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Interview: Benny Golson

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I hope when the Kennedy Center starts to think about this year's honoreers, they will give serious consideration to composer-saxophonist Benny Golson. As I write in today's Wall Street Journal (go here if you're a subscriber), Benny is the stylistic heir to Billy Strayhorn and Tadd Dameron. He is to jazz what Carole King and Harry Nilsson are to pop-rock and Stevie Wonder is to soul. If you're in New York, Benny will be at the Jazz Standard starting today through February 12. [Photo by Riccardo Schwamenthal/CTSImages.com]

As a composer, Benny is highly prolific. He has published upward of 300 songs, and his compositions are hip andelegant. Many of them are now jazz standards and have been recorded by hundreds of jazz and pop artists. The list includes Killer Joe, I Remember Clifford, Along Came Betty, Stablemates, Whisper Not, Are You Real and so many others. Of course, Horace Silver also has been enormously prolific during this period, as has Sonny Rollins and others.

In Benny's songs, you have the backbone of small-group LPjazz and the essence of musical grace. There's this male aggression and female seduction together in one sheet of music. What's more, Benny is a monumental tenor saxophonist—with a slippery, smoky attack, similar in many ways to Don Byas' attack. I last interviewed Benny in 2008 for a multi-part post.

A little over a week ago I spoke with Benny again for today's WSJ article. Here are my notes:

On Killer Joe: “There actually were three Killer Joe's. I crumpled up the other two and tossed them in the trash. Can you believe it? They were different than the one you know. I was trying to arrive at what I wanted to hear, but I don't remember exactly how they sounded.

“I worked on the song from 8 in the morning until 9 at night. By then, my wife, Bobbi, said it was too monotonous. She just heard me playing those two chords over and over again—but she didn't hear the release that I was planning, which resolves the two notes and gives the song its lift."

On promoting Killer Joe: “When the song came out in 1960, Art Farmer and I went all over Manhattan putting up posters that said 'Has Anyone Seen Killer Joe?' We wanted to give Killer Joe a mystique from the beginning. One night the police caught me, and I almost got arrested."

On where Benny composed Killer Joe: “I wrote the song in 1959 in my apartment at 55 W. 92 St., in apartment 4J. Quincy lived in 6H. He'd always come down and ask, 'Do you have anything to drink?' Then he'd take what he wanted and go back up to his place" [laughing].

On composing: “I used to start by writing the chords to a song first and then adding the melody. Later I did it the other way—with the melody first and then the chords. Now I write bar by bar. Why chords first? What I wanted to do is construct the platform musicians would use to improvise. The chords were like a network across which musician would travel, so they were more important. The chords had to be beautiful and inspirational. The first song I wrote in which the melody came first was Stand By [in 1956]. That's when I changed. Why did I change? To do something different [laughs]."

On melody: “I love melody. A song for me has to have melodic content. But melodies are nothing more than intervals, like a fourth or a sixth. Melodies are just a series of intervals. What's fascinating about intervals is you can trigger listeners' emotions when you use the right one, like skipping a whole 6th or 7th, up or down. By doing this, you reach deep into the deep grotto of the heart's core."

On writing Stablemates: “I wrote Stablemates in Wilmington, Del., when I was with Earl Bostic [in 1954]. We were playing a club there. My first wife and I were divorcing at the time, and she lived in Chester, which wasn't too far away. She came by to talk me out of our separation.

“But I didn't want to deal with it, since the relationship was over. So rather than leave the bandstand at intermission, I pretended that I was busy writing on stage, to avoid her. I started writing a song to keep busy until the next set. The result turned out to be the start of Stablemates. The band played the song the next night, and I put a bridge on it."

Three major saxophone influences: “Carlos Wesley 'Don' Byas, Lucky Thompson and Ben Webster. One time I went over to his apartment to talk about an album we were going to record. We were going to call it, Two Bens, but ultimately we didn't do the album. I can't remember why not. At any rate, when I arrived at his place to discuss the music, Ben called out for me to come into his bedroom.

“Well, I was a little hesitant when I saw there was a woman in there. Ben said, “Nah, come in, come in. This is my ex-wife but we get together every now and then. It's cool." We had our entire meeting in his bedroom, with his ex-wife right there [laughs]."

On writing Whisper Not: “There's no hidden meaning behind the song's name. I just liked the two words together. Critics used to intellectualize about its meaning, insisting the song title was related to Homer and Nietzsche. I'd just laugh. I wrote it in Boston at George Wein's Storyville club when I was with Dizzy Gillespie's big band [in 1956]. I wrote that tune in 20 mintues."

On jazz and R&B: “There was a period in the early 1950s  when the jazz business just dried up, and many musicians who were coming up played and recorded rhythm & blues to collect a check. I was playing with Benjamin Clarence 'BullMoose' Jackson at the time. Tadd Dameron was the pianist. Tadd and Jackson had gone to elementary school together in Cleveland. I brought in drummer Phily Joe Jones, who was a great R&B drummer, by the way. Also bassist Jymie Merritt.

“Jackson was a singer. And he played tenor sax. He wasn't a handsome guy, but he had a beautiful voice. That was his claim to fame. People came to hear his voice. Tadd did a lot of the writing. Whatever Jackson didn't want that Tadd wrote, Tadd used it in our jazz group. That's when I started to write. Tadd was a huge influence."

On the piano Benny used to compose Blues March: “When I first came up to New York from Philadelphia in 1956, I lived in a room at my aunt's place at Graham Courtin Harlem. I bought a used upright for $50. The left side of that piano was painted green, as though the person who owned it wanted a change but grew discouraged by how it was turning out [laughs]. How did the piano sound? Horrible, but I didn't have any money at the time. I wrote Blues March and Along Came Betty on that piano."

On moving to Los Angeles: “I moved to L.A. with my family in 1967. Quincy Jones and Leonard Feather were out there and were always urging me to move out. I had started studying advanced orchestration technique that was no longer suitable for jazz. I wanted to write dramatic music for the movies. So I moved out. I had to give in to that."

On creative influences: “Sometimes I hear what I see in my mind first. It could be flowers or a smell or the voices of children. My favorite songs to write are ballads. Sometimes I rush to the piano but nothing happens. Recently I pulled out a song I started 21 years ago. I just needed to add three bars, which I did. Now it's done."

JazzWax tracks: I own virtually everything Benny has recorded. Here are a few superb albums you may not know about...
  • Turning Point—Benny Golson (1962)
  • Prelude—Jack McDuff (1963) (arranger)
  • Baroque Sketches—Art Farmer (1966) (arranger)
  • Hip Vibrations—Cal Tjader (1966) (arranger, except Moanin')
  • Tune In, Turn OnBenny Golson (1967)
  • In the Land of Make Believe—Elliott Fisher (c. 1970s) (arranger)
  • New Time, New Tet—Benny Golson (2008)

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2019. All rights reserved.

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