Benny Golson: Self-Sufficient Lyricism

There’s a memorable scene in the documentary A Great Day in Harlem  between Benny Golson and Horace Silver.  Golson tells Silver about the many nights in which a good tune has come to him in a dream, but rather than get up and jot it down, he’s gone back to sleep confident he’ll remember it in the morning.  Once he wakes up, of course, it’s gone without a trace.  But having finally learned his lesson, he wakes up one night with a magnum opus in mind, goes to his studio and writes it down, then goes back to bed.  Benny continues, “When I got up…and went back down and started playing it, I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute. This sounds familiar.’ You know what it was?  It was the verse to ‘Stardust’!”  Watch the scene here at 8:30.

Tomorrow is Benny Golson’s 85rd birthday.  For over 60 years, the Philadelphia native has been fully awake for the dozens of tunes that have come to him morning, noon, and night.  Golson standards include “Stablemates,” “Blues March,” “Killer Joe,” “Are You Real,” “Five Spot After Dark,” and “Whisper Not.”  His best-known composition, “I Remember Clifford,” is one of the most performed jazz originals with over 300 recorded versions.  Here’s an appreciation of it at Jazz Standards.com.

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Golson was a personal friend and a colleague of Brownie’s in Tadd Dameron’s orchestra in 1953.  Brown and Max Roach commissioned Golson’s “Step Lightly,” which they recorded in February 1956 with Sonny Rollins; a year earlier, Miles Davis made the inaugural recording of “Stablemates.”  These helped establish Golson as a composer.  Then four months after Brown & Roach recorded “Step Lightly,” Brownie was killed in a car crash on the Pennsylvania Turnpike at age 25.  Here you’ll find Golson’s vivid recollection of hearing the news of the trumpeter’s death when he was backstage at the Apollo Theater working with Dizzy Gillespie.

Golson wrote about “I Remember Clifford” for the premier recording of the piece in 1957 by the 18-year-old trumpeter Lee Morgan.  “I worked with this melody for three weeks, trying to get a melody that would be reminiscent of [Clifford] and the way he played…I was very moody while composing this song because with each note I wrote, I realized that it was to someone who had gone—my friend forever.”

Golson describes himself as a “musical bigamist” who’s equally loyal to his skills as a writer and player.   But  his early success as a composer led to a restlessness to establish himself more fully as a tenor saxophonist, which he developed through the influence of Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, and Lucky Thompson.  By the mid-50’s, he’d logged several years playing journeyman tenor with the swing and jump blues bands of Bullmoose Jackson, Lionel Hampton, and Earl Bostic, and as he told Mel Martin in this extensive interview, he was eager for work playing modern jazz.  A recommendation from Quincy Jones landed him the job with Dizzy’s big band in 1956, and two years later he joined Art Blakey in one of the most renowned editions of the Jazz Messengers, the band with Lee Morgan, Jymie Merritt, and Bobby Timmons, a jazz model of Philly Soul.  The group’s landmark recording Moanin’‘ was the only Messengers date featuring Golson, but his robust tenor and original tunes, including “Along Came Betty,” “Are You Real,” and “Blues March,” make it one of the essential albums from Blakey’s voluminous discography.

The Messengers served as a model for The Jazztet, the sextet Golson established with Art Farmer in 1959.  Many consider Farmer’s 1960 performance of “I Remember Clifford” to be definitive, while his lyrical style as a trumpeter was a perfect complement to Golson’s beautifully-crafted tunes and arrangements.  Not surprisingly, Golson’s songs have attracted lyricists, including Jon Hendricks who wrote words for “I Remember Clifford.”  Dinah Washington made the first recording with them in 1958, and Sarah Vaughan and Helen Merrill, who along with Dinah had recorded with Brownie, sang the tune later in their careers.  But instrumental versions far outnumber vocal, and that’s what Benny prefers.

In 2009, Golson told John McDonough for a DownBeat cover story that he generally disapproves of people writing lyrics to jazz compositions.  “I usually hate those attempts to take a jazz tune and put a lyric to it.  Worse is putting words to improvisations.  It’s not my cup of tea.”  Nor is it mine, as I often find lyrics superimposed on jazz originals trite with a trivializing impact on the overall integrity of the composition.  Moreover, they’re hard to shake once they’re in your head.  There are exceptions, of course, (for this writer, Eddie Jefferson’s “Moody’s Mood for Love” and “Parker’s Mood;” Hendricks’s”In Walked Bud” ) and as Golson acknowledges, many are well-intentioned: “I guess they think they’re doing you an honor when they put words to your songs and you should be happy about it.  But I have to say, ‘I’m sorry’.”

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