Benny Golson is a national treasure. As a composer, as a saxophonist, and as a human being he is one of those people my mother always told me were, "put on this earth to show the rest of us how to behave." I had the honor of talking with him during his visit to Omaha, Nebraska to play at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. I was a bit worried as the responses to my questions were limited to just a few brief comments. But like one of this classic solos, it was all about pacing. As the interview progressed, it just got better and better. This interview has to go down as one of the great interviews in my career. I found myself in awe of his many gifts and hope you enjoy this interview with Mr. Benny Golson.
THE SAXOPHONIST: You have been involved with the saxophone for nearly three-quarters of a century. How has your relationship with the horn and with music changed during this time?
BENNY GOLSON: It has changed based on my feelings of how I was playing at the time. You know, when I first started playing, I was doing things based upon the influences of my heros. But, you know, things change. I’ve always tried to go along with whatever I was feeling and trying to accomplish at that time. That, in turn, affected my style.
TS: I am just thinking about all those pivotal times in jazz history, where you were part of the scene. Did you ever feel pressured to play a certain way to do things others were doing?
BG: No, I wouldn’t say I was pressured or felt pressured to play in any one style. I just aspired to sound a certain way. So if there was any pressure, it was all internal. That was the driving force, at least it was back in the day.
TS: You're not only recognized as one of the great voices on the tenor saxophone but as one of the great composers in jazz history. These are such different areas. Do you view them as separate entities, or does one influence the other?
BG: It’s like having two wives; completely different. One has nothing to do with the other.
TS: You have been a part of some of jazz history's greatest moments. Was there an event, be it a group, performance, composition, etc., where you knew what you were involved in was going to have a lasting impact on the music?
BG: I didn't think anything I was doing was going to have an impact beyond that performance. You can't see into the future, so you never know that what you are going to do will be anything more than just a gig. But we hope for these things, and we aspire for them to happen for sure. There is never a guarantee that something is going to happen just because you want to do it or you want something to happen. Sometimes something amazing comes out of something you didn't even really plan and other times all that planning doesn't create anything you desired.
TS: You're from Philadelphia, PA, and you grew up with a “Who's Who” of jazz history. Can you talk about what it was like to grow up in such a rich musical environment and support?
BG: Well, none of us knew what we were doing. We were all just trying to move ahead. We used to have a lot of jam sessions, and whatever John didn't know, Charlie knew and whatever Charlie didn't know, Bill knew. So we learned from one another, but we weren't striving to be like the other. We were just trying to take in knowledge so we could move ahead.
TS: You mentioned jam sessions. These sessions are everywhere in the history of jazz. Today, I don't see them happening as much as they should. We have issues getting our students to attend those that do exist. Likewise, young players have more resources at their fingertips than at any time in history yet they don't commonly seek it. Do you see this as a sign of the times or just the fact that jazz study has moved more towards institutions of higher learning?
BG: I think it is really about the individual and how each feels and reacts to the situation. When I was young, we didn't have any schools or teachers. We didn't have help to discover what we desired to know. John Coltrane and I used to practice together all the time, but we got our information from the old 78 rpm records. For us, that was school, moving the tone arm back and forth until we figured out what they were doing. "What did he do in the bridge?" "What chord did he play on that beat?" When we got those records, they were thirty-seven cents a piece and were black and shiny. When we finished with them, they were dull and grey. Those records were our schools; we had no teachers. And when I did go to college to study music, they told me if I played jazz I would be expelled. Better still, when I showed up with my saxophone to audition, they said, "What is that? You have to play the clarinet; the saxophone isn't allowed." So I had to do all my juries on clarinet and learn classical stuff. I played my saxophone at night in the laundry room.
It has changed a lot today. We had no teachers, but we have teachers now. Today some kids go to college because they want to perform, and others want to be teachers. The teachers are not to be thrown away because the teachers cut down the learning time. When we are "ear born," we make mistakes and have to back up and relearn. Teachers give you direct information and show you where you need to head and what you need to stay away from. That has made a big difference in the change of the times. If I had teachers, like today, back when I was young, I would have been able to move along so much faster. Things didn't start making any sense until I was in my 20's.
These kids today are playing their butts off in their teens! Look at all they have to draw upon; to have luminaries come into their schools. They have brilliant teachers, and we had nothing. That's what makes a difference.
TS: Do you hear anything in today’s young players that you feel is lacking or missing?
BG: You listen to things they are missing, and you discover things that are inspiring. Sometimes I give masterclasses, and I learn more than I teach. They have different ideas. The thing that must exist is the desire to discover and get better; it's the extrapolation of ideas. They are finding new ways of doing old things, and something finding the new ways of doing old things is more beneficial than new discoveries. So, there is always something to shoot for. After all, nobody knows everything, so we are always aspiring to better ourselves. ALWAYS!!!
The best thing about it is there is no age limit. Nobody has ever heard of a fifty or sixty-year-old quarterback, but here I am at 90 years old, and I am still playing. If my career were football or soccer, my career would have been over a long time ago. Music has no limits.
TS: I think that is a beautiful point to share. I see a lot of players who believe if they don't achieve something at a particular age, it's over. Or if they see someone younger than them playing better, it is a blow to their self-confidence.
BG: Percy Heath was in the Army Air Corps (today it is known as the Air Force) as a pilot. He didn't start playing bass until he was almost 30 years old, and he became a premier bassist. It depends on the person, how much talent you have, and how much discipline you have. Most important if you want to be an improviser, how much imagination do you have? When you improvise, you are creating music that has no prior history. Thus, it is critical that you have imagination. If you don't, you are going to stall.
TS: Your first road gig wasn’t with a jazz band but a rhythm and blues band (The Bill “Moose” Jackson’s Rhythm and Blues Band). Did that experience have any effect on your playing or writing?
BG: It wasn't the band that affected me; it was the pianist, Tad Dameron. He helped me immensely. He was a jazz player, and you sat there wondering why this brilliant guy was in a rhythm and blues band. It was because Bill and Tad grew up together in Cleveland. Tad wasn't working, and Bill invited him on the road. When I joined the band, he was playing the piano. He was my hero because of those quintet recording he did with Fats Navarro. Man, I picked that guy’s [Dameron] brain so much it’s a wonder he didn’t have to have brain surgery (laughing).
TS: Can you talk more about Dameron? Because I feel he was never given his proper respect in jazz history.
BG: I feel the same way, but we don't have control over history. Sometimes it doesn't happen for a person, but sometimes it happens the other way where people get a lot of accolades they don't deserve. It is more about how people perceive them; because of what people want to hear. We all grew up with Clifford Brown and thought he was going to leave town with a hot jazz group. He left with an entertaining group with floppy ties, corny lyrics, choreography, spinning his trumpet. That’s the group he left town with. The only difference was when he soloed. When he soloed that group didn’t exist, it was just Clifford Brown. And the people who came to see him dance and spin the trumpet heard him and didn’t know what to expect. But it was so exceptional they excepted him; because he was a genius and they could sense it even if they didn’t understand it. That’s how he moved forward. He didn’t stay with that group called The Five Blue Flames. He moved on to become an icon.
TS: You talk about your inspirations. I have a question that I like to ask everyone I interview. Who makes you dream?
BG: Who makes me dream?
TS: Yes, who still inspires you, at 90, to keep exploring and discovering?
BG: Mostly, the memories of the past. Ernie Wilkins, who was a saxophone player but a great arranger. I learned a lot from him. Duke Ellington. I wrote music for a comedy team, and they were a little slow in paying me my money. This went on and on and on. They were in New York appearing at the Palace Theatre, and Duke Ellington's orchestra was also playing. I went to this theatre to get my money and Duke came up to me and said, "Are you the fellow who wrote that wonderful music that we played for Stump and Stumpy?" I told him, yes, and he said, "How would you like to write something for me?" That still inspires me. And when other leaders like Benny Goodman and Woody Herman asked me to write for them.
Those things helped me in my maturity coming along, and they still inspire me today.
TS: You’re ninety, you’re still on the road teaching and playing. What do you attribute to your longevity as an artist?
BG: Well, I will tell you. I don't drink, I don't smoke, and I have never taken drugs in my life. Maybe that has something to do with it. I was afraid of those things because I saw the results of those who did them. Where the drugs became the priority. I watched some of my best friends overdose, and I didn't want to be a part of any of that. They were all around me, telling me how great it was to be high and how it elevated your thinking. And here I am thinking, "If I don't have the knowledge to do what I want to do on the horn, is smoking something going to do it for me? Is injecting something into my arm going to improve my knowledge and ability suddenly?" It's impossible.
TS: You've touched on something I've long wondered. Do you think a lot of musicians went the route of drugs and alcohol as a way to push the boundaries of their thinking, to find something extra?
BG: For some, yes. There are many reasons. Some just like that feeling, I guess. Hard for me to say as I never did it. But I know growing up there were so many that did it. I am thankful that it's not that prevalent today, thank goodness.
TS: Looking back, you have enjoyed collaborations with a host of people. But it is your partnership with Art Farmer that was truly unique. You two just seemed to be of the same mindset. Can you talk about what made that partnership so special?
BG: Well, I met him when I joined Lionel Hampton’s band. One of the first things that I noticed about him was the sound he got. I have always been sound conscious. But the way he played; he played with great thought and that impressed me. That was back in 1953 when we first met. We enjoyed a partnership over many years, although we didn’t have a partnership at the time he passed away. However, we were always staunch friends, and we enjoyed being together musically.
TS: There are some key figures that I know have either influenced you or that you have worked with. I want to ask your thoughts about each if you wouldn't mind.
BG: Not at all, I look forward to it.
TS: The first one that comes to mind is Dizzy Gillespie.
BG: Dizzy Gillespie was a genius who turned things around completely! When John Coltrane and I were growing up as teenagers and John was playing alto saxophone, we were playing another kind of sound. Now it may surprise people to know this, but when John Coltrane was young, he sounded just like Johnny Hodges. And I was trying my best to sound like Arnette Cobb who was the tenor player with Lionel Hampton. Then we heard Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie and our lives changed. They were doing something completely new, and then that sound was what we wanted to do. We left the other styles of playing in mid-stream. We had not yet become professionals representing in that previous style, mind you. We were amateurs just trying to figure stuff out, then we heard those two, and we just stopped and went a new direction.
There were others, of course. For me, there was Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, Lucky Thompson, etc. When you are learning, you don't have your own money in the band to draw upon, so you listen to other people, taking loans from them. Hopefully, over time, you have enough information put together to form your style.
TS: Here is another name for you, Lionel Hampton
GS: Absolutely non-academic, but this man had a feeling for everything. He could hear around the corner. When I was playing with his seven-piece group, someone came up to him and said, "Lionel, you play great, but unfortunately, you don't play any of the modern stuff." Lionel turned to the piano player and said, "Play that Coltrane tune, what's it called Giant Steps?" Man, he played the heck out it! Giant Steps on the vibraphone and the fellow who had made the statement was sitting there with his mouth hanging open down to the floor (laughing). Yeah, that man was something else.
TS: Ok, …here's a name, Earl Bostic.
GS: Oooooh, oooh, you named a name there! That man was the greatest saxophone technician I have ever heard, hands down! There was nothing that guy couldn't do. The circular breathing, playing above the range of the horn, slap tonguing, playing in any key, he could do it all. We were playing in Baltimore once, and he pulled out the clarinet and played the heck out of the clarinet. I had never heard or seen him with a clarinet before that day. One day I asked him, “How did you become so good at what you do?” He said, “When I was learning, I approached it like a job. I start at eight in the morning, play until twelve, take lunch, resume and play until five. I did this six days a week for years. I tackled everything there was to be tackled.”
I remember we were playing somewhere and we had to accompany whoever was dancing on the show, and all they had was a trumpet part. So he just took it, transposed it and never missed a beat! This guy could do anything. And his technique on that horn was something. Ahh man, that guy. Coltrane and I were in awe of that technique.
TS: Ok, I would be remiss for not asking about Clifford Brown. And my reason for asking is that your piece "I Remember Clifford" sounds so much more than a ballad to me. It sounds like an expression of heartfelt loss.
BG: We used to have our jam sessions, in Philadelphia, on Saturday afternoons from 4-7 pm. There were quite a few clubs, and there was any number of jazz musicians who would crowd in for these jam sessions. There were so many of us there that sometimes we would only play one tune. So many guys there, playing everything they know, that if they made the mistake of taking a breath at the end of a chorus, another cat would jump in and start playing (laughing). We learned a lot from each other, as I said before, it was a learning process.
Then one day, some stranger walked in with a trumpet under his arm. We all knew each other, but none of us recognized this guy. He pulled the horn out, and he sounded better than any of us. We were like, "Who is this guy?" It was Clifford Brown. He had come 30 miles from Wilmington, DE to join our jam session. He wasn't there every week, but he became a part of the sessions, and we fell in love with him. He was just a teenager. Mind you, he wasn't playing like he ultimately would, when he became THE Clifford Brown, but he was still amazing.
Oh yes, he had something special. He was not puffed up with pride. Sure, he knew what he had, but he was always bragging about someone else. "Did you hear what that guy was playing on the bridge? Oh man, that guy's fantastic!" he would say. It was never about himself, always someone else. So humble and such a selfless soul.
TS: When I was in the Disney Band in 1991, I met Buddy Morrow, Clifford's Bassist. Buddy talked about how Clifford would do everything with a sense of urgency. Was he like this when you knew him?
BG: Absolutely. That man played like his life was on the line. You know how some people go through the motions in a rehearsal, not Clifford. He played every note and every rehearsal like he was playing in front of 10,000 people. He was that serious.
TS: Art Blakey.
BG: Now you've done it, you've hit the name! The greatest experience in my entire career was with Art Blakey. That guy was something else, and he did something to me that nobody else could. He was non-academic, he couldn't read or write music, but he could play the drums, unlike anyone I have ever played with. Freddie Hubbard and I were talking once about his ability to change your playing. When I joined him, I was playing melodic, flowing, and smooth lines. It wasn't working with the Jazz Messengers. Art would play those fills that were two-bar setups that sounded like a roll. This one night, he did four-bars, and it kept getting louder, and when it hit the top of the chorus, he gave me a crash, and another crash and another crash! I am sitting here wondering what he is doing when he yells over at me, “GET UP OUT OF THAT HOLE YOU’RE IN!!”
I had to change my style of playing right then and there! Because what I was doing wasn’t working with the group. I told that story to Freddie Hubbard, and he turned and looked at and said, "You too?"
Yeah boy, when that man was behind you, he was like a steamroller pushing you to move. Awe man, that was my greatest experience in my my life, playing with Art Blakey. You know we would go somewhere to play, and the drummer before us would play on the drums and sound like he was playing garbage cans and pots and pans. Then Art would sit down at the same kit, and it sounded completely different. Man, that guy was simply incredible.
TS: I started as a tenor player, and like most of us, I was told to listen to Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Lester Young, the big three. Buy you mentioned a name that I feel was just as influential but wasn't as widely appreciated in history, Don Byas. Can you talk about his influence?
BG: Man the way he played; his sound, his concepts, he was just so great. Don Carlos Byas from Muskogee, Oklahoma, my man. I remember he gave me a box of reeds and wrote on them, “To my man Bennie.” I kept them for years (laughing).
TS: I remember one of my first interviews was with Frank Foster, and he shared a story about hearing Sonny Stitt and Don Byas at a club. I guess Stitt was going to cut Byas and played up a storm, but Byas played three notes, and the whole club lost it. I have always wanted to know about that attraction to him because I don’t understand his importance of Don Byas.
BG: Probably not, probably not. Young players can get all over the horn, but they don't spend a lot of time to learn about to use the expressive qualities of the saxophone. They don't have the sound. I spent a lot of time on sound, and it's the most boring thing you can do. To sit there and play into the corner of a room. Or to record yourself and listen back, so you know what you sound like to people. That's the unique quality about Don Byas…it wasn't what he played, but it was how he played that made the difference.
TS: Your thoughts on the great Lee Morgan.
BG: Here is a guy that I never heard practice. I assume he did but I never heard it, and we were roommates on the road. What he had was the greatest imagination, and if you are going to be a great improviser, you have to have a great imagination. He had that galore. I remember he had big lips and he was always working at tucking them into the mouthpiece before he played. He said to me once, "You know I think I am the only trumpet player who plays the trumpet with a tuba mouthpiece." (laughing).
But that guy had creativity and imagination, I didn’t know him as a man who practiced, not like Clifford or Freddie Hubbard. Again, I am sure he did, but I never heard it.
TS: Ok, I will throw one more name your way and one that I am sure my readers will insist on, John Coltrane.
BG: John Coltrane plays as if every day on earth was his last day and he had to do as much as he had to do before he passed on. You'll love this, mind you that we were amateurs. Don Byas was my guy, but that night we first heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie was memorable. I remember that night he made a four-bar pickup to A Night in Tunisia. Usually, you would do a two bar pick up. The only Latin tunes we knew at that time were the stock tunes like Lady of Spain. We never heard of this tune, which in those days was known as Interlude.The title was changed later.
Anyhow, we had never heard this and add to it that Parker did a four-bar lead-in, in double time? We were in the balcony and almost fell over the edge we went so nuts. We were like the Beatles groupies. It was incredible. After the show, we went backstage to get autographs. We got everyone except Bird who was walking out the stage door to play at the Downbeat club. So we tracked him down. We were too young to get into the clubs, so we were going to walk with him to his next gig, which was just a couple of blocks away. John asked him, "Could I carry your horn?" So he did. Now John was always very quiet, and when we were together, I would always do the talking. So I was going to talk to Charlie Parker and get to the bottom of how he did that break.
So I asked him what type of horn he played, what mouthpiece, what reeds, you name it, I was going find out the trick. They played from 9pm-2am, and I was going to stay there and listen. I didn't care what my parent thought or how mad they got; I was staying to listen. We could hear what they were playing outside. When they finished, we were exhausted. So there John and I are walking from South Philly to North Philly saying how we were going to do this and do that when we got older, blah, blah, blah.
In those early days, we used to talk almost daily by telephone. But it had been a few weeks, and I hadn't heard from John. Suddenly I get this call from him, and he asks me, "Did you try any of that stuff that Mr. Parker was talking about with the mouthpiece and reeds?" I told him that I had, and then he asked, "Did anything happen?" I told him, "No, not one single thing." And he said, "Me neither!". We both thought that if we got the mouthpiece and the reeds that we would suddenly sound like Charlie Parker (laughing). That didn't help us a bit. We thought all that nonsense would work when neither of us sounded a thing like him. We both laughed about that years later.
TS: So let me ask, was there all the craziness about mouthpieces and equipment that we have today?
BG: Oh, it was all about that then too. What kind of mouthpiece was that guy playing? Oh, what kind of mouthpiece was this guy playing? Every generation thinks there is an easy fix.
TS: Ok, I want to talk about your compositions. Year’s ago, I had the pleasure of playing with Dolly Parton. I asked if she had a favorite composition she had penned or if she loved all of them like her children. Her answer was, "Heck no, I love the ones that made me the most money!" Do you have a favorite composition of yours? Is there one that you hold near and dear?
BG: I get this question all the time. The answer is no. My favorite composition is the one I haven't written yet. If you are creative, are you going to rub it and look at it and think it's special? No. It’s like driving a car and looking out the back window. I've finished that, and now it's time to look ahead at what's next. My favorite composition is one I've yet to write and probably never will.
TS: Have you ever heard one of your compositions recorded by another player and thought, "That's the way it should be played"?
BG: Yes, I Remember Clifford and Art Farmer. Nobody played that piece like Art Farmer, NOBODY. You name them, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, nobody played it better. The ballad is another world, entirely. It surpasses something like Cherokeeat the speed of light as far as importance. Why? Because to play a ballad right, you have to reach into the deepest parts of your emotion. It's a time to reprise; it's a time to be sad, it's a time to reflect. Cherokeeis not like that; Cherokeeis something else. People think you prove how good you are by how fast you play. Nope. You demonstrate how good you are by how slow you play.
When you play at the speed of light, nobody asks, “What was that third note you played on the 3rdbeat." Are you kidding me? Nobody cares about that nonsense. Dizzy Gillespie used to say, "Slow it down enough to be able to each a sandwich between each beat, and you will discover where everybody is." It takes much more thought when you are playing a ballad. To play something meaningful reaches not only the ear but the heart. It makes you more emotional. People tend to say that music is emotional; that's not true. Music can be emotional, but it depends on what we do with it. Music doesn't have a mind of its own; it only obeys us. Whether we are writing or we are playing, it depends on what we do with it.