Sunday, January 8, 2017

Nat Hentoff On Benny Golson

Interesting is easy; beautiful is difficult
Nat Hentoff's liner notes for 
Benny Golson's New York Scene (1957)

With very few exceptions, the first recognition a superior jazz musician receives is from other players. Some time later, the critics begin to comprehend, and later still the public may. There has been talk about Benny Golson as a player and writer among musicians, for example, for several years. The late Clifford Brown, for one, in a conversation in early 1954, emphasized Golson’s capacities and predicted the eventual public realization of his value.

And in September 1957, in one of the few examples of a musician going even farther and writing a letter-to-the-editor about an under-appreciated talent, Ernie Wilkins wrote to Down Beat after a review of the then Dizzy Gillespie band had failed to mention Golson: "Why is it that a great talent like Benny Golson is recognized right away, and talked about by his fellow musicians, and that it takes so doggone long for the music critics to finally dig him and write about him? Not only has he been doing most of the writing (and great writing) for the band lately, but he is also a great soloist in his own right. He is from the Hawkins school, through Don Byas and Lucky Thompson, but he has a voice and originality of his own - a big, beautiful tenor saxophone sound, and he swings. He is also the freshest writer, along with George Russell who has come upon the scene in the last couple of years.”

The object of this and less public encomiums from musicians was born January 25, 1929, in Philadelphia. When he was nine, he asked for piano lessons and continued studying until he was fifteen. At fourteen, he started on tenor saxophone and for four years studied with the only saxophone teacher he has ever had, Raymond Zeigler, an alumnus of one of Charlie Barnet’s many expeditionary forces. For the last three of those years, Benny also studied clarinet with Zeigler.

Three months after he received the tenor, Benny began to play weekend jobs. Among the other musicians in the area as Golson grew up were his close friends, John Coltrane (then playing alto), Percy and Jimmy Heath, Ray Bryant, Red Garland, and Philly Joe Jones.

After I found out what was really happening," recalls Golson, "Don Byas became my first major influence. I liked his smooth lines, his melodic conception, and his big sound.” Lucky Thompson became a corollary idol. In 1947, Benny entered Howard University to major in music education. He remained for almost three years, studied clarinet, piano and ear-training, but learned compositions by himself.

During his school years, he continued gaining professional experience, playing outside nearly every night and climbing over the wall into the dormitory - with tenor somehow in hand- after each gig. After Howard, Benny "became entangled in rhythm and blues, much to my regret, a situation that held me back quite a long time.” He had worked club dates and shows around Philadelphia for a year and a half, but then joined Bull Moose Jackson for a year and nine months.

The first year was stimulating for Golson because Philly Joe Jones and Tadd Dameron were in the band and Dameron taught him a good deal about writing. After he left Jackson, Benny worked around Philadelphia again for some five months, and in June 1953, joined a group Dameron was heading for the summer in Atlantic City.

From October to February 1954, Golson went out with a road show as part of Jimmy Tyler's band and then for a time he was with Johnny Hodges’ small combo - which also had Coltrane and Richie Powell - on a tour. After Hodges, it was a show band again until Benny joined Earl Bostic in August 1954. He remained until June 1956, and the band proved, to some extent, a writing laboratory for him. Bostic relied on rhythm and blues for his main material, but gave Benny a chance to write a number of modern arrangements.

Four days after leaving Bostic, Benny replaced Ernie Wilkins on the latter’s recommendation in Dizzy Gillespie's big band. He remained with the band until it dissolved in January 1958. Since then, he has been free lancing and also been working frequently with Art Blakey. Benny's writing and playing with the Gillespie band quickly brought him to the attention of a widening number of musicians. Miles Davis had already recorded Benny's Stablemates in 1955 and other Golson originals began to be included in the repertoire and on the recording dates of several other jazzmen. Whisper Not and I Remember Clifford were the first two after Stablemates to become jazz standards.

Something in B Flat notes Golson, "is a type of melody that an instrumentalist might devise while ad-libbing. In other words, the written line is almost like an improvised solo. Throughout the theme, if you listen closely, you’ll hear the two horns play a little, funky figure of the kind usually played by a pianist, a rather old-time pianist.” Whisper Not is an example in its title of reverse connotation common in jazz argot. Just as "terrible" often means "excellent," so this title really means that the song is indeed a gentle one. Golson describes it as one of the few melodies in his experience that came quickly. "I was in tune with everything the day I wrote it, and it was done in half an hour. It came so quickly, I could hardly get the melody down." In this version, the introduction, set off by the cymbal, is meant to create a mildly dissonant admonition ("hush, listen"), resolving into the subdued melody.

Step Lightly was written several years ago in answer to a request by Max Roach and the late Clifford Brown for their repertoire. "It's meant to sound," Benny begins, "almost as if someone were walking very quietly. On the melody, the meter alternates from 2,/4 to 4/4, but the solos are all in four. It's a thirty-eight bar structure: twenty bars before the eight bar bridge and ten after. That's how it happened to work out; it felt perfectly normal. If it hadn't, I wouldn't have used that form. The two extra bars come directly in the middle of each ten - I call it an 'introspective tag.’ It's almost like a breathing spot. On the out chorus, I tried to simulate the kind of melody you can hear in a ‘sanctified’ church. When I pass by those Churches, I usually have to stop; they have so much rhythm inside. The out chorus is in 2/4 with a few breaks."

Benny's Just By Myself received its title because Benny thought the theme sounded lonesome. It's a thirty-six bar structure; each half chorus is eighteen bars. Instead of having a two bar tag at the end of each sixteen bars, Benny has the tag come at the beginning of each sixteen. He calls this a reversed tag,’ and first used the device in Stablemates. Wilkins’ arrangement, notes Benny, "was quite different from the other nine-piece arrangements. It was very loose with plenty of room for the soloists, yet was tight enough to be effective as an arrangement.”

Blue: It was Benny's attempt to get "a typical blues flavor." On the third chorus, the third 12 bars, Golson moves into a different structure that's not strictly a blues, and the harmonic progressions are woven around the long, sustained melody. Golson would like to make clear to musicians that he used "a classical inversion of a B flat 7th with the third in the bass on the third and fourth beats of the second bar of the theme. It wasn't a mistake; it was for a different sound."

You’re Mine You indicates how uncommonly sensitive and personal a player of ballads Golson is. "I've idolized through the years men like Hawkins, Webster, Byas, Thompson, Chu Berry, and Herschel Evans, men who could play ballads, and they never left me even when I accepted the other, more ‘modern’ influences. As for the tune, I heard Sarah Vaughan's recording of it, and it struck me then as being very unusual in that the melody is so relaxed and it's also so normal. I mean every note falls so naturally that I felt, ‘Yes, that's the note I would have picked if I'd written it'."

Gigi Gryce's Capri was originally named for his wife, Eleanor, and has been recorded by J. J. Johnson. It's a thirty-six bar composition that begins by centering around a key center of B flat major and ends in G minor, the relative minor to B flat major. In the introduction, the meter alternates from 4/4 to 2/4 with one bar connections of drum flourishes. The main theme is carried by French horn, alto and trumpet while the trombone, tenor and baritone play an independent contrapuntal line. There is no piano in the theme section so that there can be a distinctive contrast between the two lines.

About Benny as player and composer, there are two quotations from another context that I feel apt here. One is Gustav Mahler's: "Interesting is easy; beautiful is difficult." The other is Aaron Copland's comment in The New York Time: while describing his Piano Fantasy: ‘The spontaneous,’ says Paul Valéry, ‘is the fruit of conquest.’ It implies a creator who can ‘keep the unity of a work's ensemble while realizing the separate parts and without losing its spirit or nature on the way'." That's as accurate a description of the way Benny creates as is likely in words. And Benny works hard so that his spontaneity will be utilized to its optimum effect when he's ready to let it loose. He agrees with novelist H. L. Humes that any creator must first master his craft and learn self-discipline, because "the fear of losing spontaneity is a sure way of destroying spontaneity and leads to posturing."

May 27, I958

Republished on this blog by the kind permission of Mr. Nat Hentoff.

The album BENNY GOLSON'S NEW YORK SCENE can be heard or purchased on Spotify, Amazon, Amazon UK or iTunes.


  1. Thanks for the post! I've seen Mr. Golson this month at Madrid, Spain, and is incredible to be beside a great musician of the golden age of jazz in 2012!

    P.S.: I like your blog! Thanks again...

    1. Thanks for your nice remark about this blog, and I'm glad that Mr. Golson still travels around the world and some lucky people can see this living history of jazz in person.