Benny Golson is without question jazz's most significant living composer. The 79-year-old tenor saxophonist and arranger has written hundreds of songs, including some of jazz's most staggeringly beautiful and enduring standards. Benny's magnificent canon includes I Remember Clifford, Killer Joe, Stablemates, Whisper Not, Along Came Betty, Blues March, Are You Real?, Park Avenue Petite, Venetian Breeze, and many others.
Next year, on January 24, Benny's 60-year career and indelible contribution to jazz will be saluted on a grand scale at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Guest performers will include Al Jarreau singing Whisper Not, pianist Lara Downes playing one of Benny's classical pieces, Max Roach's daughter Maxine performing Blues March with her string quartet, and John Clayton's big band. Also, Benny's New Jazztet will perform.
In Part 1 of my five-part conversation with Benny, the legendary artist talks about composing, growing up in Philadelphia, precisely when he fell in love with the tenor saxophone, how his mother scraped together enough money to buy him one, and the day his mom turned up at his high school and caught him in a fib:
JazzWax: As one of jazz's greatest composers, do you always hear melodies forming in your head?
Benny Golson: Absolutely. Early in my career I'd write two or three songs in a day and record them as soon as possible. Now I have songs that I haven't completed yet in 10 years. They're in a pile in a box. I just pulled one out a few months ago that I forgot about. Over the years, I've shaped it up a little bit and added some new thinking. I think it's OK. But I won't send a song out to Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Al Jarreau [pictured] or other singers until I'm sure about it. I'll put the song on the piano and walk past it every day, looking at it, testing it and changing it. When I really think I have a song in a place that's as good as I can get it, then I say it's ready.
JW: What about song titles?
BG: Sometimes it takes me as long to come up with a title as it does to write the song itself. I'm a big believer that a title should convey something about the song before you hear it.
JW: What did your father do for a living?
BG: My father did several things. When I was growing up in Philadelphia in the 1930s [pictured], my father was a foreman for the gas company, until he punched out another foreman. [laughs] He also worked at the railroad station, he was in charge of a night clean-up crew in office buildings, and he worked for Nabisco [pictured]. I don't remember everything he did because I didn't grow up with my father. He left home before I was born so it was always just me and my mother. She remarried later, in the late 1940s. But I saw my natural father on occasion, and I loved him.
JW: What did your mom do to make ends meet?
BG: My mother was a hard working lady. She was a seamstress and made a minimal amount of money. She also worked as a waitress for $6 a week plus tips. My mother used to sing, but not professionally. When pianist Ray Bryant and his brother and I had a gig at an after-hours spot in the late 1940s, my mother was the singer. [laughs] My stepfather got jealous because everyone was coming on to her, so she had to quit. But my mom was a pretty good singer. I learned a lot of the old songs from her.
JW: What drew you to the tenor sax?
BG: It wasn't records. I went to see Lionel Hampton in 1945 at the Earle Theater [pictured] at 11th and Market St. in Philadelphia. It was the first time I had seen a live band. I had started playing piano at age 9 and fancied I'd become a concert pianist one day. But during the Hampton concert, the band played an intro and Arnett Cobb [pictured] stepped out from the reed section to the front of the stage with his tenor sax. A microphone came up out of the floor, and Arnett started playing Flying Home. At that moment, the piano for me started to lose its appeal. [laughs] I told Arnett years later in Nice, France, that he was the reason I was playing the tenor sax. Tears welled up in his eyes.
JW: Did you have brothers and sisters?
BG: No. I was an only child.
JW: So you got all the attention?
BG: I suppose, but it wasn't much. We were on welfare. And everyone in school knew it. Everyone knew we got cans of corned beef hash that really consisted of horse meat. The cans had big bold letters that said, “Not to Be Sold.” But we had no other food. We weren't doing well. I remember coming home from school one day to find my mother with the washboard in a tub. She was crying. When I asked why, she wouldn't tell me. It turned out she didn't have 5 cents to buy a bar of soap to wash the clothes.
JW: How did your mother treat you?
BG: My mother would have gone to the wall for me, and she often did. She carried me above her head when things got bad. She did such a good job that I never knew how bad things really were.
JW: How did you wind up with a saxophone?
BG: After I heard Arnett, I started listening to the radio at night waiting to hear saxophone solos. My mother noticed my interest and asked why I was doing it. I said I had heard the saxophone, loved it and that I wished I had one. She asked me what kind. I said the kind with the curve in the neck, because the alto went straight up. What did I know? [laughs]
JW: When did you get it?
BG: One day when she came home from work, I was sitting outside on our front steps and saw she had something in her hand. I could see this long case but I couldn't tell what it was. When she crossed the street and came up to me, I could see it was a sax case. She said, “I've got something for you, baby.” I went crazy. We went in the house and she put the case on the couch and opened it up. It wasn't a used sax from the pawnshop. It was a brand new one, a Martin that she bought at Wurlitzer's music store on 11th and Chestnut St.
JW: How could she afford it?
BG: She paid a dollar down and would have to pay a dollar a month virtually for life. Raymond Ziegler was my teacher. He had played with Charlie Barnet's band and had wanted to come off the road. So he gave student lessons to earn a living. I was one of his students, and he gave me a lot of his time. I guess he thought I had talent. He really went at it hard with me. Years later, while he was still with Wurlitzer's, I came back as a performer at the Earle Theater [pictured]. It was a block away from the music store. That man was so proud of me.
JW: When did you start playing jazz?
BG: As soon as I could play a few songs. Local friends would get together to have so-called jam sessions in my living room. They were more like “am” sessions. We earned the “j” later. [laughs] I guess we drove the neighbors nuts because we didn't know what were doing at first. We knew we were getting better when, one summer, with the windows open, neighbors started shouting song requests. [laughs] I look back on those days fondly. By that time, we were off welfare and living in a three-story house. My mother had to pay $30 a month in rent. To help pay the bills, she rented out three rooms, and I had to make all the beds when I came home from school and scrub the floors on Fridays. My mom was good to me. But there were times when I felt the anger of her strap. [Pictured: Benny in 1944 at age 15]
JW: What brought it on?
BG: I was terrible in school. Teachers would send notes home, and I'd sign my mother's name and take them back to the teachers. Then one day they had an open house, and all the parents came. I wasn't worried because my mother had to work every day. But lo and behold, my heart almost stopped when my mother turned up at the classroom door.
JW: What happened?
BG: I realized then that my mom was going to find out the truth. The teacher said to her, “I'm so sorry Mrs. Golson that I had to write all those letters to you.” My mother said, “What letters?” Mrs. Shapiro asked me to come up to her desk. Now all my boys were looking. I walked up there like I was big and brave, but I was almost peeing on myself. She said, “Benny, who signed those letters?” I said, “I did.” I was almost dying with fear. My mother said, “Oh, you did? I'll see you when you come home.” And I strolled back to my seat brazenly.
JW: What happened when you got home?
BG: I got it that night. One time my mother was trying to beat me with the strap but the ironing cord was in the way. When she finished, I looked like a zebra. [laughs]. But my mother kept me in line, and she taught me to appreciate values.
Tomorrow, in Part 2, Benny reflects on his experiences with Tiny Grimes, Bull Moose Jackson, Tadd Dameron, Clifford Brown, Gigi Gryce and how getting fired from Earl Bostic's band in mid-1956 kicked off an important new phase of his jazz career.
JazzWax tracks: If you want to hear what Benny heard in Lionel Hampton's 1945 band, download Lionel Hampton: Hamp's Boogie Woogie at iTunes. It's the complete April 1945 concert at Carnegie Hall featuring Lionel Hampton and his orchestra with Arnett Cobb and Flying Home. It's virtually the same touring show that wound up at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia that year.
Hampton's band on this date included Al Killian, Joe Morris, Dave Page, Lammar Wright and Wendell Culley (trumpets); Abdul Hamid, Al Hayse, John Morris and Andrew Penn (trombones); Herbie Fields and Gus Evans (clarinets and alto saxes); Arnett Cobb and Jay Peters (tenor saxes); Charlie Fowlkes (baritone sax); Lionel Hampton (vibes, piano and drums); Milt Buckner (piano); Billy Mackel (guitar); Charlie Harris and Ted Sinclair (bass); and Fred Radcliffe (drums).
You'll hear Dizzy Gillespie on Red Cross, and Dinah Washington with Leonard Feather on piano replacing Buckner on Evil Gal Blues.