An Interview with Benny Golson
by Paula Edelstein
One of the most successful talents on the Arkadia Jazz label is without doubt the phenomenal Dr. Benny Golson. The tenor saxophonist, composer, lyricist, arranger, educator and jazz icon, holds the distinction of being the only living jazz legend to have written eight standards for jazz repertoire! “Killer Joe,” “Along Came Betty,” “Whisper Not” “Step Lightly,” “I Remember Clifford,” “Stablemates” “Blues March,” and “Out of the Past” are among his major contributions to the world of jazz standards. The multi-talented legend has performed throughout the world with such noted musicians as Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Earl Bostic and Art Blakey. His CD on Arkadia Jazz, THAT’S FUNKY! topped the jazz charts in 2000 and with the release of ONE DAY, FOREVER, his many fans around the world will now have one more chance to experience the greatness of Golson.
With over 300 compositions to his credit, two symphonies, countless scores to feature films and television series, the artistic depth and breadth of Dr. Benny Golson is immeasurable. He has received the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, the American Jazz Master Awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Grammy nominations and two honorary doctorates from the prestigious Berklee School of Music in Boston. To commemorate his 50-year career, Dr. Golson will be honored on March 1st and 3rd at the Lincoln Center in New York City with a jazz extravaganza of his compositions. Entitled THE MAGIC OF BENNY GOLSON, these concerts will serve as a retrospective of Benny’s brilliant career as a composer and jazz performer. He has written a commissioned work for the occasion and will perform in a small format and with a jazz orchestra.
During a recent appearance at The Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles, CA, I met with Dr. Golson to discuss a few subjects that interest his fans around the world. Ladies and Gentlemen, the great Dr. Benny Golson!
JazzUSA: When envisioning the music for your CDs, what are the decisive factors that influence your selections? That is do musicians send you demos or do you meet with producers to decide which songs make the cut?
Benny: Sometimes I hear things that are sent to me by other people. Sometimes they are musicians and sometimes they are not. But mainly I decide on the things that appeal to me and obviously some of those things are my own. The producer might have something in mind also and of course my mind is always working, trying to come up with melodies that I like first of all, and with the hope that others like it too.
JazzUSA: How would you describe yourself as a composer of jazz standards?
Benny: Well, I like melodies. That’s one thing that appeals to me. Ditties are okay. Thelonius Monk wrote many fine ditties. But I like melodies in the vein of Chopin and Brahms. I’m not writing those kinds of things, but strong melodic content…songs that one can remember and hum or whistle at some other time.
JazzUSA: Whom have you most enjoyed working with throughout your career?
Benny: There have been many but strangely enough, the first two that I think of are singers! One is Diana Ross who is a consummate professional and the other is Peggy Lee. Diana Ross is remarkable. She is the same woman today that I met 30 years ago.
JazzUSA: Do you have any plans for a new CD?
Benny: There’s one in the works as we speak. It’s titled, ONE DAY, FOREVER. We started on it about 3 years ago! The reason it has taken so long is that we got the material from “live” concerts that I did at various places throughout Europe. But what we’ve added is a couple of songs that I composed and happened to write the lyrics to also, that Shirley Horn agreed to record. Also, there is a classical piano piece that I wrote about a year ago that Lara Downes, a classical artist, recorded. That’s also going to be on the new CD. What gives us license to do that is this CD will be a reflective kind of thing …looking back over 50 years of my career. Besides writing jazz standards, I’ve written classical compositions. I’ve written a symphony, (“The Breath of Life”) that we premiered at Lincoln Center back in 1994. I’ve done a violin piece with Itzhak Perlman and currently I’m working on my third symphony. No jazz, just a straight classical approach that I hope to finish in 2001.
JazzUSA: Fantastic! We are surely looking forward to ONE DAY, FOREVER, and of course the new symphony Dr. Golson. As you know, contemporary gospel music has stepped out of the shadows and onto the global jazz scene. What are your thoughts on this new gospel jazz popularity since you’ve survived so many musical trends that often make or break a jazz musician’s career?
Benny: You know, the musical tastes of people go through phases. Just like television; dramas are popular sometimes, mysteries, love triangles, etc. Music is no different. Right now, hip hop is very popular and gospel music is popular. Sometimes gospel is so close to some of the rhythm and blues things that the only thing that is different are the words! And although I don’t pursue that style, I know what it is because I grew up in the Baptist church where we’d have the visiting quartets and groups like that. However, I like some of the things that I hear coming from that element.
JazzUSA: You have stayed in vogue all over the world while constantly updating your music for over 50 years! Wow! Dr. Golson, how do you control what some artists call “creative restlessness” and avoid negative controversy with your music?
Benny: Creative restlessness? Well if you can fulfill that creative urge that you have and it turns out to be consequential – which means that there are some things that you aren’t going to use. You don’t use everything that you’ve ever thought of in the world. Some things you reject, even though they’re your own. So, that in itself gives you a certain control over what you do. And as far as what you play, it’s a matter of choice. You either play what you like or don’t play what you don’t like.
JazzUSA: Well, “funk” has maintained a strong influence on your jazz style. Is there another style that you would play if you had to do it all over again?
Benny: Actually I do play other styles. Funk is a smaller part of it…believe it or not! I’m sort of a straight-ahead jazzman. I’m an old bebopper I guess! I don’t play the hip hop, and I don’t play rhythm & blues even though I used to early in my career before I became a straight-out jazz saxophonist. But I prefer to play the jazz repertoire.
JazzUSA: What types of moments lead you to write a romantic ballad? A visit to a romantic city, a tune from a gondolier, etc…that type of inspiration so to speak.
Benny: There are many things. It can be a beautiful sunset; it can be a beautiful scene with beautiful trees and mountains and a lake or things like that! But I think that 50% of what I write is inspired by just looking at, being with, and loving my wife, Bobbi.
JazzUSA: That’s great. Absolutely fantastic! The softer side of your music is often fused with the funky edge on many of your songs. Is there one song that you feel exemplifies a “funky love” ballad? (Smile)
Benny: Yes, there is one! There’s one and no one has heard it yet because I think I wrote it about a year and a half or two ago, called “I Love You.” There is an old standard already out called “I Love You,” (you can’t copyright titles) and it’s this “funky” kind of love ballad that you’re talking about with my lyrics which tells a story. It’s not just Moon in June or anything like that. It’s something that I plan to give to Luther Vandross and Al Jarreau and other vocalists and you’ll hear my one ‘funky’ love ballad! (Smile)
JazzUSA: Well thank you. We’re looking forward to it! As with your music, you have exercised great care in your selection of musicians that accompany you. Which producer would you say reflects the “Golson Sound” more?
Benny: Well, actually none of them…per se reflect the Golson sound. The Golson sound emanates from Golson…and that’s the way it should be. But there is a certain direction that they give in the studio and I feel that is necessary when I’m recording. When they’re on the other side of the window there in the recording booth, sometimes they can hear things that I can’t since I’m so close to it. They give suggestions here and there and many times they are right. And that makes for a successful marriage.
JazzUSA: What would you describe as the brightest ray of light in your musical career?
Benny: I’d have to say that would be Art Blakey. Art Blakey was a teacher. He was didactic. He was a teacher and didn’t know that he was a teacher. Just by the things that he said, the things that he did, and the way that he played the drums. Just by being with him for just about a year was like being enrolled in a college of higher education. He taught us all things because he had vast experience. He had such a penchant for swinging. He didn’t know how not to swing and that really left a mark on me. So much so, that when I left him, I found I had great difficulty in playing with other drummers for a while.
JazzUSA: I would imagine so. Your musical journeys have crossed the Atlantic to Europe where an alliance of European jazz masters have entrenched you as an icon of jazz. How do European audiences differ from American audiences in their appreciation of your style?
Benny: There seems to be more of an appreciation of American artists and that is easy to explain… the audiences there seem to have a greater appreciation. I think the Americans seem to be more blasé about it because it’s always been here in America.
JazzUSA: These trans-Atlantic alliances are well established. Have you given any thought to doing an electronica version of some of your standards in order to give a new generation a dose of your great sax melodies?
Benny: Actually, I used a synthesizer a few times…not many times. But I didn’t use it electronically. I used it as a synthesizer to synthesize the sound of other instruments. I remember on one session I had the synthesizer sounding like three trombones. Another time, it was like extra trumpets in a trumpet section. It was cheaper too! (Smile) But yes, I thought about electronic music but soon after, I forgot about it! (Smiles)
JazzUSA: Your walk of fame has taken you all over the world. By last count, how many performances have you done?
Benny: Paula, no has ever asked me that question. But I would venture to say, thousands! It goes back 50 years or so!
JazzUSA: WOW! What an honor the world has been privy to. Congratulations Dr. Golson. We certainly appreciate this great interview and wish you continued success in all of your endeavors. The world is a better place because of you and the great musical visions you’ve shared throughout the world.
Benny: Thank you.
For more great listening, check out these great CDs by Benny Golson: “That’s Funky” “Tenor Legacy” and “Up Jumped Benny” and stay in touch with the great Benny Golson at http://www.bennygolson.com.