Benny Golson’s SNJO gigs aren’t just a trip down Memory Lane

by Jim Gilchrist

THE past, as we all know, is a foreign country, and Benny Golson doesn’t much care to dwell there too long.

The hugely influential veteran jazz musician will, however, delve into his back catalogue – if on his own terms – next weekend when, at the age of 86, he joins the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra for a three night tour.

Rooted in the glory days of 20th century jazz, when he played with such luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Roland Kirk, Lionel Hampton and notably, Art Blakey, to whose seminal Moanin’ album he made a major contribution, the New York-based tenor saxophonist and composer is behind such enduring standards as Killer Joe, Whisper Not, Blues March and Along Came Betty, as well as his beautiful elegy for trumpeter Clifford Brown, I Remember Clifford.

He and the celebrated Scottish big band will be reprising all of these and many more, but ask him whether he has any particular favourites among his compositions, he replies affably that he tries not to. “If I have a favourite I slow down. “I don’t ever want to be too satisfied,” he continues. “It’s like driving a car and looking out the back window. I want to look ahead.”

For this engagingly laid back octogenarian, looking forward is everything. “There are always new frontiers – that’s what makes jazz such an adventure.”

Although he’ll be going through his back catalogue, he’s looking forward to rehearsing with the SNJO – enough of an unknown quantity to him to make life interesting. And he doesn’t mind recounting how his great jazz adventure began, when he was growing up in Philadelphia, a city which became something of a crucible for bebop and other modern jazz styles. Starting on the piano, he became interested in the saxophone when he was 14 and before long was playing in local bands with other young enthusiasts, not least one John Coltrane. Golson was still at school at that stage: “I was 16 and [Coltrane] was 18, but we spent a great deal of time learning together.”

Ask who were his influences and he laughs: “I had no knowledge of anything, so I just copied guitar solos, piano solos, trumpet solos… just trying to work out what it was all about.

“We used to buy those old 78rpm records and we’d sit in my living room and listen to them. When you got that record it was black and shiny and when we finished with it, it was dull and grey – ‘Put it back, what did he play there? Put it back!’ The neighbours wanted to kill me.”

Some years later, the pianist Tadd Dameron would become an important influence. “I admire him so much I couldn’t believe we were playing in the same group. I picked that man’s brains so much it’s a wonder he didn’t need brain surgery. Those were exciting times.”

Increasingly so as during the Fifties and Sixties the saxophonist became co-leader with trumpeter Art Farmer of the influential Jazztet, as well as playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Roland Kirk, Blakey and many others. He went on to become a highly productive composer of music for film, television and advertising, and even made a cameo appearance in the Tom Hanks movie Terminal, in which Hanks’s character spends nine months living in an airport terminal trying to get Golson’s autograph.

He is also a part of jazz history through a rather different walk on part. One August day in 1958, when photographer Art Kane took a now celebrated photograph entitled A Great Day in Harlem, for which he assembled 58 leading jazz musicians of the day, Golson among them, outside 17 East 126th Street, New York. It’s widely believed that only two of its subjects are left – Golson and Sonny Rollins, although Golson reckons there are a couple more. His own memoir of those heady days, Whisper Not, is due to be published next spring.

In the meantime, he continues to look ahead, performing and composing with impressive vigour. “When I compose tunes, I’m completely free,” he says, “but even then, you have no idea when you’re writing something whether it’s going to be a success. When I wrote Killer Joe, my wife told me it was too dull and monotonous. As I tell my audiences, after two or three fur coats she changed her mind.”

Benny Golson and the SNJO play Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 18 September; Aberdeen Music Hall, 19 Sept; the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, 20 Sept. See

by Jim Gilchrist:  for The Scotsman, Sat 13th September 2015

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