets Edison takes a note like he’s milking a cow, the half-valve kind of thing. That’s associated with him. And the moaning and groaning that he does with the horn. When I hear it, the first person I think of is Sweets Edison. But for the most part, most people, with a few exceptions, try to play their own thing.
TP: Another aspect of this is that for many years (I guess it’s still true, although the way information gets passed along has changed so much) is oral tradition, of listening to people you admire and trying to grapple with their ideas and coming up with your own conclusions based on that, a continuing, ongoing narrative, many voices converging. You described your process of learning as similar, that you would take solos off records, and study and transcribe. So I wondered if there were any analogies we could draw between the verbal and musical arts of storytelling.
GOLSON: It’s very much like storytelling. Sometimes the words differ, but the essence or meaning is usually the same. Sometimes extra little words creep in so that the story begins to enlarge and unfold in a different way, so that down the road maybe it doesn’t even resemble the first or the original story. We do that in our playing sometimes. Sometimes we modify things that we’ve heard. Sometimes what we come up with are mutations, if you will, of what we’ve heard. And sometimes they are merely jumping-off points. I wouldn’t like to think that people stay there. The only exception I hear to that now is some tenor players. John Coltrane has really gotten into their blood, and we don’t always hear their personal voice — we hear shades of John Coltrane. That’s a great testimony to John Coltrane, but it doesn’t say much for their own development and for their own possible or potential voice. I think that’s regrettable. Because it takes away what they would be as a creative source. We all have something to say, and we say it differently. And it should be different. We don’t walk the same, we don’t eat the same kinds of food. Our habits are different. The life is different. So why should we try to clone or become a clone of someone else when we pick up the instrument? And when we talk about John Coltrane at this point… My goodness, who at this point is going to best John Coltrane, who had years in which to do it? John Coltrane was John Coltrane. Sit back, listen to it and enjoy it. Why try to become John Coltrane? The time could be spent in a better way.
TP: These quartets mark the last performances by Benny Golson as a solo saxophonist, apart from a few cameos, that we hear from about 1963 to 1980. It was a real loss to the jazz world not to be able to hear your voice and your story through almost two decades of writing and orchestrating and establishing yourself as a very busy and commercially viable writer and arranger. The next two tracks show more of the expansion of what you were doing then. This is called Pop Plus Jazz Equals Swing, and it’s a sort of stereo gimmick album arranged and orchestrated and conducted by Benny Golson from about 1960.
GOLSON: It was originally recorded on Audiofidelity, which was a label that prided itself in coming up with things that sounded authentic. They would come up with versions of sounds of trains passing by, glasses breaking, people hammering nails, somebody tap-dancing, firecrackers, those kinds of things. And a fellow named Tom Wilson, who had the Transition label in Boston, eventually gave it up and settled in New York, and began to produce for different companies, and at the time when we did this, he came into the fold of Audiofidelity. Stereo had just come out then. So he came up with a gimmick whereby the stereo could be optimized, and helped people to see really what it was. And he decided that it would be a good thing to use jazz to do it. So the way he figured it out, the rhythm section would always sound in the middle, which meant that it was a little each to the right and the left; on the right side it was little to the left and on the left it was a little to the right side. So it sounded in the middle. On the right side, I think, he would have a jazz group, and on the left side he would have what’s called a “legit” group with french horns and flutes and a few strings and things like that. What we would do was come up with standard tunes to be played by the group with the strings and flutes on the left, and on the right side the jazz group would play the figures that had been written on it. On the song “Whispering,” the legit group would play [SINGS ORIGINAL MELODY] but on the right side, the jazz group was playing “Groovin’ High.”
TP: A subversive way to hip people to the mechanics of bebop as well.
GOLSON: Exactly. He showed what stereo was and how tunes are based on standard. Same thing with “How High The Moon” with the legit group, and “Ornithology” on the right. “Moten Swing” and “You’re Driving Me Crazy”. “Out of Nowhere” and “Nostalgia.” With “Stella By Starlight” we gave a different treatment on the left and the right, but the same song. We did a blues with the jazz group and “St. Louis Blues” for the legit. It worked out. It was an adventure; it worked out.
[MUSIC: "Groovin' High"/"Whispering"; "Stockholm Serenade," "Swedish Villa," "Out of This World," "Stockholm Sojourn"]
TP: Here we’ve come from your early arrangements with Dizzy Gillespie to these very involved, multi-layered arrangements for a 23-piece orchestra. Would you talk about your studies in composition in the eight-year interim? Was it all pragmatic? Was it all empirical? Or did you do some formal study at this time?
GOLSON: I set out to do some formal study when I went to college, and I was all geared and revved up for it. But when I got there, it was a little disappointing for me, because I saw what the students who had gone before me were doing, and I was saying to myself, “Gee, that’s not really what I had in mind.” I think I mentioned to you last week that when I get to my third year, I had become somewhat of a rebel. Because when I was studying, we learned all the rules. All the rules! The dominant has to go to the tonic. And I’m saying to myself, “Why? Why?” When I did “Killer Joe,” that wasn’t it. So I started to do things that I knew were wrong. I’d get the assignment, and I’d break all the rules and take the stuff in — and boy, they’d pull out the whip like Zorro, and just X my assignments in front of the class. I was belligerent then. I’d stand up and simply say, “That’s the way I heard it.” It’s amazing how things can happen like that. And I have to question: Why does it always have to be the same? Why can’t it be different? Why can’t I have octaves? Why can’t I have fifths if I want to? Why does the dominant always have to go to the tonic? Why can’t I come from the leaning tonic? I mean, I started asking things like that, and they looked at me like I was crazy.
TP: These are the kinds of questions that could only someone who had assimilated the lessons rather well would be inclined to ask.
GOLSON: So a lot of it was empirical. I’ll tell you, I got absolutely nothing from there that you would hear in my writing. It was all empirical, trial-and-error, a priori, from observation, things like that. Now, I’ll tell you, I had some good teachers. I listened to people like Tadd Dameron, Duke Ellington, and doing more…
TP: How was Duke Ellington a teacher?
GOLSON: Oh, the voicings. Voicing those chords. Take that baritone off the bottom and put him up at the top there, you get a different sonority. People think of the baritone as low. It doesn’t always have to be low. You can do aberrational things with instruments if you’re familiar with individual sounds and familiar with blend of sounds. You can get all kinds of things. Then there are things that you try sometimes that might seem crazy, but you try them anyway. All you can do is fall on your face. I mean, no one is going to kill you. So hopefully, you’ll have a chance to do that again. Well, I fouled up that time, but the next time… The ballplayer loses the game. Wait til the next time. Every day we open our eyes as creative people. We have to think, “I’ve got another shot at it today.”
TP: What qualities did Tadd Dameron impart to you? Of course, you knew him rather well from roadlife with Bullmoose Jackson.
GOLSON: He was a great dearth writer. He knew how to use few instruments and get the most out of them to maximize whatever it was they were doing. With Fats Navarro and Charlie Rouse… I said, “How can he get two horns to sound so full like that?” He got them to sound full because he maximized the instruments who were playing with them, the piano, himself, how he voiced the chords. Making use of the full drum set. Not just TINK, TINK-A-TING on the cymbal and the bass drum here and there, but using all of the set. Because the drums are functional enough to accomplish many things. The tom-toms accomplish one thing, the snare drum, the hi-hat the ride cymbal, the sticks, the brushes — all of these things make a difference. The bass. All these things work. Then I finally got a chance to meet him, and this guy was an open book. He didn’t hide anything, and he shared what he knew. I remember he did an arrangement for Duke Ellington once, and he let me copy it. I didn’t charge him anything. Because I was getting a lesson! As I was copying, I was taking information in. Well, what did he do here with the third alto? Or how did he use the baritone? Well, how did he use the reed section with the brass section? And how did he voice the trumpets with…? Hey, this was a learning process for me. So I did a lot of listening. I eviscerated some things. I took them apart, laid them out, looked at the component parts. Why do they work?
And another one that helped me a great deal (he wasn’t even aware of it) was Ernie Wilkins. This man knew what to do with a big band. I kid you not. The people don’t know about Ernie Wilkins. I ran into him in Aarhus, Norway, a few years ago, when he had 12 pieces — he called it his Almost Big Band. We were on the same bill. We went to the hotel and we were in the corridor, and I said, “I should let him know this,” and I told him that, and he was astounded. He said, “Really?” I said, “Yes, indeed.” I said, “You have no idea of the times that I took your scores, and looked at them and broke them down.” This is how you learn. I didn’t learn it in college. Today it’s possible. But during the time I was coming along, it just wasn’t possible.
TP: Did you take apart the scores of European composers at that time?
GOLSON: Of course. It was nothing that would change the cosmic balance of the universe. But they did know… Everybody talks about Verdi when you talk about opera. But Giacomo Puccini, he was a much better orchestrator, for my money. And besides, I found out just a couple of years ago, he used to go around to some of the jazz clubs, so you know he had to be all right! His orchestrations had much more involved sonorities. The concept of how he’s using the orchestra. Background for some of the things, but strong backgrounds. Verdi was a little flowery for me. But Puccini sort of rolled his sleeves up and took that pencil up very seriously when he went to work. Good orchestrations. They’re using a lot of chords, I-III-V, VI maybe sometimes, minor VIs. But the way they used them and the sound they got when they used them, you see… When we got to jazz, we just built on things like that.
TP: Your fondness for opera is something you share with your stylistic mentor, Coleman Hawkins.
GOLSON: Well, I’ll tell you, I used to hate it until I met my wife, Bobbie. I really learned to appreciate it through her, as I did ballet and some of the other things. It’s beautiful. Some is more beautiful than others.
TP: What’s becoming apparent is that the musical components that comprise the totality of what you do range from the most functional music that you played for years on the R&B circuit and with Earl Bostic to the very progressive music of the ’40s and ’50s to classical music — all in the pot.
GOLSON: It gives you insight. You listen to something like “La Traviata,” and they can almost make you cry, they’re so beautiful, when you hear those voices. You go from there to rhythm-and-blues to jazz. She taught me to appreciate Country-and-Western. Those Country-and-Western tunes will make you get on your knees and cry!
TP: Well, this is what makes music the magical entity it is, that it can evoke that range of emotion.
GOLSON: Thank goodness. Thank goodness that it’s open-ended. It goes on and on and on.
TP: But for all those years, you applied all those skills to very functional purposes, in Hollywood and the studio. You didn’t bring any of the music from this time…
GOLSON: I thought it would be too boring! Really. Episodic music.
TP: But you were quite successful at it. You wrote for most of the top Pop singers of the ’60s and ’70s. The EOJ of the ’70s says you wrote for Nancy Wilson, Lou Rawls, Sammy Davis, Diana Ross, O.C. Smith, for M.A.S.H. and other television shows. Is there some separation? How do you go about writing something for these very specific, project-oriented assignments?
GOLSON: I guess there is a line of definition there. But sometimes, if you’re adventurous enough, you can blur the line. You can cross over. That can be exciting. We were doing a show once at Universal, maybe It Takes A Thief or Run For Your Life or something. Tom Scott was in the orchestra; the contractor had called him. I took the melody of “Stablemates” and I just permutated it a bit, gave it another harmony and lingered on certain notes, and if you didn’t know “Stablemates,” you wouldn’t know what it was. After the take, Tom was laughing, because he knew “Stablemates”! You can get away with it. Music is music. It doesn’t always have to be the same.
TP: What’s some of the music that emerged from that which you’re proud of?
GOLSON: They publish the things, so you don’t come away with them. I wrote a lot of songs when I was out there, and Universal published them or 20th Century published them.
TP: You were on salary and they owned the rights…
GOLSON: No, I wasn’t on salary. I was for-hire. I came in and I did the job. But it was a known fact that they would publish it. You never discussed it. the only two people who published their own material were Earl Hagen, who did I Spy, Gomer Pyle, Andy Griffith, and Henry Mancini. They were the only two that kept their publishing. To this day, I don’t know how it happened. But if I had come out there as a newcomer with my foot in the door, talking about I wanted my publishing…out of town.
TP: What chain of events led you to Hollywood and putting the saxophone away for as long as you did?
GOLSON: Quincy Jones. My ex-roommate in Dizzy Gillespie’s band. He went out there first, and he told me that Henry Mancini had been trying to make the way open for him. Then he left. (We used to live in the same building.) After he got out there, eventually he called and said, “Well, this is happening, that’s happening, you ought to come out.” His agent was Peter Faith, who was the son of Percy Faith. I wasn’t sure. I took a trip out there,, my wife and I went out, and looked around to see what was going on. I think we stayed about a week or ten days. It looked pretty good. So I came back, and packed up myself, and went out there. I wanted to be very sure before I pulled up roots here. I got a little studio apartment. And I went to work right away!
I got a call from the Goldwyn Studios. Alex North was doing The Devil’s Brigade with William Holden, and he wanted someone to do some source music. Alex had called my teacher who had been teaching me weekends, who was at Bennington College, and wanted him to do the source music. He told him he couldn’t do it, but that one of his students had just moved out there. That was me. He wanted me to write some period music. The source music is not the underscoring for the picture, but if somebody puts a record on, or if there’s a band playing in the place when people come into the club or the restaurant. That’s period music, but not the underscoring for the action and emotions and drama of the film. So there was quite a bit of period music. I think I wrote a gavotte; for some reason, it went back that far. I had to do a Dixieland thing. And I did a George Shearing type thing and some other things. This was known as source music. And many times, depending upon the stature of the composer, he will assign the source music to other composers and just concentrate on the music for the film. Well, I had just gotten out there. What could I demand? No, I don’t want source music; I want a feature film! This was a way of getting people to know you and know your work, and so I did it.
Eventually, through Quincy, I got into Universal. As a matter of fact, I got the same agent, Peter Faith. He was really in at Universal, so Universal is the first studio I began to work at. At the time I got there they had just put together a new show with Robert Wagner called It Takes A Thief. Now, Dave Grusin was already there, and he had written the theme for the show, but he was busy doing some other things, and they needed someone to write the music for the show. He had done the first one, which they premiered, and I started on the second show. And it worked out all right. They said, “Do you want another one?” I said, “Yeah.” So I did the third show… It went on like that.
TP: It keeps building up.
GOLSON: Yes. Eventually I went out to 20th Century Fox, who had a new show starting out. Jerry Goldsmith, who became a good friend, had written the theme for it, and they didn’t have anybody to do the show. They asked me if I wanted to do it. So I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” So I did Room 222. And Johnny Mandel had already done the theme for M.A.S.H. Now, they had had some composers from before, but they wanted something a little different. I was out there with Room 222, so…
TP: So you were a new sound, which was why producers wanted your services.
GOLSON: Maybe so. Anyway, I went to work also on M.A.S.H. I did Room 222 for two-three years, and M.A.S.H. I did for three years. That was a great show. And I got to know the people on the show, like Alan Alda. They’re real people. So it was really nice working out there. They didn’t put any pressure on me. At Universal, the pressure was always on. I was beginning to feel like a humpback in the back room, working from early morning until late at night. You’d get to the middle of the show, and they’d call you: “Do you have Reel 3 done yet?” You’re on Reel 2, you haven’t gotten to Reel 3. “But we need it.” The pressure was always on.
TP: Why did you put down the horn? Or did you entirely put it down?
GOLSON: Yes, I did.
TP: you didn’t play it at all.
GOLSON: I didn’t play it at all. I could have used it as an ornament or put dirt in it and planted flowers.
TP: It must have hurt you.
GOLSON: No, it didn’t. Because at that time I did not like the way I was sounding on it. So it wasn’t too hard for me to put it down. But a strange thing happened. In those 7-8 years I didn’t play it, the thinking process was working, and strangely enough, when I did finally pick it up again, I did not sound the way I sounded when I put it down, though I had not actually been playing it. So the thinking process does help sometimes, along with the practice of playing, of course.
TP: What caused you to pick it up again? We’ll hear records from 1980-81.
GOLSON: That’s around when I picked it up again. It was a little frustrating, though, because I picked it up and I didn’t sound the way I sounded before, but I did not know how I wanted to sound then — not entirely.
TP: Had you been listening a lot to music in the previous decade?
TP: And what was your impression of the music in the ’70s?
GOLSON: Interesting. Interesting and moving forward. It should always move forward. Because we had new blood coming. We had people who you never heard before, coming out from Wokonomac, Wisconsin, and from Iron Mountain, Michigan, places you never heard of, coming onto the scene, and they had their own voices and things to say. And some of them represented great potential. Since that time, many of them have gone to become big names in jazz. This was all happening. It was fertile.
TP: What impressed you of the electric music, the fusion of the period?
GOLSON: Some of the things impressed me. But all in all, it wasn’t really my cup of tea. But I didn’t decry it. I didn’t put it down. I didn’t vilify any of the players. It just wasn’t for me. Some of the things were interesting. To this day, I like some of the things. I like some of the Rock-and-Roll, some of the Rhythm-and-Blues. Oh yeah. Consequential things.
[MUSIC: BG-Fuller, "California Message"; w/ Bu, "City Bound," "Just By Myself," "I Remember Clifford"]
TP: Do you remember when you first heard Clifford Brown?
GOLSON: Yeah. It was in a club in south Philadelphia, Broad and Lombard Street. I remember the name of the hotel above the club — the Douglas Hotel. I don’t remember the name of the club, but I remember one of its features. It began with a matinee on Monday, 4 to 7. You opened with a matinee, and then you played that night from 9 until 1, four sets. I heard him there with an entertaining group, Chris Powell and the Blue Flames. They sang these little songs and had their choreography, even if it was only moving from side to side and the music had a beat that kind of appealed to the people — it wasn’t a swing kind of thing. The aberration was Clifford Brown. He joined in, he was a part of all this, but when he started to play his solo, he stepped out there in solitary air space by himself. High above the circle of the earth; that’s where he was. It was so distinct and it was so good, even the people who liked the entertaining quality of the group were aware that this fellow had special ability. And he did.
TP: How would you reconstruct his sound of the time?
GOLSON: Like Fats Navarro, but more Clifford Brown. I mean, he wasn’t trying to be a carbon copy of Fats Navarro, but he was out of that school. It was more than Fats; it was different. He had a fat sound. He was maybe a bit more fiery and a bit more daring because he came after Fats, so some of the things he did were based on newer things, and he was searching for things in the chords and how to put things together. So it was very exciting to hear him play. What eventually happened with that group, not only did people come to hear Chris Powell sing those songs and what it was that they did; they came to wait for these solos by Clifford Brown. That’s when he started to be known, while he was with Chris Powell and the Five Blue Flames. It was a complete anomaly, his being with that group. That’s how he began to be known, with that group. Of course, he soon left after that.
He lived 30 miles from Philadelphia, in Wilmington, Delaware. So we weren’t together, oh, every day and through the week like John and I were. But he would come to Philadelphia quite often, because compared with Wilmington, Philadelphia was the place to be. South of Wilmington, the next place further than Philadelphia, was Baltimore and then Washington. So Philadelphia was a lot closer, and there was actually more happening in Philadelphia. So he was there quite often for the jam sessions and gigs and whatnot, and we got to know each other pretty well. Later, of course, in 1953, we both joined Tadd Dameron’s band in Atlantic City, and we were together almost every day there.
TP: Was he consistently creative player from night after night?
GOLSON: I’m sure in his own mind he had his inconsistencies. But as a listener, yes, he was consistent!
TP: You’ve told the story of your friendship with John Coltrane in many places, and two weeks ago you spoke of meeting him in 1945.
GOLSON: I was 16. He had just gotten out of the Navy.
TP: You spoke of hearing Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Don Byas in one of the Philly theaters in 1945, and he brought “Stablemates” to Miles Davis in 1955. But This is For You, John is a tribute recording, and in the liner notes you relate some telling anecdotes about his practice habits, about his passion for the horn. You recollect the first time you heard play saxophone, on a job with Eddie Vinson where the tenor player walked off…
GOLSON: Eddie Vinson had come to town, and he was working the Eastern Seaboard — New York (and probably Chicago), Washington, Baltimore, maybe even Philadelphia. At that time, he decided he would get a band from the East Coast. John was one of the players playing alto saxophone. Johnny Coles was the trumpet player. I can’t remember who else was in that band. But they were all from Philadelphia. They were playing a job in Philadelphia or Delaware or someplace like that, and Louis Judge, the tenor player he’d hired, had an argument with Eddie. He was pretty fiery. Right after the argument, they went on intermission, the half-hour intermission. Then it was time to come back (it was a dance type of thing), and Louis, pouting, did not come back. He wasn’t going to come back right away; he was going to punish Eddie. And all of the musicians left their horns laying on the chair when they went out. They came back, John picked his alto up, and Louis was nowhere to be found. So they began without him. Eddie had this particular song that had a tenor solo. Eddie played alto himself and John played alto; the only tenor player in the group was Louis. And for some reason, he wanted the tenor solo! The tenor solo was coming up, and still no Louis. So Eddie looked over to John and said, “Play Louis’ horn.” John was a little reticent about doing that. Eddie said, “No, play his horn; I want a tenor solo.” So John picked the horn up (this was the first time he’d ever played tenor, you know) and he began to play. Strangely enough, he didn’t sound like an alto player. He sounded like Dexter Gordon, or from that school. And it sounded so good, he was playing so much stuff, wherever Louis was, he came running to the bandstand. “Give me my horn!” He didn’t want anybody playing like that! He would really lose the gig!
And John liked it. I remember he told me, “I tried it, I liked it,” and the next thing you know, he had gone and bought a tenor saxophone. The tenor sax was kind of a novelty to him. He ended up working with a former member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band, from Philadelphia also, named Johnny Lynch, a trumpet player, and they were working at a skating rink every week in South Philadelphia on Broad Street. It might have been the E-Lite(?) Ballroom. It was a three-hour concert every Sunday afternoon. John would bring the tenor, and he might play one number on it. He was primarily an alto player. Then as time went by, he was playing more numbers on it. And after a while, he was playing tenor and lot equally. As time went further on, he was playing more on the tenor and less on the alto. And finally, he sold the alto. He was a tenor player. He loved the sound of the tenor saxophone. So that’s how it got started.
He went through phases, just as Picasso went through his periods of squares and cubes… He went through phases on the saxophone, trying to find out who he wanted to be, what he wanted to sound like. So Dexter disappeared. I ran into him when he was working with a fellow named Gay Crosse out in Cleveland, Ohio. I was with another rhythm-and-blues band, and I went by the hotel room where he and Specs Wright were playing. Specs was practicing on the practice pad, keeping the rhythm, and he was playing his horn. I noticed he sounded a little different. Each time I heard him, he was a little different. Because he was finding himself on the tenor saxophone. I think he was constantly doing that, right up until the end. At the same time, he was putting all these things together, the chords and… He was a person who practiced all the time, that Spartan-like practice, like a person who had no talent — and he had an abundance of talent. So you hook that up, a person who had an abundance of talent and who practiced all the time, you’re going to get something pretty redoubtable! And he was. And he became that. As I heard him, boy, he was awesome.
One thing led to another, and eventually, Philly Joe left town to join Miles, and Hank Mobley was leaving at the time, and Miles asked Philly did he know any tenor players in Philly. Philly told him, yes, he knew a tenor player, and Miles said, “What’s his name?” “His name is John Coltrane.” Of course, Miles had never heard of him, so he asked him (he wanted to be sure) “Can he play?” And Philly probably made the understatement of his life. He nonchalantly said, “Yeah, he can play.” John joined the band, and… Did I tell this two weeks ago? Anyway, he eventually brought “Stablemates” to him and Miles recorded it.
TP: Let me take a detour here, and ask about your good friendship with Jimmy Heath in the 1940s. He was perhaps the most advanced of you in the 1940’s, with the big band.
GOLSON: He was, definitely. Jimmy was only 19 years old and I was about 16, John was 18. And this guy, Jimmy Heath, had the ability to play chords. We were still struggling, still spelling, A, B, C… He had the ability to play chords. Until this day, I don’t think I’ve heard Jimmy Heath play a wrong chord. He is fantastic with those chords! Anyway, he was into it! And John came to town, and he heard about Jimmy, because they were both playing alto at that time. John was sounding like Johnny Hodges. Jimmy had heard Charlie Parker, and he was trying to sound like that. John eventually met him, and when he came to my house again he said, “Oh, I met Jimmy Heath; boy, he’s a crazy cat” — which meant he was all right, he was really on it! Eventually, Jimmy formed a big band, a 15-piece band. Boy, I’ve got to tell you, those seats were coveted. But somehow, John and I made it. [LAUGHS] Because we weren’t playing that great. We finally made it. I was playing fourth tenor. A fellow named Sax Young was playing second tenor. He had most of the solos. I was coming along. John was playing third alto, and a fellow named Duke Joiner was playing lead alto. I forget who was playing baritone sax. Then we had some other guys in the band. Jimmy was writing some of the music, then I started trying to write and John started trying to write. Nelson Boyd was playing bass. Hen Gates (James Forman) was playing piano. Specs Wright was playing drums. It was really sounding great. Everybody wanted to be in that band. We were so happy because we were in the band. To this day I call Jimmy “boss” whenever I see him, because of that band. Whenever I call him, I say, “Hey, boss!” We were talking about that the other day. I called him on his birthday, as a matter of fact, about three or four days ago.
We rehearsed a lot. We had a vocalist. But we didn’t work too often. Tadd Dameron wrote some things for the group. Because these were young kids, and the band was sounding good. Johnny Acea, who was an arranger living in New York, was from Philly, and he wrote some things, and there was another arranger from Philly named Leroy Lovett, big-time arranger, writing stuff for Nat Cole and everything, and he was writing things and giving it to us. We were in a privileged position. But the band never really took off. We were trying to get a booking agent like Shaw or ABC or Glazer or somebody to take us, but it never happened. I guess people just didn’t have faith in these kids. Eventually the band broke up. But it was a good experience.
TP: Had we another hour or two past 7, I’d quiz him more about Philadelphia in the ’50s, but we don’t. The next recording pairs him with Pharaoh Sanders. This is the only “tenor battle” I can think of.
GOLSON: I’ll tell you how this came about. I knew John at the beginning. At the very beginning, we became good friends. Now, Pharaoh met him later along, when he became the John Coltrane. And for me, Pharaoh is the one who comes closest to what John Coltrane was all about. We’re not talking about the velocity and running all over the horn. I’m talking about the sound and the way he projected and the way he could play one note, like John, and lay you out. One note! I thought it would be a good idea to come up with a tribute to John, play a couple of the tunes that he played, with me as one who knew him early on, and Pharaoh, who knew him later in his development. We put the date together, and we came up with This is For You, John.
[MUSIC: BG-Pharaoh, "Times Past: This Is For You, John"]
TP: Were you listening to John Coltrane’s music throughout the ’60s? Did you keep up with everything he did before he died?
GOLSON: Well, not everything. But I listened to him, of course. He had a lot to say. We had to listen to him.
TP: Did you keep in touch personally throughout?
GOLSON: From time to time. Not as much as we did earlier, of course, because our paths were going in different directions and our music wasn’t the same either. But we did see each other from time to time. We would always recall some of the things that happened earlier-on as young teenagers. He came down to see me at the Five Spot. We were on intermission. I saw him coming across the street, and he had this cigar, and he’d put on a little weight. I said, “Wow!” He said, “Man, I’m taking Metrecal but nothing is happening.” I didn’t think much of it. Then finally I said, “Well, how are you taking it?” He said, “Well, I eat my meal and then I drink a Metrecal.” I started laughing! No weight loss.
TP: We’ll hear recordings from 1986 and 1988, one for a studio date with Freddie Hubbard and one with the reconfigured Jazztet. You mentioned earlier that for the second incarnation of the Jazztet, you made the arrangements less restrictive, more freedom for the soloists. Did this inspire new writing for you? Was it a project you could devote new energies to?
GOLSON: Absolutely. I came to appreciate that less means more. Or, to look at it from another view, the more you do a thing, the less it means. So that’s what I did, and we felt better about it. Writing evolves just like playing does, or any other creative thing. My writing started to take a turn. I did a thing on one of those sessions called “Vas Simeon,” which had no form to it at all, no form whatsoever, but yet we had to blow on it. So for the blowing part, I constructed a little area of chords that we would blow on, and once that was over, we went back to this nondescript kind of thing as far as form was concerned. It was so different than what I had written theretofore, that the piano player, Mickey Tucker, said to me, “What were you smoking when you wrote this?”
[MUSIC: BG-Freddie, "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing"; Jazztet, "Vas Simeon," C. Fuller 5, "Love, Your Spell Is Everywhere"]
TP: The next recording is a special project, based on the Brandenberg Concertos.
GOLSON: I didn’t defile Bach at all. I have to say that. Because the solos are not based on things he wrote; those things were added. It’s another project that wasn’t my idea, but a very interesting one. When they proposed it, it seemed like a challenge, which I accepted. I had heard Bach all of my life. But this time I had to eviscerate him. I had to really look at what he was doing. Because I knew I had to come up with things in addition to what he had written, and yet these things couldn’t sound arbitrary, like they were just picked up and tacked on to it. They had to sound like part of the whole tapestry. So it had to be in the style or concept or feeling that he had. When I wrote these things, I remember, for the first person I played it to, it went into a section I had written, and they mentioned Bach, as though he had written it. That let me know that I was on the right track. I said, “No, that’s mine.” But it had to be that way, otherwise it would be neither fish nor fowl.
Now, he had a certain number of instruments when he did the Brandenberg Concerti. This CD represents about half of them. I added some horns he didn’t have, and I added some female voices which he didn’t have. So I had to write original parts for the voices that would go with his things, and I had to assign these additional instruments things to play, and it had to be in keeping with what he had done, and the transitions going into the jazz had to work, too. So all these things represented a challenge.
[MUSIC: Brandenberg #1 w/ Mulgrew, Art Farmer, Rufus Reid, Smitty]
TP: Here’s another selection from the private archive, dedicated to Bessie Smith.
GOLSON: This is from last April. NPR called me and asked me to compose a composition in tribute to Bessie Smith for her 100th birthday. It didn’t have to be too long, and for solo piano. I told them I thought I could do it. After about a week I came up with this. We hired Bill Mays, who was my pianist while we were in California, to do this. They played it, and they sent me a copy. The voice you hear will be Odetta, who narrated it.
TP: You mentioned last week that you listened to a lot of blues as a kid, that it was played in the house a lot, and that some of your earliest experiences may have been listening to Bessie Smith and the classic blues.
GOLSON: I had no choice. And two of my uncles played piano similar to what you’re going to do here. Not quite as well, though. [LAUGHS]
[MUSIC: "Bessie and Me"]
TP: Now some selections for the Benny Golson Quintet for Dreyfus, an in-studio date with new arrangements of previously recorded material. I’d like to talk about reprising and reworking older material.
GOLSON: “Domingo” is what we’ll hear. I wrote it for a date for Lee Morgan, maybe his first or second. It’s one of those tunes that was recorded and never even played again; it continued to live on the album. Many years went by, and I never thought about the tune any more. Many years later, Phineas Newborn recorded it. Geoff Keezer played it for me, and I went, “Hey, how about that,” but I still didn’t think about it. Then Mulgrew Miller knew about it and he said, “Hey, you ought to start playing this tune again.” Then James Williams said the same thing. I said, “Well, maybe I should!” The style didn’t change too much. The concept, the solos may be a bit different because time has moved on.
TP: Is that how it is with most of your older material. You have so many classics of the jazz lexicon, so I’d imagine just to keep yourself interested… Do you try to put little twists and turns in and update arrangements, or do you hew to the older version?
GOLSON: No. Even as a composer, they’re not sacrosanct. I feel compelled to do something a little different. I’m of the opinion that things should not always remain exactly the same. In classical music they do, and the only difference is the quality of the performance, the conductor and the tempos. But jazz is different. We can express the same thing in so many different ways. It’s a real adventure, and I’m privileged to be a part of it!
TP: A woman called as that was playing and asked me to ask you: If you were listening to yourself blind over the air, how would you know it’s your tune? What are the distinctive characteristics by which you recognize your compositions?
GOLSON: I don’t know if she meant if I’m playing it or if it’s just my composition? If I’m playing it, it’s just like hearing my own voice. I know my style. But if it’s my composition and someone else is playing it, there are lots of parallels. It’s like hearing your mate’s voice. When you hear that voice, you know it’s his or hers in a crowd. You can pick it out. Sometimes you even know the smell of your mate. He or she can cough in a crowd, and you can identify them by the cough. You can see a bunch of children playing, and they’re making lots of noise, they’re rambunctious, and yet, with your back turned you can tell whether or not your kid is there if he’s joining in with his voice. There are lots of parallels. You can tell the way a person walks from the rear that it’s him or her, if you know them really well.
It’s the same thing with music. The structure, as you said. Yes, you know the structure. You know the very nature of the song. You don’t even have to hear the melody. Before they get back to the melody again, you know it’s yours. It might sound complicated, but it’s extremely easy.
TP: I think an implication of the question is, what are some of the salient aspects of the Benny Golson writing style and, perhaps also, the improvisational style, since you function as a composer-improviser?
GOLSON: Saliently, it would be the structure, the very nature of the tune. What chord follows what chord. Which determines the structure or the concept of the tune. The melody is the same thing. You have one note, you have nothing. You have nothing of any consequence until you get the second note. You’ve got the beginning of a melody. The first note doesn’t mean a thing.
TP: So it’s how you get from Point A to Point B that makes Benny Golson Benny Golson. Do you see your identities as composer and improviser as separate, as related, as sometimes separate and sometimes… Certainly, there’s sometimes an element of spontaneous composition in the act of improvising.
GOLSON: Always separate for me. When I’m playing, I don’t think about the writing. When I’m writing, conversely, I don’t think about the playing. The two never meet.
TP: Do you have to clear your head, or is that just the way it is?
GOLSON: No, it’s just natural. I pour myself into each aspect, totally.
I got a Guggenheim fellowship last year, and under their aegis I will be writing another symphony, a second symphony. The first was a combination of the jazz thing and this, but this will be straight-out classical. Don’t know where I’m going. I have my premise, I’ve done my research, and all I have to do is translate these things into music. Haven’t written a note, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, reading a lot of books, and when I get ready to put pen to paper, hopefully things will happen. And I’ve been commissioned to write a new ballet by a ballet company in Columbus called Ballet-Met. I’ve been out there, I’ve talked with them, they have great facilities. They’ve got two studios that look like airplane hangars. It’s incredible. Their facility takes up a whole block. People in New York would kill for that. [ETC.]
Benny Golson Musician Show (2-7-96):
TP: When we started running down the musicians on whom we wanted to focus, the first you mentioned was Lucky Thompson. Most of this show will be devoted to tenor players from the Coleman Hawkins school – Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, Hawkins — who are the people who pulled you in when you were beginning and feeling your oats on the tenor.
GOLSON: Lucky sort of grew out of Don Byas, that school of thought Don seemed to come up with, a former alto player. Lucky’s approach was even smoother. He tended to flow one thing into another. He would come at melodies from different angles; he had a good knowledge of chords. Though he’s still alive, I have to say “had,” because he is no longer playing. What we’re about to play is one of the last things he recorded before he bowed out It was so good, it’s one of the best things I ever heard from him. I heard it a few months ago, a friend had it, and I was taken aback.
TP: When did you first hear him play, become aware of him?
GOLSON: It had to be ’53, or something like that. I heard him after I heard Don Byas. And although the styles were similar, oxymoronically, they were different at the same time. He says some of the same things that Don used to say, but in a slightly different way. They’re from the same musical neighborhood and concept, so to speak.
TP: You referred to Don Byas a converted alto saxophonist. Do you feel that his having played alto saxophone first had a significant impact on his style as a tenor saxophonist?
GOLSON: I’m not sure, but I suspect that he did. He sings in his melodies when he plays like a lead alto. If you listen closely on his ballads, he sings those melodies like Charlie Parker used to sing the melodies. Singing in the sense that he’s pouring out his heart, almost vocally, through the saxophone, through the sound of the saxophone. That’s what we used to call “singing.” That’s the way Don played his melodies. Now, Lucky didn’t play his melodies quite the same. If you played them back to back, you might be able to hear that.
TP: Eddie Lockjaw Davis said in an interview that Don Byas was able to incorporate the ideas that Art Tatum was playing in his left hand on the saxophone, and was one of the very few who had the technique to be able to realize that. What do you make of that? We know he was very influenced by Tatum and had tons of Tatum records?
GOLSON: Well, I’d have to say he was ambidextrously talented, because he not only played what he played in the left hand, he played quite a bit of what he played in the right hand, too.
TP: Well, it’s a literal quote. But he did have prodigious technique, and was a saxophonist from the ’30s who was really respected by the young generation who came up after World War II.
GOLSON: Oh yes. Let me tell you, I happened to be talking about him with Harry Sweets Edison, and Sweets said to me, “When Chu Berry was in town we used to have jam sessions, and Chu would always want to get with Don.” I said, “What was the outcome when they’d get together?” I can’t repeat verbatim, but he said Don did him in each time. And Earl Bostic used to tell me about him; he would go to the sessions, and nobody could keep up with him, I guess other than Earl Bostic himself, who was really quite the technician. Oh yeah, he could play.
TP: And also in 1944, when Dizzy Gillespie went on 52nd Street and Charlie Parker was in Kansas City, he hired Don Byas for the front line.
GOLSON: Oh yes.
TP: When did you first hear Don Byas? I believe you saw Dizzy and Bird in person for the first time in ’45 in Philadelphia.
GOLSON: It was ’45, yes. We were sort of getting into that… When I say “we,” we who were aspiring professionals. Ray Bryant was at that concert. John Coltrane and I went together. I think Jimmy Heath was there in the first row with some other piano player from Philly, locally. When we heard this concert, it literally changed our lives. We could feel something happening to us inside that we’d never felt before. Because not only were we hearing a fantastic performance, we were hearing a kind of music that we had never, ever heard before. You have to imagine the impact on 16- and 18-year kids. That’s what we were. All the way home, we were “supposing” and “if.” We were looking into the future. We wanted to know what that music was all about, really. And I am still trying to find out what it’s all about. Because music is open-ended. You never really complete it. You never finish it. It’s malleable, you reshape it and you put it here and you put it over there and you add something to it, and it continues to grow. Even the styles… How can I say it? Today’s adventure is tomorrow’s commonplace. That’s because Jazz in particular has such a forward motion to it, it’s always evolving out of itself and it’s moving forward, so that the styles that are great today might be a little dated tomorrow, but it doesn’t go into obscurity. You just move it over on the shelf and make room for the newer things.
TP: And the day after tomorrow, it may be fresh again.
GOLSON: Well, the future is always a second away or so. So as we move forward in the stream of time, and making time our confederate, we indefatigably move ahead with it — if we are truly creative. And that’s what we do. No musician that I know of is ever completely satisfied. I mean, I’ve heard Dizzy play, and Charlie Parker, J.J. Johnson, John Coltrane. And when you’d talk to them, you’d always hear, “I think I could do it better if I had done so-and-so.” And you’re saying, “What?” It’s a relative thing. No matter where we are, what strata, what level we’re at in ability, we’re always stretching. We’re never satisfied. We’re always reaching. That’s part of the adventure.
[MUSIC: Lucky Thompson, "When Sunny Gets Blue," "Blue and Boogie" (1970)]
GOLSON: Unfortunately, on “Blue and Boogie,” the sound was not quite right. He must have been a little disappointed with that. But the performance was good, what he was playing was fine, but the sound was a little constricted. That wasn’t really his sound. I know his sound. It’s one of those things that’s happened to me; it’s happened to many of us from time to time.
I guess the next thing you’re going to play is “52nd Street Theme” with Dizzy and Don Byas. When I heard this, during that time the saxophone players were playing kind of smooth and mellow and flowing. The tongue didn’t touch the reed too often. It was just the style. So here comes Don, with great articulation… You notice the way he plays, especially when he goes into the bridge, and you notice that he’s playing wide intervals. The notes are far apart. He’s not going smoothly, like going up a pair of steps or down a pair of steps. It’s tantamount to skipping steps, jumping down steps, jumping up steps, over the notes. He knew his horn that well, you’ll notice, as he plays what he does.
[MUSIC: Byas-Diz, "52nd Street Theme"; Byas, "Candy," "How High The Moon"]
TP: That reflected in many ways what was happening on 52nd Street at the time, the mixture of musicians of different sensibilities and eras, and playing a song that was the anthem of the young beboppers… Benny pointed out that he wanted to hear Don Byas’ break when he went into the bridge.
GOLSON: That “52nd Street Theme” is notable because it epitomized what was happening musically at that time. You’ll notice, as you listen to some of those things, the rhythm was kind of boom-changy, which was sort of a reflection from the past. Keep in mind that when this music started…oh, whenever they started… I’m not sure exactly when it started but I heard it in 1945. When I say “they,” I’m referring to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. And when we first heard them in Philadelphia live, we weren’t even sure who Charlie Parker was when they first started to play. But they had Slam Stewart on bass, I think Big Sid Catlett was on drums and Al Haig was playing piano. We didn’t realize then that the rhythm section hadn’t caught up with what Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were doing. On some of those early things, Bird and Diz were hitting it hard, in this new direction, but the rhythm section was lagging a little bit behind. Later on they got with it, with Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and some of the others.
TP: What exactly were they lacking?
GOLSON: they were lacking the spirit of the new concept that Bird and Diz had come up with. Of course, jazz had existed before Bird and Diz were playing what they played, so they were playing what they knew best, what they used to play before Diz and Bird came on the scene with this epochal music.
TP: What did they add rhythmically?
GOLSON: Well, on that tune you hear the bass drum on every beat. BOOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. That doesn’t happen so much now. The more you do a thing, the less it means. Now when the bass drum is played, it’s played a little lightly, and when you accent certain things, then it means something. But if you have it BOOM-BOOM’ing all the time, then you really have to hit it hard, and it would be overwhelming. Things like that. The bass selection of notes, the notes then on the bass were thumps, THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP. You played them, and they died immediately. I call it the rubber band sound. You hear Ron Carter, Ray Drummond, Rufus Reid, they play those notes like they don’t want to die. They ring fully until the finger touches the string to play the next note. They ring. They fill up. It gives you a different feeling when you’re playing with these kind of players, too. And it makes the music sound different.
TP: Now, when you were a kid, listening to this for the first time, going to the Earle Theater to hear Bird and Dizzy, what kind of records were you listening to and assimilating?
GOLSON: I was listening to Lionel Hampton. Arnett Cobb, he was my hero. He was the one that was responsible for me picking up the tenor saxophone. That’s where we were. If anyone knows about the Lionel Hampton groove on “Flyin’ Home,” to me, that was the epitome of saxophone playing. That was the epitome of what a big band could do other than Duke Ellington. I didn’t understand everything he was doing, but I knew it was something unusual, and I liked it. But I liked Lionel Hampton better at that time. It just had a certain spirit for me. I was coming into it not really knowing much about jazz, and it was one of the things that first struck my fancy.
TP: How did you pick up on the new bebop records? Was it word-of-mouth among your peer group? You heard it on jukeboxes? On the radio? How did you become aware of it?
GOLSON: It was the strangest thing. By accident, really, there was a place in Philadelphia that sold used records, records which had been played on the jukeboxes. It was 78’s. Though they were only 37 cents brand-new, you could go and buy these used records for a dime apiece! I saw this thing, the very first one was “Billie’s Bounce” and “Now’s the Time.” I’d never heard of Miles Davis. I’d never heard of this fellow called Charlie Parker. Only 10 cents! I figured, after all, I couldn’t lose anything. So I bought it. And I took it home, and I put it on, and I listened to it — and it was the strangest music. Had I wasted my dime? It was quite unlike the things I had been hearing before. But the more I played it, the more I began to like, not really understanding what it was all about. So in the middle of all of this, I got a chance to hear Bird and Diz, not even really knowing who Bird was. This guy dressed in a double-breasted pinstriped suit with all the buttons buttoned, and it looked too small for him — it looked like he was going to explode in it! And when he bent over to make that 4-bar break in “A Night In Tunisia,” I almost fell out of the balcony. John and I were grabbing at each other. We’d never heard anybody play like that before.
TP: Did he have a big-big sound, Charlie Parker?
GOLSON: Yes, he had a big sound. And the things that he played… John Coltrane was playing alto at that time. He was into Johnny Hodges! That’s where he was. I was into Arnett Cobb. And to hear Charlie Parker come out and play that 4-bar break by himself… Man, we were going crazy! What was this all about? How could we get close to this music?
But there was another fellow who came along. I had been into Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas and Lucky Thompson and Ben Webster and Arnett Cobb. He was such an aberration. He was so different that he drove me out of my mind, too, and it was the next recording you’re going to play by Diz — “Blue and Boogie.” When I heard him play…I’m repeating myself. Inside I was going crazy, my emotions. Because it sounded so great, so good to me… it’s like meeting the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen in your life or something like that. It got me, and it started to change my concept about the saxophone. It helped me to move on. I told him that once. He laughed. I said, “It’s true!”
TP: Talk about the advances that Dexter Gordon brought to the tenor saxophone vocabulary.
GOLSON: It was just his approach to it. Actions speak louder than words… If you just put it on and let the audience hear it… Some will already remember it anyway. But they will hear that what we’ve just played is totally different. He’s going in another direction, and I wanted to go along with it.
[MUSIC: Diz-Dex, "Blue and Boogie"; Bird-Diz, "Dizzy Atmosphere"; Bird-Diz-Byas, "Sweet Georgia Brown"]
GOLSON: When Dexter Gordon came along with that style… Oh, it doesn’t amaze me about him any more, so much has happened since then. But at that time, no one had played like that before him. So it had quite an impact, first of all on the musicians, and maybe even some of the people who listened to it. But it affected so many musicians… Let me tell you what happened. John was playing alto, and he had begun to play like Charlie Parker after that concert I told you about, in which he and Dizzy were playing together. He was playing I think in Eddie Vinson’s band. In that band, there was a tenor player. Johnny Coles was the trumpet player, because Eddie had come to the East Coast for a string of dates up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and he used all Philadelphia musicians to do these jobs with him. The tenor player and Eddie had a falling-out, so when the time came for intermission, he laid his horn on the chair (as all of us did for the half-hour intermission), and when it was time to come back, everybody came back except the tenor player, who I guess was pouting. Nobody knew where he was. Well, Eddie had to go on playing, so they played whatever this tune was, and in this tune was a tenor solo coming up, so Eddie told John to pick up Louis’ horn. John was a little reluctant. He said, “No, pick it up and play it!” So John picked it up. And when he picked it up and started to play, who do you think he sounded like? He sounded like Dexter Gordon. Not Charlie Parker. He adopted a new mental attitude for the tenor saxophone. It sounded so good… I wasn’t there, but Johnny Coles told me about it. Wherever Louis Judge was, he came running up to the bandstand. He felt that his career and his job was in jeopardy, and he said, “Give me my horn!” But John had had a taste of it, and that’s what prompted him to buy a tenor saxophone. That’s how it happened. And he started playing tenor saxophone sort of as a novelty, and then what eventually happened, the alto began to fade into the background and he became a tenor player. Like with lots of other alto players — Jimmy Heath, Don Byas, George Coleman; many of them were alto players.
But Charlie Parker, I have to go back to him again. Although he was an alto player, and on that concert where I first heard him, my idol was on that concert, Don Byas… But when the concert was over, and after John and I went back and got the autographs (you know how kids are), we found ourselves following Charlie Parker up the street. We followed him for blocks. And John was carrying his horn on the left and I was on his right, like kids. “Mister Parker, how do you do this?” and “What is this?” and “What is..>” I guess we drove the man crazy, until he got where he was going; he was on his way to the Downbeat club, which was about four blocks from the concert hall, and we were too young to get into the club, so he left us there — maybe he was glad too get away from us! “Okay, kids, keep up the good work.” It was up on the second floor. And we spent the rest of the night just standing outside, listening to this new music being played by Charlie Parker, who was being featured with the local rhythm section, who was Red Garland, Philly Joe and Nelson Boyd was playing bass. We didn’t know any of them at the time.
TP: In 1945.
GOLSON: Yeah, we were kids. They didn’t know us and we didn’t know them. We wanted to know them, though. And we stayed there all night until it was over. Certainly Charlie Parker influenced John’s playing as an alto player. But I think he influenced many of us. Til this day. Barry Harris sounds like Charlie Parker playing piano! But he helped take us on our voyage to nowhere, because we didn’t know where we were going. We didn’t know whether we were going to be successful or not. But we didn’t care. We were compelled to do what we were trying to do. And each day we woke up, it was great to open our eyes, because we knew we had another shot at what we were trying to do. So we used to have lots of jam sessions. We used to get together. And when I heard this playing here, and you could hear the bass drum playing this 1-2-3-4 heavy THUMP… Around that time, the rhythm sections hadn’t really caught up to what Bird and Diz were doing. As I said, they did later, and it really began to smooth out, and everybody began to go in a similar direction in their development. But this is what we were living, those of us in Philadelphia at the time. I didn’t know anything about Chicago or New York or anyplace else, just what happened in Philadelphia. This is where we were, and these were the kinds of things that were helping to move us forward — all of us. Jimmy Heath, Nelson Boyd, Percy Heath, Philly Joe. We were all trying to get into this new music, and eventually we did. Some of us were successful enough to leave Philadelphia and come to Mecca, New York City, and go to various places around the world, and some weren’t. I feel, as many of us do, that we were privileged to be a part of that and develop it to a point that we could go out and show our wares, as it were, to people all around the world, and they would appreciate it in varying degrees.
TP: In the decade before you were able to come and settle in New York, you undertook a comprehensive, extended apprenticeship in many different bands and many situations, playing music for many different functions.
GOLSON: Oh yes. Lots of rhythm-and-blues. We didn’t always play jazz. None of us. Because at that time… When we started, it was hard for us, because the older and well-established musicians would ridicule us. They would say, “Where is the melody? Where is the bass drum?” Or “You play like you’ve got a mouthful of hot rice.” It wasn’t like the musicians today who are older, who encourage the younger ones who come behind them. I think it’s great when I see the younger ones come on the scene. I think I and many of the others, probably all of them, try to encourage them. We got no encouragement at all. They were always trying to put us down. Until so many of us came on the scene, that the scene changed! Time marches on. But it was a troublesome period for us. You didn’t get called for many gigs, and we had to take some gigs that we didn’t like. Gigs where you had to get up on the bar and walk the bar and step over drinks. I did it. John did it. We all did it. We were trying to survive.
TP: You spent a couple of years in Washington, D.C., at Howard University, and I know you spent a fair amount of time sneaking out. But tell me a bit about the Washington scene, which was very active, dynamic and proficient.
GOLSON: It was during that time. But then, so was Philadelphia. Somewhere along the way, they both died. But during that time they were alive. They were vital. It was fertile, both cities. I thought it was going to stay like that forever. I was so happy about it all. Music was everywhere. There were groups playing everywhere — trios, quartets, quintets — in Philadelphia and Washington. I suppose, to a large extent, they were happening in other cities, too, in Chicago and Detroit, probably in Los Angeles, New Orleans, wherever. It was a happy time for us, because more and more people were beginning not only to play the music, but to understand it. So people were buying records. People were plunking their money down to come and see the groups that came to appear in the clubs and in the theaters. Because a lot of the theaters were still open then. The Earle Theater in Philadelphia, the Apollo in New York, the Royal in Baltimore, the Regal in Chicago, the Alhambra in Los Angeles, the Roosevelt in Pittsburgh. There were many places where groups and orchestras were still appearing live. It was great!
TP: That was also a time when there was a circuit of black entertainers, so it wouldn’t just be the bands coming into these theaters, but a whole show would be coming in.
GOLSON: A whole show with some of them. Oh yes, we had to play those shows. Sometimes it was a drag. But when you find yourself in a situation, rather than let the situation get you down… Charlie Parker had a way of existing, and his personality always came through, no matter where he was. He said that everyone had something to say. They might say it a little differently than you or him, but he had something to say, something of value. So when we found ourselves in situations, we made the best of it. We tried to maximize that situation. Because we were still going through a learning process. So when we down to the chitlin circuit, when we went through Mississippi and Georgia and we played those tobacco warehouses and so on, it helped us to get our soul together and to find out what feeling was all about. So it wasn’t wasted time. It was a part of our education.
TP: What were some of the bands you played that circuit with?
GOLSON: Bullmoose Jackson.
TP: Describe it. Within that band were the seeds of some of the most consequential music of the 1950’s.
GOLSON: Bullmoose Jackson was a player who had played with Lucky Millinder. He got the name Bullmoose because his appendages were long, he had thick fingers, big feet, a long face, his lips were very thick, his head was long. They gave him that name. But he had a beautiful voice, and that’s what helped to get him started in his own group. He had a 7-piece group. Frank Wess, I think, started out with him. He had become successful to an extent, as far as it was possible during that time, and he had many recordings out. When I met him, he was in the process of changing the band around. So he asked me would I like to join the band. I had an audition. I had to come to the hotel room. The manager of the group was also the alto saxophone player. They gave me some things to read, and I played it with them. They said, “Well, you’re not wearing glasses for nothing. Do you know of a good trumpet player we could use?” He wanted to change the band around completely. So I mentioned Johnny Coles, who was an excellent reader. Then he wanted a drummer. As I told you, we didn’t always play jazz. The drummer turned out to be Philly Joe Jones. Well, he wanted a bass player. Jymie Merritt was the bass player. So we had a nice group. When I got to the group, the only one that he didn’t let go was his manager, who played alto, and the piano player, who was his friend (also from Cleveland, where he was from) who happened to be Tadd Dameron, who wasn’t working that much at the time, so Moose said, “Why don’t you come out and play with me until you decide you want to do something else.” So when I got there, Tadd was there. So we had this plethora of new blood, new musicians, and we started to play some of Tadd’s things in between Bullmoose Jackson’s hits. Then he got me to write things, and at the same time I was picking Tadd’s brains to find out how he arrived at certain things. And the man was so friendly, he showed me everything he knew, which helped propel me along in the direction I wanted to go. So I began to write things, and Moose enjoyed playing those kinds of things more than the things he was making his money at. The group got so good and so diverse, that I remember, when we played a club in St. Louis, I can’t remember the name…
TP: The Riviera?
GOLSON: No, that was a large one. This wasn’t quite that large. But I remember the Riviera. But it turned out we had two audiences, the people who came to hear Moose sing those songs, and people who came to know what the group was about. Now, we never recorded any of those things, but by word of mouth, people began to talk about this band that had Tadd in it, and Philly Joe and so forth. And we would play his hits, and then we would do our thing. It was great. It made it tolerable, because we had a chance to do the things that we really wanted to do in that band, and the leader loved it, too.
So it was great…until it ended.
TP: The tenor player who as much as Bird affected the sensibilities of many young tenor aspirants performing in the aesthetic Benny Golson is talking about is Lester Young, and the music he cut after World War, after his supposed decline, were hits on jukeboxes in black neighborhoods around the country. You were checking Prez out a lot, and the next selection is “D.B. Blues,” done right after he got out of the Army.
GOLSON: It was so popular, that I had to learn how to play what you’re about to play note for note. When we played locally at the dances… We didn’t play at the clubs then. We weren’t that great. But we used to play these local dances, and the younger people would come to the dances, and they always wanted to hear this tune. My claim to fame was playing this next tune, “D.B. Blues.” I had no identity of my own!
[MUSIC: Prez, "D.B. Blues"]
GOLSON: You see what I was talking about. The rhythm section still had not quite come up to where it is today. I guess that’s a lot to ask, to come up to where it is today. But they eventually caught on to what was going on, the spirit of it, and the rhythm did change. It wasn’t so much hi-hat cymbal as it was then, you know.
But your speaking about jukeboxes in the black neighborhoods before brought things to my mind. And Coleman Hawkins comes to my mind. In my neighborhood (they used to call them tap rooms), there was a bar, a saloon, a block from where we lived. I remember walking by that saloon and hearing this beautiful saxophone playing this tune. Well, I wasn’t playing then. I hadn’t begun to play at all then. I was still playing piano (playing at it anyway). I later found out that tune was “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins. And everybody liked it! It’s not like today, where most of the people like Rock-and-Roll or Rap or whatnot. Everybody in the neighborhood loved “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins. Later, when I started to play the saxophone, somebody transcribed it. Like I said, I was so eclectic then, and we really didn’t have a voice of our own. We used to play these things at high school and go visit other high schools. I got this transcription of “Body and Soul” with every note that Coleman Hawkins played. I played the notes. Sad to say, it didn’t sound like Coleman Hawkins. But I would do that. And as I got older and more mature, I realized what this man was really doing in that song. And I never played it. I recorded that song last week with Branford Marsalis; we shared it together. I looked back and wondered to myself why I had never recorded it. I don’t think I ever played it. Rarely did I play it. I think it’s because Coleman Hawkins did so much with it. It’s so beautiful, what else could I add to it? It was just that way. It was such a classic thing he did. What else could I add to it?
[MUSIC: Hawk, "Body and Soul"]
TP: Could you comment on the contrasting styles by the two founders of the main branches of the tenor tree, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.
GOLSON: If you noticed, when Coleman Hawkins was playing, he was playing like many of the other tenor saxophones during the day, and that was using vibrato. During that time they used a wide vibrato. That was acceptable, because that’s what was happening. Prez came on the scene, and he used no vibrato. And they said, “What is this guy doing? He’s not using any vibrato.” But he set a new approach to the sound of the saxophone. Nobody uses the wide vibrato any more. Many of us play with no vibrato — or, when we choose to use it. But the wide vibrato is gone.
GOLSON: Well, it fell out of style. It was out of date. Style moved on to something else. We’re not wearing spats any more. Things progress and go forward. Well, call it forward or backward. But it changed. Everything changes. Nothing stays the same. We didn’t look like this twenty years ago. Did we? [LAUGHS] Yeah, time is corrosive. Time moves on. But I think it was for the better. The wide vibrato was all right then. I like it better without the vibrato. However, I like this version of “Body and Soul.” I am transported back in time, so in my own mind I guess I accept the vibrato because of the way he played, the feeling, the creativity that he evinced in this version of “Body and Soul.”
Prez was a minimalist. A lot of people thought that Prez couldn’t double up and play double-time on the fast things, or he could just groove. I was talking to someone about this the other night. I said, “You know, Prez could double up and run all over the horn. I heard him do it!” But he chose to take this approach. He liked to lay back in that groove and find a pocket. And it worked. He was a minimalist. He made his notes count. What was it Sweets said about some saxophone player who played a lot of notes? [LAUGHS] Oh, he said, referring to this person… I don’t remember who he was, but he’d play all up and down the horn constantly. He said, “If he got paid by the note, he could retire early.” Sweets is a minimalist. They choose the notes well, and they make them work, and they play the notes with feeling. When you play a lot of notes, you don’t get a chance to linger on each note and get a full feeling from each note. It’s only when you slow down on the ballad and you slow down for an appreciable amount of time that you get a chance to emote. You know what I’m saying? When you start moving fast, that’s gone.
TP: Describing phrasing a note that way makes me think of Ben Webster, who we’ll hear on a track from his younger days before he became famous for ballads done in that manner. Hearing Ben Webster performing “Raincheck,” from 1941, brings us to another aspect of Benny Golson’s work which we haven’t yet addressed, which is the seed of writing and your career as a composer. The impact of Ben Webster and the Ellington Orchestra.
GOLSON: Well, writing didn’t take me over yet. I didn’t have enough knowledge to realize what writing was about at that time. But I remember when my mother brought the saxophone home to me. As bad as I wanted the saxophone, when I opened it, I felt terrible, because I didn’t even know how to put it together. So she packed the saxophone up and we both went around to the neighborhood we used to live in, about three or four blocks away, to a the house of a fellow named Tony Mitchell. Now, he played the saxophone. So we went in, and I wanted to know, “Well, how do I put this together?” He took it out and showed me how to put the neck on the top of the horn, and how to put the mouthpiece off, and how to put the ligature off and put the reed on and put the ligature back on and tighten it, and put the strap around my neck. “Oh, I didn’t know it had a strap.” “Yeah, it hangs on the strap.” And I put it no the strap, and he said, “Okay, now you put it in your mouth and play something.” Well, I’m like a mule being led to slaughter. I couldn’t play anything. I was discouraged again. I didn’t know what the learning process would be like. He said, “Wait, let me show you.” So he put his saxophone together, and he put on this next record that you’re about to play, and he played with it, the way I used to play with “D.B. Blues” and some of the other things. It was Ben Webster. The tune was “Raincheck.” This is when I first started to become of aware of where I had to go and what I had to do — not being aware of how long it was going to take either!
[MUSIC: Duke-Ben, "Raincheck," "Just A-Sittin' and A-Rockin'"]
TP: Ellington and Tadd Dameron seem to be the two primary inspirations of your formative years as a composer.
GOLSON: Duke Ellington first, yeah. Because this song you just played, I was just delighted with the way Ben Webster played. But then I noticed the periphery that was going on around him, and that helped to even highlight him more. Then I started listening to the chords and the clarinet… I’d only heard Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, then I heard how this clarinet, how he worked it in. I’ll tell you, I haven’t heard this in a long time, but to me it’s like Dom Perignon wine. It gets better with age. It sounds better and better. And music can sound like that sometimes. Which means that you develop a deeper appreciation for it as time goes on, because there are other things that come into your life that helps to highlight the value of music like this. It’s like on outdoor elevator. The higher you go, the more you see. And going higher is like developing a keen appreciation, more knowledge. That’s what I liken it to.
TP: One question before we move to the music of Tadd Dameron. Ellington’s music was performed for dancers and in concerts and really beautifully produced revues…and for dances. You, of course, played for many dances in your various journeys. Talk about the impact of an audience on what you’re doing, and a dancing audience that’s in a particular tempo or a particular groove.
GOLSON: Well, jazz today doesn’t lend itself to dancing per se. It can make you pat your foot and do things like that, but it’s not as danceable, I think, as the music we heard by Duke Ellington. Yet these things are classic things. His music can be compared with Stravinsky or Beethoven or anybody else. His music had a lot to say. There’s a lot going on there compositionally. His music is not something that you can get too easy as a writer. He had a certain way of doing things — using the baritone saxophone, for example — that is not easy always to comprehend. When you heard this music, you always knew it was Duke Ellington. There was no question about it. You didn’t confuse him with Jimmie Lunceford or Larry Clinton or anybody. You always knew it was Duke Ellington. So he had a certain way of writing that identified him. It served two purposes — for people to dance by and for people to sit down and enjoy. In a cerebral way, if you wanted to. It was that deep. He accomplished a lot with his music. It was melodic, it was rhythmic, it was memorable, it was cerebral. All of these things at the same time.
TP: An aspect of that pertains to the dynamics of improvising, which is that Ellington comprised that sound out of the sound of the instrumentalists that he brought into his band. I’d still like you to address the question of how playing for a dancing audience impacted you as a performer, but also bringing the individual personality into one’s own compositional conception.
GOLSON: I don’t play for dancing audiences, but when I did, it was a different situation, so you approached it in a different way. People were there to be entertained, and then you did what you did. I guess a little bit of the entertainment thing came into your playing because you wanted the people to enjoy what you did, so you had to be in whatever spirit the music was in. Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense. If you were playing a Mississippi kind of blues, to try to play bebop on it wouldn’t work. You know what I mean? The people wouldn’t appreciate it. So you had to get into the spirit of what was going on. And once you let yourself do that, even though you were playing music that might ordinarily be an anomaly or an aberration to what you normally did, you could enjoy it, because you threw yourself into the spirit of the moment. Oh, we used to play these things with the guitars and everything, and believe me, when I got into it so much, when we would go down South (there was no bebop on the jukeboxes), I found myself plunking nickels on “Miss Cornshucks” and B.B. King and you name it, and I was enjoying it. Although I didn’t want to play it. It wasn’t my kind of music. It sort of took me over. You can get into the music so much.
TP: Let’s move to today, and the question of weaving the improvisational personalities of your musicians into your compositional conception.
GOLSON: I can’t tell you how valuable that is. That’s a luxury that isn’t always afforded us, though. Duke did it because he had the orchestra. When he wrote, he knew that Paul Gonsalves or Ben Webster or Ray Nance or Lawrence Brown or whoever it was…he knew they were there. It was sort of like the couture tailors, when it’s made for the person. That’s the way his music was. It accommodated not necessarily the instrument (which it did), but the personality behind the instrument. Certain people did certain things. He used that to his advantage, and it made the music really vital. Now, I do that when I can. But since I don’t have a big band traveling around and musicians at my fingertips, not even a quartet at my fingertips (it changes so much), I try to do things so it makes sense for whatever setting I’m in and whatever group of musicians I happen to be using. If I had a group with certain men in it all the time, then… Oh, I’m sorry.
There was one situation, the Jazztet, where we did have certain men. We had a pianist, Mickey Tucker, who was so well-equipped… I mean, he ad-libbed, he played classical piano, he was a composer himself, he could read anything that I wrote — and I took advantage of that. I wrote things for him and incorporated it into the group that I would never have written for anybody else. I remember one night we had to get a sub. We had a sub for Art when he had to have an operation. We had a sub a few times for Curtis. Clifford Jordan and subbed for me. We had a sub on the drums, the bass. It worked out okay. But we got the sub for the piano, it was a catastrophe. That music was so hard. And the piano player took it home! But when he came back, it wasn’t like Mickey. You know, I would bring things in, and when I was writing I would look at it and say, “My goodness, I’m glad I don’t play piano.” We’d go to the rehearsal, and the music would be sitting there on the piano, and we’d get ready to start, and he’d say, “Just a minute,” and he would sort of look at it, like looking at the headlines, then he’d sit back and say, “Okay.” And that was that. It was incredible.
Now, if you’ve got musicians like that, and we did… The musicians in the Jazztet were like that, and I was able to write things with them in mind. Toward the end of the Jazztet, I was writing things for the bass, beginning with the bass, rather than having them at the end with some solo — start out with the bass. And some of these things were difficult. They were challenges, really; things we never recorded. We broke up before we did that. We might go back and record them one day…maybe. I wrote one thing and took it in. It had no form, no form at all, except when you got to the solos, when it had to have some sort of form. When we first played that thing, I remember Mickey Tucker said to me after we started rehearsing it, “What were you smoking when you wrote this?” It was so different. But I’m of the mind: Why must everything always be the same? Why must everything sound the same? If a person is truly creative, it shouldn’t. We don’t drive around in 1929 Fords any more. We don’t wear spats. Time moves on. Music is no different. It has to move on, too. That’s part of the adventure, too — doing things different. Some people might not like them, but that’s the way it is. Those of us who choose to do it, have to do it. I’ll put that word in quotes — “have to.” We have no choice. We have to do that, lest we become counterfeit to ourselves.
TP: Some reminiscing about Tadd Dameron. Last time you noted that he was a master of maximizing resources, of making a small band sound huge.
GOLSON: Yes. He was a dearth writer, dearth meaning dealing with a small number of instruments. He was a master of it. You have to listen to it. He had a certain way of writing that made it sound bigger and more important than it really was. That’s what amazed me about him. But he used everything. He maximized everything. He knew what to do with the piano. He knew how to use the bass and the drums and the two horns. He knew what harmonies to use, and the rhythms and things like that. You can hear it in “Our Delight,” which is one of the first things that caught my attention.
[MUSIC: Tadd Dameron, "Our Delight," "Focus"; Diz, "Night In Tunisia" (1946)]
TP: You had a few comments about J.C. Heard’s drumming. He played a different pattern behind each soloist on “Night In Tunisia,” and you noted how that affected the total sound of the band.
GOLSON: I thought it was a different rhythm section, because it sounded different. He was up on the ride cymbal. I said, “See? Now the rhythm section has come along; they’ve evolved.” And you mentioned it’s the same rhythm section as “52nd Street Theme.” I said, “That’s odd.” Then the next chorus he’s back on the hi-hat cymbal, which they did a lot then — closed. Next chorus was the hi-hat slightly opened. You mentioned that maybe Diz told him to play on the ride cymbal. I thought, “Diz told the rhythm section a lot of things.” I said, “You are probably right.” Then I just reflected years before, it was always the hi-hat cymbal [SINGS TIME ON RIDE]; they only used the ride cymbal to crash! And when Kenny Clarke left the hi-hat cymbal and went up on the ride cymbal to play tempos, it bugged them to death! They thought he had lost his mind. Just like when Prez refused to use the wide vibrato, and things began to happen. Now, the ride cymbal is what you use when you really want to swing, not the hi-hat. I mean, the hi-hat hasn’t lost its function. It still has its place, and it’s great. But when you really want to swing, you have to get on that ride cymbal.
TP: How much do you pay attention to what the drums and bass are doing in the composition, particularly in the improvisational sections?
GOLSON: A lot. I have to feel comfortable. If I am going to play, I have to feel comfortable. And when I listen to other people, of course, they do what they want to do. But basically, I’ll want to swing. That’s what it’s all about. It’s not just notes. Notes must have spirit, lest they become merely notes, documentations of pitch — and we want to go way beyond that. We want the music to have some feeling. We want it to swing when it’s supposed to swing. We want it to do other things when it’s supposed to do other things. On a ballad when you go to the brushes, then that has a certain feeling. If it’s got a little raunch to it, then you might play a shuffle. Art Blakey was one of the few drummers who could make the shuffle swing. Incredible!
TP: The next set will focus on musicians who relate to the music we’re discussing, John Coltrane and Hank Mobley, who preceded Benny in the Jazz Messengers.
GOLSON: John had an insatiable thirst for moving ahead. Even as young teenagers, he was always two steps ahead of the rest of us. I remember when he started talking about augmented chords, and we said, “What?” Then when we came to comprehend what augmented chords were about, he was somewhere else. It turned out that wherever we wanted to go, he had been there before we were there, and gone somewhere else. He used to employ Spartan-like practice; especially as he got better, he practiced more, believe it or not. As some of the rest of us got better, we practiced less. But he practiced… We used to live two blocks apart in New York. When you went to his house, if his wife wasn’t home, you couldn’t get in, because he wouldn’t stop playing. He would play all day, and when he went to the gig at night, he would get on stage and play. And during intermission, he would practice the whole intermission in the men’s room, and then come back. McCoy said he practiced like a person who had no talent. But we know he had so much talent. And with that kind of practice and being as exceedingly talented as he was, we could see why he was able to soar above the circle of the earth in unoccupied air space. And that’s where he was.
He went through phases, just like Picasso did. The pointillism, the Cubism, the Blue period and so forth. He went through periods on his saxophone. I remember them. When he first picked up the tenor, he sounded somewhat like Dexter, as I mentioned. But then he went to a style, when we were playing together with Johnny Hodges, around ’54… I don’t know how to describe it. Sort of a hopping-skipping style. I don’t think he recorded when he was playing that way. Then we weren’t so close as we were, because we went our separate ways, and I didn’t see him quite as often. But I would hear him from time to time. I remember he came by my apartment once in New York, and I hadn’t heard him in a long time. I had heard one or two things Ornette Coleman was doing, and I said to him, “It sounds like maybe you’re doing some of the same things Ornette is doing.” And he quickly said, “Oh, no.” He didn’t want to be linked there. And as it turned out, he wasn’t. He was doing something completely different. Each time I’d hear him, he was doing something different. And all of it was exciting. He had an extremely large whatever, a voluminous bag that he could reach into and pull out all sorts of things. It was bottomless. Because until the time he died, he was always bringing new things into his life via the horn. Not all of us can say we can do that. We might change a little here and there. But I’ve heard him make major changes, change directions. And most of it was exciting. Some of it I didn’t understand. But not all of us understand everything that goes on.
I remember when he started to change, some of the things he was doing were raw. When he was with Miles, I remember I went to see him once at the Blue Note in Philadelphia. He had been talking to a trumpet player called Calvin Folks, and Calvin was trying to explain something to him. In this guy’s mind… He was so open to everything, he wanted to absorb everything and distil it, use what he could and whatnot. So he was playing with Miles, and right in the middle of a solo… Oh, I have to say this. The trumpet player was sitting right at the bar, and the bandstand was in the middle of the bar. So he was looking right down at the trumpet player. He took his horn out while the band was swinging, and he said to him, “Do you mean like that?” [LAUGHS] I guess he nodded his head or whatever, and then he continued on playing. But he was always learning. And he listened constantly. He didn’t just listen to himself.
TP: Sounds like he made every performance situation as much a laboratory…
GOLSON: That’s a good analogy. You’re absolutely right. On this, just notice. This is not one of those complicated tunes. Things don’t always have to be complicated to be meaningful. Notice what he does with just a simple structured tune.
[MUSIC: Coltrane, "Good Bait"]
GOLSON: You heard what he did with that simple tune. He made it his own. I mean, he had his signature all over it. But now, one doesn’t have to play an abundance of notes for it to be meaningful. I’ve said that about Sweets and some other people, and I think about another saxophone player. This fellow was probably one of the most melodic saxophone players on the jazz scene. He wasn’t known for running all over his horn, though he could. I’m speaking about Hank Mobley. I remember, I took some music to a recording session. This guy was such a natural and had such a great ear. He could read changes and things like that. I took this tune (I don’t remember what it was) to Rudy Van Gelder’s, and they were reading the melody down, because they were unfamiliar with it. When it came time for a solo, I said, “I guess he’s really going to scrutinize the chart now.” He closed his eyes and reared back. He never looked at the music. He just heard what was going on, and played his feelings. He was playing from the heart. What more can you ask for?
TP: He was also a prolific composer. Maybe they were ditties, but they were all distinctive melodies and structures.
GOLSON: Yes. I don’t usually like ditties. But Monk was a profound writer of ditties, and so was Hank. He had a tune, “This I Dig Of You,” Listen to what he does on it. He doesn’t run all over the horn. You don’t have to. Some of the profoundest things that are said, are said with fewer notes — or fewer words, if you will.
[MUSIC: Hank Mobley, "This I Dig Of You"; Benny Golson, "Turning Point"]
TP: In the liner notes it says you met Jimmy Cobb when you were at Howard in 1948.
GOLSON: Yes, we played a gig with a guitar player who was later to become the guitar player with the Clovers — “One Mint Julep.” That’s where we met, at this gig at a nightclub called the Liberty, in northwest D.C.
TP: We’ll hear Joe Henderson, from the next generation back of Benny, who was already an accomplished professional with vast experience by the time he arrived in New York at 25 years old in 1962.
GOLSON: You’d better believe it. He was sounding good to me the first time I heard him. Kenny Dorham told me about him. He’s from Lima, Ohio. I tease him about that, because it smells like sulfur there all the time. But the first time I heard him, he sounded great! He had it together. That was a long time ago.
TP: He and Wayne Shorter are the two saxophonists after John Coltrane who had a huge impact on subsequent generations. Would you talk about the dynamics of his style?
GOLSON: Like some other saxophone players, Joe is not afraid to take chances. And he has enough facility to carry out the things that enter his mind. He’ll be going in one direction, and all of a sudden he’ll dart and do something. It might sound crazy, but it fits into the scheme of things, the overall tapestry of what he’s doing, and composing. To a large extent, that’s what people who are playing solos do. They are composing; composers of a sort. Extemporaneously. They don’t get a chance to go back and hone it like someone who is writing a song. And sometimes that’s even more difficult, to come up with a concept, an overall concept of something that you’re doing that makes sense, and you don’t have time to edit it. So sometimes things go by that have little mistakes in them, but you don’t look at the mistakes. You stand back and look at the whole tapestry. And Joe, it seems to me, has always been able to paint a picture, a picture that made sense from beginning to the end. And it seemed like he always was going somewhere. It wasn’t just a solo. It always had direction. It was going somewhere and building.
[MUSIC: Joe Henderson, "Invitation" (1968)]
TP: An example of transcendent technique that never obscures the necessities of the moment, and the poetic drive of his solos.
GOLSON: Aren’t you profound! That’s great.
TP: We’ll hear music by Branford Marsalis and Dan Faulk.
GOLSON: You’ll notice the tenor players we’ve played today, as soon as you hear them, you know who they are. They have distinctive personality. You know the sound of their horns. Unfortunately, today, many tenor saxophone players get caught up in one style, and it’s hard to tell many of them when you hear them play. They can play the heck out of the horns, but the styles aren’t as distinctive today as they were in times gone by. That’s not a derogatory statement, because they can play the keys off the horn. But the ones I’ve selected today really have their own personalities, as does Branford Marsalis — who is extremely broad, you know. He can play bebop, he can play Rock-and-Roll, he can play the New Orleans thing, when he was with Sting he was doing something else. It takes a lot of ability to do that. And Dan, who is ascendant; he’s still coming, he has his own style, he’s consequential, he has something to say.
[MUSIC: Branford, "Just One Of Those Things"; Dan Faulk, "Barry's Tune"]