By early 1955, Benny Golson was convinced he would make it as a composer. For four years Benny had recorded steadily with leading r&b bands, spending much of his down time writing songs and playing jazz club dates. When he wasn't laboring over sheet music or playing the tenor saxophone, Benny was pressing his music into the hands of established jazz artists, urging them to give his songs a shot. Recognition as a composer, Benny felt, was just one song away. Motivated by mentor Tadd Dameron, Benny continued to work hard on his writing and hustling the results. Finally, in early 1956, that big break came.
In Part 3 of my five-part conversation with Benny, the jazz legend talks about the origins of Blue Walk and Stablemates, how Stablemates wound up in the hands of Miles Davis [photo by Herb Snitzer], the recording that established Benny as a serious songwriter, and the big lesson Benny learned from Dizzy Gillespie:
JazzWax: While you were with Earl Bostic in 1955, saxophonist James Moody recorded your composition Blue Walk. How did that song get its name?
Benny Golson: I just gave it a name, that's all. It sounded like a blues walk. Years later, I was at the Pershing Club in Chicago listening to pianist Ahmad Jamal [pictured]. At the end of the night, Ahmad and I used to go out to get breakfast and talk. During an intermission at the club, a recording of Blue Walk came on and he said, “Oh, I love that song.” I said, “Thank you.” He said, “Did you write that?” I said, “Uh, yes.” [laughs] Blue Walk is a typical blues, but the melody doesn't lead one to think it's a straight blues. Moody loved it. So did Ahmad.
JW: You wrote Stablemates around this time, too. How did that jazz standard get its name?
BG: When I was with Earl Bostic, we used to play up in Massachusetts at towns like Holyoke, Peabody and Revere Beach. We'd spend our days off in Boston. There was a nice elegant restaurant off Copley Square. If you went to the back of this restaurant and down the steps, you'd be in a jazz club called The Stable. Herb Pomeroy, the trumpet player, was there [pictured with Duke Ellington] along with Varty Haroutunian on tenor, John Neves on bass and others. Herb and I became friends, and I would sit in and jam with them.
JW: Playing jazz at The Stable must have been a relief from the repetition of Bostic's band.
BG: It was. Herb knew I was writing and asked me to write him some songs. One of the first compositions I wrote for the group was a crazy tune because of the number of bars it had—14 bars followed by an 8-bar bridge, then 14 more bars. This was most unusual. I didn't have a name for the tune and wondered what I would call it. As I thought about it, I said to myself, “I'm sending it to Herb. Well, he works at The Stable. Hey, stablemates means good friends. We're stablemates. I'll name it Stablemates.” And that's what happened.
JW: The song moves major and minor, it sounds pretty complicated.
BG: It moves around quite a bit. I'm still trying to learn how to play it. [laughs]
JW: When Miles Davis recorded Stablemates in 1955 for Prestige, you were still with Bostic.
BG: Let me roll back the story a bit. In Philadelphia in 1955, Philly Joe had to give up a spot in our local jam session group to take a job with Miles. Miles loved the way Philly played. Around that time, Hank Mobley was leaving Miles' group, and Miles asked Philly if he knew a tenor player from Philadelphia who could take Mobley's place. Miles figured, given the way Philly played, if he's going to ask for a recommendation, he wanted someone of the same ilk. So Philly answers, “Yeah, I know someone.” Miles says, “What's his name?” Philly says, “John Coltrane.”
JW: What did Miles say?
BG: Miles says, “Never heard of him. Can he play?” Philly probably made the understatement of his life. He simply said, “Uh, huh.” [laughs] That's when John also left our little coterie of musicians in Philadelphia and went to New York to start rehearsing with Miles.
JW: How did Stablemates wind up in Miles' hands?
BG: About a week after John left, I saw him on Philadelphia's Columbia Ave. I asked him how it was going. “It's going great, he said, “but Miles needs some music. Do you have any?” Did I have any? All I had was music. When I look back now, it was embarrassing. I gave everyone I met back then a lead sheet from one of my compositions. You had to do that if you wanted your songs played. But nothing had ever happened. So when John took the tune I gave him, I didn't think any more of it.
JW: What happened?
BG: About a month later, I ran into John Coltrane again. John said, “You know that tune you gave me? We recorded it.” I said, “What? Miles recorded my tune?” John said, “Yeah, he dug it.” Man, I couldn't believe it. Sure enough, when the album, Miles, came out, there was the Prestige label with the yellow field, black printing and Stablemates printed on there with my name underneath as composer.
JW: This record changed everything for you, didn't it?
BG: All the people I had passed out lead sheets to, they heard Miles play this song and saw my name under it and said, “Wait a minute, is this the same guy?” John Coltrane had taken Stablemates to Miles, and Miles' recording of it validated me and put me on the map as a jazz composer. After that, everybody started recording my stuff.
JW: You and Miles would have been perfect. Did you ever play together?
BG: No, but we almost did. I was playing in Chicago back in the early 1950s, when not many club owners knew who Miles Davis was. I was working with Gigi Gryce at a club on Cottage Grove. During the intermission, Miles came in and asked me if he could sit in. I said I didn't know, that the owner was kind of funny about that. When I asked the owner if Miles Davis could sit in, he said, “Look, I'm paying you guys to play. I don't need no strangers coming in here.” “But this is Miles Davis,” I said, a little astonished. The guy said, “I don't give a so and so who he is.” So I had to go back and tell Miles, “Sorry, man, he won't let you sit in.” [laughs] Can you believe it? We never recorded or played together.
JW: When Philly Joe recommended John Coltrane to Miles, did you ever wish he had recommended you?
BG: No, no, no. I'm a realist. John had something special, Marc. Everybody knew that. He used to be over at my house every day when we were kids, in the living room, just the two of us, listening to 78-rpm records and absorbing everything. He used to sit in an overstuffed chair by the window with his alto and the cushion. We had an old beat up upright piano. I would play some sad chords while John tried to solo. Then he'd come to the piano, and I'd play the tenor. His chords were sadder than mine. We only had each other then. We'd do that all day that way and then go to jam sessions together, trying to get our stuff together. [Photo of John Coltrane: Herb Snitzer]
JW: What made John Coltrane so special early on? His intensity?
BG: His ability made him different. Ever go to school with a student who got A's in everything effortlessly? John was that kind of person. When we got to where he was musically, he was somewhere else. And when we got to that spot, he was somewhere else again. He had something special. So when Miles used him, I said "fantastic."
JW: Getting back to the day Earl Bostic fired you in 1956, where did you go?
BG: The next morning, before I caught a plane out of Seattle, I got a call from Quincy Jones [pictured], who was playing with Dizzy Gillespie's big band. Quincy was the band's straw boss, taking care of all the business. Quincy said that Ernie Wilkins was leaving the band, and he wanted to know if I could join. I said, “Yeah.” He said, “When?” I said, “Right now!” So I joined Dizzy's band right away the next day in Washington, D.C.
JW: Was playing in Dizzy's band in 1956 a turning point for you as a saxophonist?
BG: With Dizzy, I learned the importance of being exceptional. When I joined Dizzy's band, I was five or six feet from him, because he stood in front of the reeds. With a musician like Dizzy, you're either encouraged or discouraged beyond belief. He played so much stuff during that first show in Washington, D.C. I actually became discouraged. I told myself I'd never be able to play like that. [Photo: Herb Snitzer]
JW: Did you talk to him after the show?
BG: When the first show was over, the curtains closed, the lights went out and everybody was leaving the stage. He and I happened to be the last two there. I said to myself that I had to say something to him, I've got to tell him know how I feel about what he's doing. That's when I probably said the corniest thing I ever said in my life, Marc. I said, “Gee, Diz, you sure did blow.” Man, I wanted to grab those words back immediately. They sounded so silly after I said them. But he was so humbled, he blushed and sputtered, “Uh, uh, uh, it was nothing.” But it was everything, man, it was everything.
JW: Dizzy saw huge potential in you, didn't he?
BG: Yes, he did. I went over to his house in Corona, Queens, in New York. We went down to his studio, and I spent an afternoon with him. He changed my thinking. The things he showed me musically that day were a revelation.
JW: While you were with Dizzy, the band recorded Whisper Not, with your arrangement.
BG: I wrote that song in 20 minutes while at Storyville in Boston. Most of my songs have a story attached to them. That one didn't. I just liked the two words together. When it came out, all the jazz journalists were intellectualizing about what I meant. It meant absolutely nothing. I wrote it at the club during the day, with the club's chairs on the tables and the bartender preparing for that night's business. The ideas were coming so fast back then I could barely write them all down. I thought composing was nothing because it took me so fast to write songs.
Tomorrow, in Part 4, Benny talks about writing I Remember Clifford, the stories behind Step Lightly and Venetian Breeze, fending off Dinah Washington's after-dinner advances, convincing Art Blakey to record Blues March, and Benny's role helping Bobby Timmons' write Moanin'.
JazzWax tracks: James Moody's 1955 creamy recording of Benny's Blue Walk can be found on the CD Moody's Mood for the Blues here or at iTunes on The Ultimate Jazz Archive (Vol. 27): James Moody, 1951-55.
Stablemates was recorded by the Miles Davis Quintet in November 1955, featuring Miles on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. The Prestige recording is available as a download at Amazon here.
Benny's tremendous work as a soloist, composer and arranger with the Dizzy Gillespie big band in 1957 can be heard on a double-CD set called Dizzy Gillespie: Birks Works, The Verve Big Band Sessions. Benny can be heard soloing on Birks' Works and Left Hand Corner. The band recorded Benny's Whisper Not and Stablemates. He arranged both. These appeared originally on LPs called Birks' Works, Dizzy in Greece and the Big Band Sound of Dizzy Gillespie. You'll find the set at Amazon or as a download at iTunes.