December 1, 2004
Golson remains eager to learn
7:30 p.m. Friday.
Young Benny Golson rubbed shoulders with some jazz immortals one day in 1958, when photographer Art Kane took a group portrait of more than 50 musicians on the steps of a Harlem brownstone.
More than four decades later, the saxophonist-composer's inclusion in that enduring shot (published in a special jazz issue of Esquire magazine that's now a collector's item) was a plot element in the recent Tom Hanks movie "The Terminal."
As a spinoff of that movie, Golson, 75, made a well-received CD, capping a career that he still sees in terms that would do credit to an artist a half-century younger. "We move on to new things all the time -- it's insatiable," he said by phone from his New York apartment last week. "I don't feel I've tapped out. I think the way I did 50 years ago: I wake up and say to myself, 'I get another shot at it today.' "
Born in Philadelphia, Golson grew up in the crucible of its jazz scene, which was every bit as vibrant as Indianapolis' in the same period -- thanks to a tendency to attract small-town musicians from the South like Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. In addition, the City of Brotherly Love had a dynamic all-black musicians' union local that helped keep jazz musicians busy and respected.
A different 'conservatory'
As well as getting a professional leg up, Golson and his contemporaries were part of an informal academy that has disappeared just about everywhere. In its place is a greater role for jazz in schools, a far cry from the time the saxophonist was threatened with expulsion from Howard University for practicing jazz on campus. (Many years later, Golson was invited back to receive an honorary doctorate.)
"The music's in good hands," said Golson, reporting from the field, as it were, having just returned from guest-starring with the North Texas State University band in Denison. "They're much sharper than when I came along."
But the old system had its advantages: "We used to have lots of jam sessions, with lots of inspiring players and a wealth of knowledge. It was iron sharpening iron," Golson recalled. "We tapped into each other -- there was nothing academic about jazz in those days. I used to sit with John Coltrane in our living room and play 78s till they got gray. That was our conservatory."
Golson forged his personal high standards in that background. Shortly after the Esquire photograph, he got together with trumpeter Art Farmer, his old Lionel Hampton bandmate, to form the Jazztet, an energetic small group that found new ways to balance solos and ensemble writing. Golson's works for this group and for Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers made him one of the most admired jazz composers.
But he remembers that dissatisfaction with his tenor playing prompted him to leave the jazz scene for about nine years starting in 1966. He went to Southern California and "got ensconced in the writing" of TV and movie music, contributing to "M*A*S*H," "The Partridge Family," "Mission: Impossible" and "It Takes a Thief."
Change did him good
When he came back to playing, he was playing differently, Golson said, in a style that was more agreeable to him. And he's involved himself in jazz education while maintaining an active performing schedule ever since. He will make his second visit in recent years to the University of Indianapolis on Friday, playing with a rhythm section of local musicians.
He hinted at what keeps it fresh: "We go back to the same forest when we play the same tunes, but we don't go to the same trees. There's always going to be a plethora of trees -- there's no end to it, and the horizon is always ahead."
Call Star reporter Jay Harveyat (317) 444-6402.
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