Golson, Benny 1929–
Benny Golson 1929–
When he was asked by the Irish Times whether he considered his composing or performing activities more satisfying, Benny Golson responded that “It’s like having two wives. I’m a musical bigamist. I can’t decide, so I just go on with both of them.” As an arranger and performer with bands led by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Art Blakey, and with his own Jazztet ensemble, Golson made important contributions as a tenor saxophonist, composer, and arranger. As the composer of music for popular 1970s television shows such as M*A*S*H and The Mod Squad, Golson might be described as one of America’s most famous unknown composers.
Benny Golson was born on January 25, 1929, in Philadelphia. Despite hard times brought on by the Depression, his mother owned an upright piano that inspired Golson to take up the instrument at age nine—and to dream of becoming a concert pianist. “That was aberrational in my neighborhood,” he told Down Beat. “All you heard there was the blues.” A Lionel Hampton concert featuring saxophonist Arnett Cobb at Philadelphia’s Earl Theater steered the 14–year–old Golson in the direction of jazz and the saxophone.
Golson and a saxophonist friend, jazz–virtuoso–to–be John Coltrane, absorbed from records and live performances the styles of the great saxophonists of the day: Lester Young, Don Byas, and, at an Academy of Music concert in Philadelphia in 1945, bebop pioneer Charlie Parker. “After we heard that concert that night, our lives changed,” Golson told the Pittsburgh Post–Gazette. “It was epochal, what was happening then.” Golson began to develop a personal sax style that combined the warmth and fluidity of the older players with elements of Parker’s harmonic adventurousness.
Studying at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Golson chafed at the restrictions of classical music’s standardized procedures. One day, Golson told Down Beat, his teacher was reviewing the class’s turned–in composition assignments at the piano. “When she got to mine, after the first chord resolved to the second, that red pencil made a big X, and then she made another red X at the next resolution. She looked at me, almost disgusted, and said, Oh, Mr. Golson, what have you done?’ The next day, I put my things in my little broken–down car, and drove off into the sunset.”
At a Glance…
Born Benjamin Golson on January 25, 1929, in Philadelphia, PA. Education: Attended Howard University, 1947–50.
Career: Arranger for Howard University band, late 1940s; performed in Philadephia clubs, early 1950s; joined band of R& singer Bull Moose Jacbon, 1952; performed with Lionel Hampton and Tadd Dameron bands, 1953–54; performed with Earl Bostic band, mid–1950s; joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, 1958; with Art Farmer, co–founded Jazztet, 1959; Jazztet disbanded, 1962; wrote television, film, and advertisement scores, 1960s and 1970s; re–formed Jazztet, 1982; toured widely, 1990s and 2000s.
Awards: Down Beat magazine New Star award, 1960 (with Jazztet).
Addresses: Recording company —Evidence Music, Suite 392, 1100 East Hector St., Conshohocken, PA 19428; Agent — c/o Delta Music, Suite 380, 2500 Broadway, Santa Monica, CA 90404–3065.
Golson drove a furniture truck for a time, but kept knocking on musical doors and finally landed a touring slot with the band of rhythm–and–blues singer Bull Moose Jackson in 1952. There he met pianist Tadd Dameron, who was aiming toward a jazz band of his own and spotted Golson’s skills as an arranger. That led to slots in Dameron’s band and that of vibes master Lionel Hampton in 1953 and 1954. Golson honed his arranging chops by studying Dameron’s arrangements closely, and during a stretch with the band of alto saxman Earl Bostic, he came into his own as a composer and arranger. After trumpeter Miles Davis (at Coltrane’s suggestion) recorded Golson’s tune “Stablemates,” Golson found his compositions in demand among modern jazz musicians.
One of Golson’s most famous compositions was “I Remember Clifford,” an homage to his friend Clifford Brown, a trumpeter who died in an auto crash in 1956. The following year, Golson made his first recording as a bandleader, New York Scene. In 1958 Golson joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, a modernistic ensemble that pushed Golson’s own playing in a sharper and less mellifluous direction. Blakey stimulated Golson’s own compositional creativity as well, and many of his originals from this period, including “Blues March” and “Along Came Betty,” are regarded as jazz classics.
Golson and trumpeter Art Farmer co–founded the Jazztet in 1959. With top–notch players such as McCoy Tyner on piano and Curtis Fuller on trombone, the Jazztet became a fixture of New York’s vigorous modern jazz scene and released six albums before disbanding in 1962. Then, perhaps because of the financial demands placed on him by a growing family, Golson temporarily laid his saxophone aside and spent much of the 1960s and 1970s composing music in a more popular vein. He composed big–band arrangements in New York and in Europe for a time, and then, in 1967, he moved to Hollywood and entered the world of big–time film and television soundtracks.
That world was just beginning to open up to African Americans in the late 1960s, thanks largely to the efforts of the phenomenally successful composer and producer Quincy Jones. It was partly at Jones’s urging that Golson moved to Hollywood, and Golson followed Jones’s example, composing a series of U.S. and foreign film soundtracks, musical backgrounds for television commercials, and, most familiarly, television soundtracks heard on such hit series as Ironsides, M*A*S*H, and Room 222. Golson’s was not a household name at this point, but his music was heard by millions of Americans. “Other than Quincy, the rest of us just got things that were sort of left over,” Golson told the Pittsburgh Post–Gazette. “But [the studios] were so busy, there was an abundance of work for all of us.”
Meanwhile, Golson was taking private composition lessons and contemplating a return to pure jazz, although he had completely laid his horn aside. “But the thinking process was working the whole time, and when I picked up the horn again in the late ’70s, I sounded different, although it took about 10 years before I felt comfortable again,” he told Down Beat. “I had to get my imagination oiled up.” Another factor was that the rise of synthesizers and electronic soundtrack music was gradually reducing the need for live musicians in Hollywood.
Golson performed and made several recordings in the late 1970s, and made his jazz comeback official when he and Farmer re–formed the Jazztet in 1982. Touring in Japan, Europe, and the United States, Golson impressed listeners with a sound that had harder edges as compared with his previous efforts. From the 1980s onward, Golson divided his time between the United States and Europe, and many of his recordings were first released on Japanese labels. He continued to compose music in all the arenas in which he had spent his musical life: he wrote new jazz compositions, scored music for television commericials, and penned a number of classical works including a symphonic piece, Two Faces (which had its premiere at New York’s Alice Tully Hall in 1992), a ballet, and solo piano music.
Remaining active well into his eighth decade, Golson added yet another activity to his packed schedule—he began giving occasional lectures, not only on music but also on race relations. His motivation, he explained to the Irish Times, was not so much personal as historical. “[Racism] doesn’t disturb me and it didn’t disturb me when I was coming up as a kid. Racism? I wanted to play the music. I turned a deaf ear to all that stuff.” In the late 1990s and early 2000s Golson toured with an all–star group called Roots and with the Keith Copeland trio, and continued to compose; the year 2001 brought a new classical commission from the Guggenheim Foundation. “I’m still stretching and striving,” he told the Pittsburgh Post–Gazette —and really, he had never stopped.
New York Scene, Original Jazz, 1957.
Meet the Jazztet, MCA, 1960.
Free, Argo, 1962.
Tune In, Turn On to the Hippest Commercials, Verve, 1967.
Killer Joe, Columbia, 1977.
Benny Golson Quartet, Delta, 1990.
I Remember Miles, Evidence, 1992.
Carr, Ian, et al., Jazz: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides, 2000.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 21, Gale, 1998.
Feather, Leonard, and Ira Gitler, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, Oxford, 1999.
Down Beat, July 2001, p. 40.
Irish Times, September 8, 2001, p. 63.
Pittsburgh Post–Gazette, November 5, 1993, p. 18.
The World and I, March 1997, p. 116.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com
—James M. Manheim
While tenor saxophonist and composer Benny Golson may not be a household name, his compositions are among the most frequently recorded jazz standards. Golson summed up his philosophy of writing music to Down Beat in 1958, “I feel that the best contribution any writer can make is to create compositions that are impressive, meaningful, and lasting. I think all serious writers consciously or unconsciously strive for this.”
Born in Philadelphia, Golson began playing piano at age nine, tenor saxophone at age 14, and composing at age 17. He studied briefly at Howard University where he wrote his first professional arrangements for the school band. Golson’s first job after leaving Howard in 1951 was Bull Moose Jackson’s rhythm and blues band. There he met pianist and composer Tadd Dameron, whose work Golson had admired. In a Down Beat interview, Golson explained that “Tadd’s music really ignited the spark for me. After hearing things like ‘Our Delight’ and ‘Lady Bird’… I wanted to do more than play tenor sax. I wanted to write.”
In the early 50s, Dameron included Golson and a promising young trumpet player named Clifford Brown on a recording session. Benny and Clifford developed a close friendship until Brown’s death in a car accident in 1956. Golson composed the standard “I Remember Clifford” as an homage to his friend. “At the time of his death”, Golson reminisced in 1961 in Down Beat, “Brownie was going in his direction more determinedly than anyone I’ve ever seen. Really, the last two years of his life, he got a hold of what he wanted to do. His imagination was infinite. He always had a bag of surprises.”
In 1956 Benny Golson joined trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie’s band, accompanying them on U. S. State Department sponsored tours, until 1958, when he became a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. During this time, Golson was also a leader on several record dates for the Riverside and Contemporary labels. In 1959 Benny and trumpet player Art Farmer cofounded the Jazztet with trombonist Curtis Fuller and pianist McCoy Tyner. Golson was the main writer for this successful group, which won the New Star Award in Down Beat’s 1960 International Poll.
Golson explained his compositional goals in Down Beat in 1960, “Basically, I’d like to stay simple. I’d like to write melodically, and pretty harmonically…. Although I’m not consciously looking for it, maybe I want something that’s easy to remember…. Beauty can be simple, beauty can be simplicity.” Down Beat critic Ralph J. Gleason confirmed the appeal of Golson’s compositions, “What is attractive about Golson’s writing, of
Born Benjamin Golson, January 25, 1929, in Philadelphia, PA. Education: Attended Howard University, late 1940s.
Arranged for Howard University band, late 1940s, performed in Philadelphia jazz scene, early 1950s; performed with the bands of Bull Moose Jackson, Johnny Hodges, Earl Bostic, Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, 1955; composed, recorded albums, and freelanced, 1950s-90s; co-led the Jazztet with Art Farmer, c. 1959-61; scored films and television c. 1960s-70s; performed solo and with reformed Jazztet, 1981-82; appeared in film A Great Day in Harlem, 1995.
Awards: (With Jazztet), Down Beat New Star Award, 1960.
Addresses: Record company —Evidence Music, 1100 East Hector Street, Suite 392, Conshohocken, PA 19428.
course, is that it is not only original, but it is also lyrical and instantly communicative to both musician and fan. That his tunes are a gas to play is obvious from the number of recordings and the people who play them. That they are a gas to hear is, it seems to me, just as obvious.”
Following the breakup of the Jazztet in the early 60s, Golson concentrated on composing, and not just jazz tunes. In 1966, he told Down ßeafthat “I used to compose a lot, but as I look back on it, I was composing indiscriminately…. So then I started working a little bit slower and being a little more precise about what I was doing.” Golson’s biggest hit was “Killer Joe” which was recorded by Quincy Jones on his Walking in Space album.
In the late 1960s, Golson furthered his studies in compositional technique. He described what he learned to Jazz Journal International In 1983, “[My teacher] really opened up vistas for me that I didn’t know existed. I became involved in writing music antiphonally, symmetrical, pandiatonic things. After I’d had three or four one-hour sessions with him I got called to do a film in Germany and I used absolutely everything he taught me.”
At the urging of Quincy Jones, Golson moved to Hollywood, where he began writing for films and television. His work included Ironside, M.A.S.H., and Room 222. Golson did not play jazz during this period; he didn’t even take his saxophone out of its case for a decade. By 1975 he was ready to return to playing the saxophone, however, it wasn’t easy. He described the process of relearning to Crescendo International, “It was like I’d never played the instrument; it felt like a piece of plumbing from the kitchen in my hand. My mind seemed like it wanted to go ahead—my fingers were those of a dead man; my lips were like ripe tomatoes. It was quite a physical struggle. I had no muscles in my lips or jaws… I sounded so bad, I was even embarrassed for my wife to hear me!”
Golson eventually returned to the public eye, where audiences welcomed his comeback. In 1982, after playing at a festival in Japan with Art Farmer, the two of them decided to revive the Jazztet. The new Jazztet broke attendance records around the world and received rave reviews. Golson enthused to Crescendo International, “The reception for the revived Jazztet was so warm last year that it was almost like coming back home this second time. The enthusiasm of the audiences has been very encouraging for us—it gives us some incentive to go on in that same direction.”
The Jazztet was not revived merely for nostalgia’s sake. Golson explained to Crescendo International, “In twenty years, as you might expect… our musical approach is just a little different from the way it was then. Although there’s some nostalgic things, like ‘Whisper Not’… I’ve written a lot of new tunes, and we’ve moved away somewhat from the hard, straight-up-and-down, strict harmonic kind of approach.”
Over the course of his 50-year career, Benny Golson has contributed some of the most memorable standards to the jazz repertoire. In addition, he has expressed himself in a variety of musical settings. From jazz standards to film and television soundtracks, his music has found a warm reception around the world.
(With Clifford Brown), Clifford Brown Memorial, Original Jazz Classics, 1953.
Benny Golson’s New York Scene, Contemporary, 1957.
The Modern Touch, Riverside, 1957.
(With Dizzy Gillespie), At Newport, Verve, 1957.
(With Milt Jackson), Bags’ Opus, Blue Note, 1958.
(With Art Farmer), Modem Art, Blue Note, 1958.
The Other Side of Benny Golson, Riverside, 1958.
(With Art Blakey), Moanin’, Blue Note, 1959.
(With Blue Mitchell), Out of the Blue, Riverside, 1958.
(With Blue Mitchell), Blues on My Mind, Riverside, 1959.
(With Wynton Kelly), Kelly Blue, Riverside, 1959.
(With Philly Joe Jones), Drums around the World, Riverside, 1959.
Groovin’ with Golson, Prestige, 1959.
(With the Jazztet), Meet the Jazztet, Argo, 1960.
Take a Number from 1 to 10, Argo, 1960.
Turning Point, Mercury, 1962.
Free, Argo, 1962.
California Message, Timeless, 1980.
This Is for You, John, Timeless, 1983.
Moment to Moment, Soul Note, 1983.
Time Speaks, Timeless, 1984.
Stardust, Denon, 1987.
Live, Dreyfus, 1989.
Benny Golson Quartet, LRC, 1990.
Domingo, Dreyfus, 1991.
I Remember Miles, Evidence, 1993.
Cook, Richard and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz On CD, LP, & Cassette, Penguin, 1994.
Rosenthal, David, Hard Bop, Oxford University Press, 1992.
Wynn, Ron, ed., The All Music Guide to Jazz, Miller Freeman Books, 1994.
Crescendo International, November, 1982; May, 1983; September, 1983.
Down Beat, January 9, 1958; May 15, 1958; June 11, 1959; February 4, 1960; September 1, 1960; June 22, 1961; October 12, 1961; February 24, 1966.
Jazz Journal International, December, 1982; January, 1983.
Kansas City Star, May 14, 1995.
Additional information provided by the video, A Great Day in Harlem, 1995.
Golson, Benny, jazz saxophonist, composer, and arranger; b. Philadelphia, Jan. 26, 1929. He started on the piano; at 14, he picked up the tenor saxophone. In the mid-1940s he sat in on sessions on Philadelphia’s Columbus Ave; here he jammed and gigged (from 1945) with John Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Philly Joe Jones, Percy Heath, Red Garland, and Red Rodney. He played regularly with Ray Bryant and Gordon “Bass” Ashford in 1946. He attended and graduated from Howard Univ. (1950). He worked with Bullmoose Jackson (1951-53), Tadd Dameron (who influenced his composing), Lionel Hampton and Johnny Hodges (a 1954 tour that included
Coltrane), Earl Bostic, and Benny Goodman. In 1956 he joined the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band and toured South America. In 1957 he recorded his first album as a leader. After the Gillespie Orch. broke up (1958), he replaced Jackie McLean in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He stayed with Blakey for about two years, serving as musical director and bringing in Lee Morgan, Jymie Merritt, and Bobby Timmons. This edition of the Messengers was regarded by many, including Blakey him-self, to have been the best, producing the popular Moanin’, with four Golson compositions including “Blues March,” (This piece was played at Blakey’s memorial service in 1990.) Next he co-led the Jazztet with Art Farmer (1959-62), with whom he introduced the popular “Killer Joe.” He, Max Roach, Kenny Burrell, Hank Jones, Dizzy Reece, and Joya Sherill opened in Manhattan in a play, The Long Dream (1960).
During the 1950s, Golson began to have his pieces recorded by other artists. In 1955 James Moody recorded “Blue Walk.” Towards the end of the year, Miles Davis recorded “Stablemates” (Coltrane had brought it to the session). “Whisper Not” (words by Leonard Feather) was recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O’Day, and Mel Torme. In 1957 his “I Remember Clifford” was performed by the Gillespie Orch. at the Newport Jazz Festival and during a Bandstand USA broadcast fromN.Y/s Birdland; it was subsequently broadcast widely. From 1962 on Golson began devoting considerable time to arranging and composition. In 1965, after returning from Europe, he put away his saxophone and moved to Hollywood. Here he wrote scores and themes for David Janssen’s feature film, Where It’s At’, television themes and scores for MASH, Mission: Impossible, Room 222, The Partridge Family, Mannix, It Takes a Thief, Run for Your Life, Mod Squad, The Karen Valentine Show, and various pilots; and music for the Academy Awards. He also scored specials for the BBC in London and feature films in Paris and Munich. He wrote music for innumerable American radio and television commercials, and did arrangements for Lou Rawls, Eartha Kitt, Connie Francis, Ella Fitzgerald, Eric Burdon, Nancy Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr., Diana Ross, “Mama” Cass Elliot, and Percy Faith.
In 1974, Golson resumed his playing career, freelancing extensively and recording with Curtis Fuller, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, and Pharaoh Sanders. In 1983 he reconstituted the Jazztet and appeared with it (as well as his own quartet) in festivals throughout the world. In 1987 the State Dept. sent him on a cultural tour of southeast Asia, after which Philip Morris Inter-national sent him on assignment to Thailand to write for the Bangkok Sym. Orch. Since 1989, he has lectured at William Paterson Coll. in Paterson, N.J., Stanford Univ., Rutgers Univ., and Berklee Coll. Since 1995 he has been musical director and member of the all-star saxophone repertory band, Roots, which toured extensively in Europe and has recorded four albums. Meanwhile, he has continued to write music, undertaking a number of ambitious projects, including a bass concerto (1993), premiered by Rufus Reid at Lincoln Center. He continues to do scoring, including the theme for The Cosby Show. In 1995, together with J. J. Johnson and Tommy Flanagan, he was given the Jazz Masters award by the National Endowment of the Arts.
N.Y. Scene (1957); Modern Touch (1957); Gone with Golson (1959); Gettin’ with It (1959); Take a Number from 1 to 10 (I960)’, Meet the Jazztet (1960); Turning Point (1962); Reunion (1962); Pop + Jazz = Swing (one channel plays the standard, the other the original based on it; 1962); Just Jazz (1962); Free (1962); Stockholm Sojourn (1964); Turn In, Turn On (1967); Killer Joe (1977); California Message (1980); One More Mem’ry (1981); Time Speaks (1982); This Is for You, John (tribute to Coltrane, 1983); Moment to Moment (1983); Live (1991); Up Jumped Benny (1996); Tenor Legacy (with H. Ashby, J. Carter, B. Marsalis; 1997); 40 Years ofB. G. (with video concert and documentary; 1998).