September 22, 2011 — By Fernando Gonzalez
You might not be familiar with the name Benny Golson—but almost certainly you have heard his music.
A saxophonist, composer, and arranger, Golson played in the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie’s band, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers before co-leading, with trumpeter Art Farmer, the notable Jazztet. Along the way, many of his compositions became jazz standards including “Killer Joe,” “Stablemates,” “I Remember Clifford,” “Whisper Not,” and “Along Came Betty.” Perhaps not as well known, for more than a decade Golson wrote music for film and television, including classic shows such as M*A*S*H, Mission Impossible, and The Cosby Show, as well as music for radio and television commercials. He has also written classical music, including piano works, chamber pieces and orchestral pieces. His first symphony, a commission from Reader’s Digest, was premiered at Lincoln Center in 1994.
While working in Hollywood, in 1964, he stopped playing the saxophone and, as he recalled recently from his home in New York, “I thought ‘Well that’s the end of my playing. I’ll just be a writer.’ But, he says, “sometimes that itch comes back—and it did. I don’t regret having taking that time [working on film and television music]. It was something I wanted to do. I did it, and now I’m back in my personal playing and writing.” He returned to the saxophone in the ‘70s, and revived the Jazztet in 1982.
At 82, Golson remains active performing, writing and recording.
It has been remarkable, and improbable, ride for a one-time classical musician-to-be.
“I started out at nine years old as a piano student and I didn’t know anything about jazz,” he says. “I was very serious about [classical music] and practiced very hard. By the time I was 12 or 13, my teacher would send me out to play afternoon teas for the ladies. I even had a little repertoire. I was going to be a concert pianist. I was serious. Until I reached 14 and I heard the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and [tenor saxophonist] Arnett Cobb playing the solo on “Flying Home”—and that was it. That was the end of the piano.”
After graduating from high school, Golson attended Howard University, in Washington, DC.
But in the 1940s, jazz was not well regarded by college educators. Even his initial audition was not without challenges.
“They didn’t even want to hear the saxophone,” says Golson with a chuckle. “They said ‘Where’s your clarinet?’ It’s not this way now. But then I had to do all my [saxophone] practicing in the basement, in the laundry room. If fact, I was told that if I got caught playing any jazz I would be dismissed from the school. So I used to go in the city, play in some of the clubs and then … I’d have to climb on the back wall to get back in.”
In 1996 the Howard University Jazz Ensemble instituted The Benny Golson Jazz Master Award in his honor – both a recognition of his musical contributions and a testament to the dramatic changes in the attitude towards jazz in higher education since.
In fact, Golson, who regularly lectures and conducts clinics and workshops, sounds decidedly bullish on the young musicians coming out of colleges and universities.
“They are much more advanced than when I was coming along,” he says. But, he cautions, there is more to being a great musician than technical knowledge.
“One thing colleges and universities can’t give you is that [bandstand] experience,” says Golson who will share his extraordinary experience on the bandstand with the Frost Studio Jazz Band (named Outstanding Large Ensemble Winners by DownBeat magazine, 2010 and 2011). “They can prepare you for it, but you have to get it by doing. And you need imagination. The schools sure give you the tools and show you how to use them, but you have to come up with your own concepts - and you get that through experience.”
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