Benny Golson's Park Avenue Petite is easily one of the most beautiful and most underrated ballads ever written. Yet the meaning of its title has remained largely unknown. Despite extensive online research yesterday and several well-placed phone calls, I could not uncover the song's inspiration. So I reached out to Benny Golson himself, who provided me with a wonderful tale. He also said that over the years, few have asked him about the piece. More with Benny on Park Avenue Petite in a minute. [photo by Oliver Rossberg]
Benny is indisputably one of the most prolific and prettiest writers of jazz's best-loved melodies and standards. His poetic pen gave us I Remember Clifford, Stablemates, Along Came Betty, Whisper Not, Blues March, Five Spot After Dark, Killer Joe and Are You Real? Not to mention dozens and dozens of other dynamic hard bop compositions and film scores.
For me, what makes Park Avenue Petite so special is its introspective, rainy night mood. While the song's sister ballad, I Remember Clifford, has this same potent reflective quality, I somehow always wind up thinking about trumpeter Clifford Brown when I hear it. Which is exactly the point of I Remember Clifford. By contrast, Park Avenue Petite has no such connection, so you invariably think about yourself. As the ballad inhales and exhales at the pace of your pulse, your mind just starts to wander. You can't help it.
Written in the late 1950s, the inspiration for Park Avenue Petite and the title's meaning have remained largely unknown—until now. Here's what Benny told me yesterday afternoon about the song:
"The inspiration for Park Avenue Petite came from my imagination and nothing real. I thought of a lovely single young lady living in one of Park Avenue's high rises. Each day she passes the building's doorman without knowing that he has great admiration for her. However, he is never able to approach her or express his feelings because of his job and her high position in society. The lady is so high above him socially.
"Sadness, futility, desperation, hopelessness and unfulfillment become his metier as he mechanically opens the door for her each day, sharing only her delightful, captivating and alluring smile."
Wow, I love it. The melody and title make complete sense now, and the context gives the song new meaning. I don't think I'll ever ride up Park Avenue in a cab again without thinking of Benny's haunting melody. In a recent NPR interview, Benny explained his definition of what makes a musician special:
"Somebody once said to me, 'How can a musician prove his mettle—by how fast he plays?' No, I said, by how slow he plays. Dizzy Gillespie [pictured] said, 'Slow it down enough to eat a sandwich between each beat.' Ballad playing says it all about a musician because there's no room to hide."
JazzWax tracks: Park Avenue Petite has been recorded only about a dozen times. To play this ballad properly, you have to be willing to crawl way inside yourself and feel the melody line. The song also presents a bit of a challenge, since it was aced twice early on—once by Blue Mitchell [pictured] on Blue Soul and again by Art Farmer on Meet the Jazztet.
Yet each musician who has taken on Benny Golson's ballad has created a slightly different feel without compromising the song's yearning theme. Here are the great interpretations of Park Avenue Petite:
Blue Mitchell—Blue Soul (1959). This was the first recording of Park Avenue Petite, and the way in which producer Orrin Keepnews captured Blue's trumpet adds to the haunting quality. Recorded for Riverside Records, Blue sounds as if he's playing in a high-ceilinged church. As you'll hear, there's enormous space around his horn, adding to the feeling of restrained loneliness. Concord Records just reissued Blue Soul as part of its Keepnews Collection, and the remastering is beyond belief. The CD includes a bonus track of Park Avenue Petite (Take 1) that runs about two minutes longer than the master. To my ear, it's the definitive version. The album is available at iTunes or the CD, a must, is available here.
Art Farmer—Meet the Jazztet (February 1960). This version of Park Avenue Petite was recorded on the classic Meet the Jazztet, with Benny Golson on tenor, Curtis Fuller on trombone, McCoy Tyner on piano, Addison Farmer on bass and Lex Humphries on drums. Farmer uses a mute here, and his taut musical expressions have a sizzling, summer afternoon quality compared with Blue's rainy night feel. As always, Farmer fills the space with perfect phrasing without ever overplaying or dominating. The album is available at iTunes and the CD, also a must, is available here or as part of Mosaic Records box, The Complete Mercury Art Farmer/Benny Golson/Jazztet here.
Howard McGhee—Dusty Blue (June 1960). McGhee plays the song along with the album's ensemble: Bennie Green on trombone, Roland Alexander on tenor sax, Pepper Adams on baritone sax, Tommy Flanagan on piano, Ron Carter on bass and Walter Bolden on drums. As a result, the ballad is less of a solitary expression and more of a collective, hard bop statement.
Brian Lynch—Peer Pressure (1986). Trumpeter Lynch brings a different feel to the song, with a sharper and more forceful tone. Interestingly, he purposefully slurs many of the held notes, giving the song more a melancholy, film noir feel.
Russell Gunn—Mood Swings (1999). Like Art Farmer, trumpeter Gunn chooses to frame the melody with a mute. Gunn takes Park Avenue Petite a hair slower than most other versions, which makes the song even more interesting. Most important, he's joined by Radam Schwartz on Hammond organ, Eric Johnson on guitar, Cecil Brooks III on drums. The organ trio groove provides the tune with a Charles Earland-influenced, 1970s feel. The album is available at iTunes.
Eddie Henderson—The Terminal (2004). This rendition of Park Avenue Petite appeared on Benny Golson's album Terminal 1, which was inspired by the film The Terminal starring Tom Hanks. Benny appears in the movie, as does his music. In addition to Benny, the song features trumpeter Eddie Henderson, whose reading is warmer and rounder than most other contemporary renditions. Benny and Eddie were joined by Mike LeDonne on piano, Buster Williams on bass and Carl Allen on drums. The album is available at iTunes or on CD here.