Miles Davis' recording of Stablemates in 1955 instantly established Benny Golson as one of jazz's hot new composers. But Benny was much more than a songwriter. By the end of 1956, Benny was both arranging for Dizzy Gillespie's big band and performing standout tenor saxophone solos that were sensitive and knowing. At the start of 1957, Benny was a jazz star and a triple threat.
Influenced by Tadd Dameron's love of melody and poetic harmonies, Benny in 1957 leveraged his mentor's approach, adding a cool, stylish sensibility to hard bop. Unlike many of the period's composers who channeled raw heat or tonal scales, Benny was fundamentally concerned with the beauty of simplicity, lacing pure melodies with sensual harmonies. The result was music that seduced and packed a punch. [Pictured at left: Tadd Dameron]
In Part 4 of my five-part conversation with the jazz legend, Benny talks about writing I Remember Clifford, Step Lightly and Venetian Breeze; fighting off Dinah Washington's advances; rising to Art Blakey's challenge; and helping Bobby Timmons craft a gospel-funk masterpiece:
JazzWax: In 1956 you wrote I Remember Clifford. How did you hear about Brownie's death?
Benny Golson: That June day in 1956 was a heart- wrenching one. It was horrible. I was playing at the Apollo Theater on 125th St. in Harlem with Dizzy's big band. During one of the breaks on the 27th, pianist Walter Davis Jr. came from a bar around the corner on Eighth Ave. to the rear of the theater. He was crying and waving his arms and saying something we couldn't hear or understand right away. When he got close enough, we could hear the chilling words: “Clifford Brown was killed in an automobile accident last night.”
JW: What was the reaction?
BG: We froze with disbelief. It broke our hearts. Brownie had so much promise. The next week Dizzy's band was in Los Angeles. I decided to write a song to help people remember Clifford. The song wasn't published until 1957. Little did I know that Brownie didn't need any help from me. He was a harbinger of great things to come that would never be fulfilled. I set about to write it, and the song took me the whole two weeks we were there.
JW: What were you thinking as you wrote it? Today, the song is the jazz equivalent of taps.
BG: I wanted every note to represent the way Clifford played, because I knew him that well. I wanted every note to reflect Clifford Brown. And I've always said I wished I had never written it, that he was still with us today.
JW: It sounds like you miss him.
BG: Oh, I do, I do. I still miss Clifford and John. John and I were like brothers. We were together every day as kids. Yeah, I miss those two guys.
JW: In October 1957 you recorded The New York Scene. What was the inspiration for the song Step Lightly?
BG: I just had a feeling, and those notes came out that way. Incidentally, I turned on the radio the other day and heard Step Lightly. I told my wife, “They're playing my version of Step Lightly.” But as the saxophone started to play, I said, “Wait a minute, that's not me.” It turned out it was Shelly Manne, on a 1959 Contemporary recording.
JW: One of my favorite albums of yours is The Modern Touch from 1957. Two of your songs on there are incredible—Out of the Past and Venetian Breeze.
BG: On Out of the Past, I wanted the song to sound like something from the past, reminiscent of a black-and-white film. I wanted it to have a nostalgic feel that would tug at the heart a little bit. It's meant to feel a little like Tadd Dameron's Nostalgia.
JW: What about Venetian Breeze?
BG: Venetian Breeze was written when I was working down in Miami for the summer. We used to go from Miami to Miami Beach over the Venetian Causeway [pictured], a bridge that connects the two areas of Miami. The ride was so nice, and the breeze was beautiful. The car windows were down, the weather was perfect and there was water on each side. It was a beautiful ride.
JW: On your November 1958 album, The Other Side of Benny Golson, your tenor sax on Are You Real has a Coltrane feel. Were you thinking of him when you were playing?
BG: Absolutely not. It just came out that way. I also wrote that song in Miami.
JW: You recorded with Dinah Washington in 1957. Was she as tough as they say?
BG: Oh, my girl Ruth Jones. She almost seduced me. She invited me over for dinner up on 145th St. I knew she had two boys and a maid. Even though I knew she had a reputation with men, I figured I was safe with all those people in the house. But when I got there Dinah answered the door, not her maid. When I walked in, I asked Dinah, “Where's Theresa?” Dinah said, “Oh I gave her the night off.” “Well, where are the boys?,” I asked. “Oh, they're at their grandmother's,” she said. That's when I said to myself, “Uh, oh.”
JW: What happened?
BG: I noticed the lights were dimmed and the music was playing softly. We had dinner and after sat on the couch. That's when things started to change. I knew I had to get out of there. I looked at my watch and said, “Oh, dog-gone it. What a drag. I forgot I have to be at so and so. Dinah I'm late, please forgive me.”
JW: Did you escape in one piece?
BG: I did. But after that night, Dinah never called me Benny again. She called me Reverend. Every time. Wherever I was. [laughs]
JW: Who taught you the most about jazz?
BG: Art Blakey, without a doubt. He taught me how to play forcefully. When I joined him, I was playing the tenor soft and smooth and mellifluous. So he'd play those press rolls behind me, and I would disappear. Nobody could hear me. It seemed as if I were pantomiming. He kept playing those press rolls, and I didn't get what he was doing.
JW: How did he get his message across to you?
BG: One night, instead of playing a press roll for two bars before we came into the new chorus, he started that press roll eight bars early. He was so loud I thought he had lost his senses. When he came down for the new chorus, every two or three beats he'd hit a loud crash. I said to myself, “What is wrong with this guy?” I still didn't get it. Finally, he hollered over at me, “Get up out of that hole!” I said to myself, “Man, I guess I am in a hole. Nobody can hear me.” So I started playing harder and with more bite.
JW: What else did Blakey teach you?
BG: He taught me how to play meaningfully. He'd say to the guys in the group, “You play so long on your solo that when the audience applauds, you don't know whether they're applauding because they liked what you played or they're glad you stopped.” [laughs] Art said to play with dynamics and that everything doesn't have to be loud. Art was a natural teacher.
JW: You recorded your compositions Along Came Betty and Blues March with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in October 1958. What did Art Blakey think of Blues March?
BG: Oh, man, Blakey didn't want to record it. He thought I was crazy. He said nobody plays a march except in New Orleans when they're going to the cemetery. “No, no,” I said, “I'm not talking about a military march. Have you ever heard that black college in the South, Grambling? Have you ever heard them play marches? It's soulful, it's greasy, it's funky.”
JW: What did Blakey say?
BG: Art said, “Aw, Golson, it will never work.” I said, “Let me try.” I put the thing together. We were playing at Small's Paradise in New York. I gave the song a big buildup before we played it: “Ladies and gentlemen, we're going to play something you've never heard before in jazz.” We started to play the cadence and then the tune.
JW: How did they take it?
BG: People suddenly got up and started dancing and bumping the tables and knocking drinks over. Small's was just a place for drinks. While we were playing and people were dancing, Art looked over at me and said, “I'll be damned.”
JW: Bobby Timmons' Moanin' was on the same album. What role did you play in that song's creation?
BG: I just pushed Bobby to take it seriously. Bobby used to have a lick he liked to play every time we finished a tune. He'd play what would become Moanin's theme. Then he'd stop and laugh, and say, “Ah, that sure is funky.” That went on for a few weeks. By the time we got to Marty's, a club in Columbus, Ohio, he had the first eight bars, the second eight and the last eight after the bridge. All he needed was a bridge.
JW: How did the bridge come about?
BG: I called a rehearsal. Everyone wanted to know why we were rehearsing, since we had the band's book down. I said we were going to do something new. At the club, I told Bobby we were going to put a bridge on the song he always played in between tunes. He said, “That thing? Oh that's nothing. That's just an old lick.” I said, “No Bobby, I hear a tune there. We're all going to sit down here, and you're going to go up on the bandstand and write a bridge to the tune. He didn't want to do it. I said, “Trust me, this is the making of a great tune. Write a bridge.” [Photo of Bobby Timmons: Eric T. Vogel]
JW: What did he do?
BG: We went and sat down. After about a half hour, Bobby said, “Come see what you think of this.” I came up and he played it. I said, “No, no Bobby, it misses the point. You don't have the same groove as the other melody.” He says, “Well you write it then.” I said, “No, this has to be you, Bobby. Come on, try again.” I sat back down, and about 15 minutes later, Bobby said, “Here it is.” I listened and said, “That's it!” We learned the tune, played it that night and got everyone in the audience up dancing.
Tomorrow, in the final part of my five-part conversation with Benny, he talks about reviving the Jazz Messengers after Blue Note Records nearly abandoned Art Blakey, Quincy Jones' big band of 1959-1960, the birth of the great Jazztet and why Benny moved to the West Coast.
JazzWax tracks: There are more than 300 recorded jazz versions of I Remember Clifford, all of them special and each one different. Perhaps the most interesting one is Dizzy's interpretation (with Benny in the reed section), which appears on Dizzy Gillespie at Newport, recorded in June 1957. It can be found at iTunes.
Terrific versions of Whisper Not and Step Lightly are on Benny's New York Scene, an album recorded in October 1957. It features Art Farmer (trumpet) Jimmy Cleveland (trombone), Julius Watkins (French horn), Gigi Gryce (alto sax), Benny Golson (tenor sax), Sahib Shihab (baritone sax), Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Charlie Persip (drums).
Benny recorded two albums for Mercury Records with Dinah Washington in October and November of 1957. They were Dinah Washington Sings Fats Waller, with the Ernie Wilkins Orchestra; and The Queen!, with Eddie Chamblee's orchestra.
One of my favorite Benny Golson albums is The Modern Touch, recorded in December 1957. Every single song on the album is beautifully arranged and played. The artists are Kenny Dorham (trumpet), J.J. Johnson (trombone), Benny Golson (tenor sax), Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Charlie Persip (drums).
Modern Art, of course, is a must. Recorded in September 1958, the artists were Art Farmer (trumpet), Benny Golson (tenor sax), Bill Evans (piano), Addison Farmer (bass) and Dave Bailey (drums). Farmer and Benny split the arranging duties.
The big turning point for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers was Moanin', recorded in October 1958. The lineup was Lee Morgan (trumpet), Benny Golson (tenor sax), Bobby Timmons (piano), Jymie Merritt (bass) and Art Blakey (drums). Three of the six tracks recorded (Are You Real?, Along Came Betty and Blues March) were by Benny.
Stablemates was recorded by Benny on Benny Golson and the Philadelphians in November 1958. The artists on the date were Lee Morgan (trumpet), Benny Golson (tenor sax), Ray Bryant (piano), Percy Heath (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums).
All in all, 1957 and 1958 were pretty good years for Benny Golson. Keep in mind, these are just the recordings I chose to focus on. There were others! Before you depart, you'll find below one of the prettiest versions of I Remember Clifford, featuring Lee Morgan and Benny Golson with the Jazz Messengers: