After proving himself as a dynamic composer, arranger and tenor saxophonist, Benny Golson emerged in the late 1950s as a commanding leader and orchestrator. In 1958, as a member of the Jazz Messengers, Benny was instrumental in uniting and focusing the group's creative direction. After departing the Jazz Messengers late that year, Benny and Art Farmer began playing and recording together. In 1960, they formed the Jazztet—six musicians who were concerned more with collective subtlety and beauty than individual power and prowess.
In this regard, the Jazztet was a radically new and fresh cool-soul ensemble that found itself in the long modal shadow of groups led by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. The Jazztet's first recordings in 1960 arrived in the wake of Miles' Kind of Blue and Coltrane's Giant Steps, and at a time when jazz increasingly found itself developing spiritual and political overtones. Miraculously, the Jazztet managed to skirt these trends during its three-year run. Arrangements were sultry and caressing, with soloists shooting for round, curvy tones that penetrated and reverberated. [Photo of Art Farmer, McCoy Tyner and Benny Golson by Chuck Stewart]
In the final part of my interview series with Benny, he talks about Art Blakey's problems with Blue Note Records, how he helped set the Jazz Messengers on a firm course, the difference between Quincy Jones' and Ernie Wilkins' arranging styles, the formation of the great Jazztet, and the musician Benny misses most:
JazzWax: Once Bobby Timmons completed Moanin' with your help, did Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers record it right away?
Benny Golson: No. Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records didn't want to record Art anymore. Alfred said Art [pictured] had been on so many different recordings with virtually every musician that he was overexposed.
JW: In retrospect, that sounds shortsighted.
BG: I know. In Art Blakey's defense, I said, “Alfred, you're missing the point. Art's on all those recordings because he's that great.” I continued, “We've got a new group, a new young trumpet player [Lee Morgan] and a new piano player [Bobby Timmons]. Come down to the Five Spot and hear us. You owe it to yourself. It's different.”
JW: What did he say?
BG: Alfred said, “I've been recording Hank Mobley [pictured] a lot lately and I like him.” I said, “Alfred, it's different.” So Alfred came to where we were playing in New York and heard a set. After we played, he came up to me and said, “When do you want to record?”
JW: Why did Alfred Lion ask you and not Art Blakey?
BG: At this point I had taken charge of everything. Art had given me that license. Before I joined the band, everyone was late. When I came on, I used to pick up Art for work and then took him home afterward. I also made sure everyone returned from intermission at clubs when they were supposed to. And I got everyone to wear a suit and tie.
JW: So you brought order to the group?
BG: Just before I joined the Jazz Messengers, the owner of Small's Paradise said he didn't want Art back because he had taken two-hour intermissions, and the customers would leave. When I joined, I told the group that our first goal was to have Small's Paradise ask us to come back. Art said, “You're crazy. That will never happen.”
JW: What did you do?
BG: Well, first we recorded Moanin' for Blue Note. I told Alfred I wanted to use a picture of Art on the cover that a fan had taken. Alfred said fine. I also told Alfred I wanted to call the album Moanin', and he did. Everyone was going along with my calls. I told Art we needed to tour Europe to raise our visibility, and we did. I said we needed to play a concert at New York's Town Hall [pictured]. We got a concert date at Town Hall. I said we're going to play the concert in full dress-suits and ties. Art said, “Benny, are you crazy?” I said, “Art, people see you before they hear you. They've got to know what we think of ourselves before we play a note.”
JW: What else did Blue Note do for the group?
BG: They had 45-rpms then, and Alfred recorded Bobby's song Moanin' as a single. It was on all the jukeboxes, including the one at Small's Paradise. One day, the phone rings. The person on the other end says, “Is Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers available? It's Small's Paradise calling.” When I told Art, he said, “I'll be damned.” Our paydays were going up too, everything was good. When I left the group in late 1958 after returning from Europe, I told Art to keep doing the same thing we had done. People didn't realize that going forward, whenever there was a problem, Art would call me for advice.
JW: You were a part of Quincy Jones' game-changing big band of 1959 and 1960. Why was Quincy so important?
BG: Quincy had a unique writing style. It was the way he voiced his instruments and harmonies. He was clever at that. It had a way of catching the ear, and that's what it's all about. If it doesn't catch the ear, the audience isn't going to pay attention to it. Quincy always had that in mind.
JW: How do Quincy Jones and Ernie Wilkins differ?
BG: Both are great writers and arrangers. But Quincy has that harmonic thing together, with clusters and sonorities and things like that. Ernie Wilkins' [pictured] stuff hits you like a razor. The impact is like breaking open a fresh head of lettuce, that crisp sound. Ernie's charts could hit hard, with impact. I learned how to hit hard musically from him. He was shocked when I told him years later what I had learned from him.
JW: How did you come up with the idea for the Jazztet in late 1959?
BG: It was a group I always had in mind. I first met trumpeter Art Farmer [pictured] when I joined Lionel Hampton's band in 1953. Art and I formed a friendship. When the band split up, Art and I would wind up on record dates together and on radio and TV commercials. I also used him as my contractor hiring musicians.
JW: Why six musicians?
BG: At this time I knew there were a lot of quintets and quartets playing. I thought, "Hey, there might be room for a sextet." I thought Art Farmer would be perfect as my trumpet player. So I called Art and told him my idea. He broke out laughing. “You're never going to believe this,” he said, “But I was thinking about putting a sextet together, too, and using you as my tenor player." I said, “Why don't you come by the pad and we'll talk about it.” [Pictured: Art Farmer and Benny Golson]
JW: When he got there, what did you discuss?
BG: We chose the rest of the group. We both agreed on trombonist Curtis Fuller. I told Art about this 19-year-old piano player in Philadelphia I had heard. Art asked me his name. I said, McCoy Tyner. Art asked if he could play. I said yes. [laughs] We hired him. Art hired his twin brother Addison Farmer on bass and Dave Bailey on drums. This was the first Jazztet. [Photo of McCoy Tyner by Gisle Hannemyr]
JW: What was the first new song you wrote for the group?
BG: I wanted to try writing a tune inspired by what I used to see at Birdland—the pimps coming in with their ladies on each arm, their Cadillac Eldorados parked by the doorman at the curb, their fingernails done with clear polish, their shiny suits with the black shirt and white tie and hat, and hair processed. Coming up as a kid, everybody who was involved in illegal things in Philadelphia—bootlegging, numbers running and so on was named “Killer”—like Killer Johnson. The name epitomized everything that was illegal. I saw these guys in Chicago, Los Angeles and in New York at Birdland every night. So I named the song Killer Joe.
JW: Why did you move to Los Angeles in the late 1960s?
BG: I was studying in New York with Henry Brandt, an avant-garde composer and orchestrator who later won a Pulitzer Prize for music in 1992 and died this past April . He orchestrated for movie composer Alex North, and orchestrated Cleopatra, Spartacus and other films. He taught at Juilliard and at Bennington College. He taught me so much. I was learning new composing techniques that went way beyond writing jazz for Count Basie or the Jazz Messengers. I wanted to use what I had learned, such as symmetrical chords and mirror writing. My only outlet would be to go to Hollywood and write dramatic stuff. Quincy Jones and Oliver Nelson were already there, and both urged me to come out.
JW: What did you do when you arrived in Los Angeles?
BG: The first studio that hired me was Universal, which was bigger at the time than all the other studios put together. For my first TV composing assignment in 1968, my buddy Quincy Jones was sitting there on the sound stage when we recorded. The session was for It Takes a Thief.
JW: Looking back, how would you describe the distinct sound of your compositions?
BG: I've always loved melody. My heroes are Puccini, Brahms, Chopin and Duke Ellington. Intuitively, whenever I write, I want my music to last past my time. It's not about ego. If a song lasts past my time, it will show that the song was truly worthy. I don't keep track of how many versions of my songs have been recorded. Like a sculptor, when a song is done, it's done. I go on to the next thing.
JW: What's your favorite Benny Golson composition?
BG: I haven't written it yet. [laughs] Tomorrow's always another day. As the future crouches beneath my window waiting unashamedly to reveal itself, I hope it consequentially sees me doing something that's moving ahead, that I'm in tandem with time. Time never backs up, so a guilty conscience or mistakes are irrelevant. If I can be in sync with time, then I'm always moving ahead and on the cutting edge of things.
JW: Of all the artists you've known, who do you miss most?
BG: I'd have to say Art Farmer. He and I were joined at the hip. We could finish each other's sentences musically. He was as beautiful a person as he was an artist. [Photo of Art Farmer by Ydo Sol]
JazzWax tracks: After recording Moanin' with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Benny toured with the group, which recorded a series of live dates. Upon returning to the U.S. in December 1958, Benny recorded as a sideman on a string of albums, including Blue Mitchell's Out of the Blue, Jimmy Cleveland's Rhythm Crazy, Wynton Kelly's Kelly Blue and Curtis Fuller's Sliding Easy.
There also were big band dates with Buddy Rich (Richcraft), Philly Joe Jones (Drums Around the World) and Ernie Wilkins (Here Comes the Swingin' Mr. Wilkins) among others. By May 1959, Benny was with Quincy Jones' "Birth of a Big Band," which recorded several of Benny's compositions, including Whisper Not, Along Came Betty and I Remember Clifford.
The Jazztet's first recording was Meet the Jazztet (May 1960). The initial sextet on the session was made up of Art Farmer (trumpet), Curtis Fuller (trombone), Benny Golson (tenor sax), McCoy Tyner (piano), Addison Farmer (bass) and Lex Humphries (drums). You can find this album at iTunes or Amazon.
The problem is you're going to love what you hear and want more. If you adore the Jazztet's high-heeled sound, the better investment is The Complete Mercury Art Farmer and Benny Golson Jazztet Sessions from Mosaic Records. At $119, the seven-CD box may seem pricey, but the remastered music is sensational and timeless. I listened to the entire set yesterday, and I can tell you that there isn't one bad or even sub-par track. In fact, the seven discs function as a complete work or a suite. You start on the 1st track and end on the 95th track. You're listening to bright, inventive arrangements throughout, and the smoky solos by Benny and Art are consistently tasteful and soulful. Just listening to Jerome Kern's In Love In Vain from The Jazztet: Here and Now—with swooning solos by Benny, Art and Harold Mabern on piano—is a rush.
Given what would follow in the years after 1962, the Jazztet is in many ways the last pure jazz ensemble before the music became the message.