Saturday, April 23, 2011

Benny Golson: “Soul Me”



“Although he has contributed several staple pieces to the hard-bop repertoire, Benny’s playing style owes more to such swing masters as Coleman Hawkins and Lucky Thompson; a big crusty tone and a fierce momentum sustain his solos, and they can take surprising and exciting turns ….[paraphrase, p.585]
Richard Cook & Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It seems that I have loved Benny Golson’s compositions from the moment I first heard them. They are based on easy-to-remember melodies, which is something that drummers cherish because you can carry these tunes in your head while others are improvising on them.

Benny’s songs just seem to fall so logically on the ear.

Whisper Not, Along Came Betty, I Remember Clifford, Killer Joe, Domingo, and Blues March, among a host of others, are all Jazz standards whose tonal patterns are instantly recognized by Jazz fans all over the world.

As Dan Morgenstern has commented: “… Benny Golson’s gifts as a composer, arranger and player are of the sort that can stand the test of time.”

Fortunately, Benny is still around, still making music and doing interviews like the following one with the “Dean” of Jazz writers, Nat Hentoff.

After Benny’s chat with Nat, you’ll find some thoughts and anecdotes about Benny by Gene Lees, another esteemed Jazz writer.

We conclude this feature on Benny with a video tribute to him as developed by the graphics wizards at CerraJazz LTD. The tune on the audio track is Benny’s original – Soul Me and he performs it along with Curtis Fuller on trombone, Ray Bryant on piano, Tommy Bryant on bass and Al Harewood on drums.

The Wall Street Journal April 1, 2009

© -Nat Hentoff/The Wall Street Journal, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“When the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was preparing its Jan. 24 tribute, "Benny Golson at 80," I was asked for a couple of lines to be included in the introduction. Hearing in memory Benny's "I Remember Clifford" and "Whisper Not," I told the producer: "His melodies are so natural and lasting, it's as if they invented themselves, as Benny keeps doing."

After the event, Benny reminded me that, in 1957, I produced the album "Benny Golson's New York Jazz Scene" for Contemporary Records, his first as the leader of his Jazztet. Back then, as now in his new Concord Music Group release "New Time, New 'Tet" (Amazon), I was drawn -- in his tenor saxophone improvisations and compositions -- to their flowing sense of ordered liberty, with the inner warmth of an adventurous romanticist.

Benny also reminded me that in 1958 -- when I was asked to phone some of the musicians chosen for the historic Art Kane photograph in Esquire magazine, "A Great Day in Harlem" -- I had told him where and when to be at 10 that morning on a Harlem street. Although Benny was a Dizzy Gillespie sideman at the time, he was not yet a member of the jazz pantheon and, he recalls, he felt like asking for autographs from such legends there as Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Roy Eldridge and Rex Stewart.

Since then, after joining Art Blakey and then heading his own series of groups in an abundance of recordings -- with his original compositions being performed by many other leaders, too -- Benny has become an international jazz master, having also received that designation by the National Endowment for the Arts.

He now has over a thousand manuscript pages of his autobiography (tentatively titled "Whisper Not") during which, he tells me, "I have more to say about Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Farmer, Clifford Brown and John Coltrane than anybody else."

Benny and Coltrane were friends in Philadelphia when Benny was 12 and John two years older. In a January "Down Beat" interview, Benny said of his fellow boyhood student: "He was always a little ahead of the rest of us. When we got to where he was, he was always somewhere else, always reaching. . . . He always got to it."
During my conversations with Coltrane years later -- when, as influential as he had become, he was still urgently searching -- he told me, "This music is as serious as life itself."

Hearing me recount that memory, Benny nodded in agreement. "That's why," he said, "when I play, I can't assume the role of an entertainer. Entertainers second-guess their audience, working to find out what they want to hear. My first obligation is to myself, when I play and when I write -- to say who I am, what I'm feeling, exploring in this jazz adventure, and what my dreams are."

A few weeks before, I'd heard Benny on National Public Radio during the Saturday morning program hosted by Scott Simon, an informed, intuitive interviewer. He asked Benny: "Is it a time of your life when you ask what you hope people take from your music?"

Said Benny: "I hope they can look into my heart's core to understand that what they hear is the reflection of my inner parts -- my thinking, my curiosity, my imagination."

In his current, often surprising recording, "New Time, New 'Tet,'" they'll also hear his twilit tribute to Chopin ("L'adieu"), a favorite composer when he was exploring, as a child, his first instrument, the piano. And, also unexpectedly, a virile, joyful celebration of "Verdi's Voice" (credited to Giuseppe Verdi, arranger Benny Golson).
Among other intriguing signs of Benny's insistence on continuing to renew himself are a rejuvenated "Whisper Not"; the Thelonious Monk-Kenny Clarke "Epistrophy"; and "Gypsy Jingle-Jangle," which comes from a time when, watching a Frankenstein movie on television at 4 in the morning, Benny's imagination lit up on seeing "a band of gypsies dancing around a campfire, accompanying themselves with a violin, accordion, tambourine, hand claps and cheerful shouts, as women danced wildly, spinning and jumping up and down. As my head matched their beat, I envisioned a band of hip jazz musicians walking into that happy camp-fire scene, asking shyly, 'Can we sit in?'"

You may find yourself at the campfire, moving in new ways, with Benny, Eddie Henderson (trumpet), Steve Davis (trombone), Mike LeDonne (piano), Buster Williams (bass) and Carl Allen (drums). For Benny and his new Jazztet comrades, music is indeed as serious as their continuing memories, fantasies and delights in being jazz musicians.


One performance especially, Benny's "From Dream to Dream," reminded me of conversations I had in my younger days with other jazz-struck friends about which tracks on which albums to play when making love. Jazz can be intimately erotic -- as when Johnny Hodges or Ben Webster of Duke Ellington's band was playing a ballad and, Duke told me, "a yearning sigh would come out of the dancers and become part of the music."

"'From Dream to Dream,'" I said to Benny, "may lead to a slight increase in the population. Where did this song come from as you started to conceive it?"
"It was based," he said, "on life. Life's rewards and disappointments. And disappointments are followed by dreams. I'm a dreamer. In life, in my music, I'm always involved in what's coming, in what could come. That's part of the adventure."
For listeners around the world, Benny Golson's past is also continually rewarding. Another recording released by the Concord Music Group is "The Best of Benny Golson" (Amazon), in which he is joined by such soul mates between 1957 and 2004 as Art Blakey, Art Farmer, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Ray Bryant and Paul Chambers.

Included in this set from Benny's 1957 first album as leader is the first "Whisper Not." In his notes, Marc Myers, host of JazzWax.com (a site often recommended by musicians), writes: "Benny's arrangement opens with a 'quiet-please' cymbal roll before proceeding like a cat walking on a fence. Listen as gently rising and falling lines are echoed by Julius Watkins's French horn and Jimmy Cleveland's trombone.
Benny recalls that the melody came so fast when he wrote it that he could hardly get the notes down on paper."

"Whisper Not" has been recorded 189 times. He often gets requests for it and "I Remember Clifford Brown," among his other classics. Of course, he never plays them the same way twice.

At one point in our conversation, Benny suddenly said, "I'm so privileged to be a jazz musician -- to say who I am and get paid for it."”

© -Gene Lees, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Often one finds that the friendships of prominent jazz musicians go back to sem­inal high schools such as Cass Tech in Detroit, Wendell Phillips and Austin high schools in Chicago, Granoff in Philadel­phia, and Jefferson High in Los Angeles. And even when they do not originate in the same school, many such relationships go back to early youth. One such case is that of Benny Golson and a boy from North Carolina named John Coltrane. They grew up together musically, playing in rowdy local commercial bands to learn their craft. And they got fired together from one. Benny's mother consoled them: "One day both of you are going to be so good that that band will not be able to afford you."

Benny studied music at Howard Uni­versity, whose faculty officially frowned on jazz. The saxophone was not considered an "appropriate" instrument. Benny signed up for clarinet and practiced the saxophone in the laundry room, where no one could hear him. Already, composition was one of his main interests. He grew impatient with the academic rigidity he found at Howard and left before gradua­tion, joining the band of Bull Moose Jack­son and going on the road. He worked with Tadd Dameron and the big bands of Lio­nel Hampton (1953) and Dizzy Gillespie (1956-57), then joined drummer Art Blakey, with whom he worked in 1958 and '59. Blakey, like Horace Silver, was a major mentor of young jazzmen, and Benny's reputation, both as a composer and player, grew.

Many of Golson's compositions, such as "Killer Joe" and "I Remember Clif­ford," have become part of the permanent jazz repertoire. In 1959, he and Art Farmer —a Silver and Gerry Mulligan alumnus — formed their Jazztet, a sextet that at first featured trombonist Curtis Fuller and Art's brother Addison on bass. The group lasted until 1962.

Then Benny broke into television and film scoring in Hollywood, writing scores at all the major studios. He moved back to New York City in 1987, where he soon found himself busier than he had ever been, in all forms of composition and as a player too. In May 1992, Benny was awarded an honorary doctorate by William Paterson College. He teaches there.

One year, backstage at the Newport Jazz Festival, Benny ran into John Coltrane, who reminded him of the time they got fired in Philadelphia. "Remember what your mother said?" John asked. "Do you think they'd be able to afford us now?"”