Benny Golson - he remembers Clifford


Benny Golson is living proof that dreams can come true. The saxophonist and composer whose music the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra celebrates in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Glasgow this weekend didn’t actually dare to dream that he would one day stand in front of the band he saw, the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, when his mother took him to his first concert, aged fourteen.


He didn’t imagine, either, that he would work in the same band as the composer whose approach he studied hardest, pianist Tadd Dameron. But just as, years after seeing Arnette Cobb playing a saxophone solo with the Hampton band, Golson found himself in Cobb’s shoes, so he also got to play with Dameron on the road to becoming a jazz luminary himself.


“Things just happen,” says the now eighty-six year old Golson down the line from New York. “These were like dreams come true but sometimes you find yourself in the right place at the right time and someone hires you. Then someone else gets to hear about you and then another person and another, and on it goes.”


Being in the right place at the right time took Golson onto the bandstand and into the recording studios with an illustrious and varied cast of personalities. He lists a few – Sammy Davis Jnr, Dinah Washington, Peggy Lee, Dusty Springfield, Mama Cass Elliot, Connie Francis – but there are many, many more across the musical spectrum. In his about to be published autobiography, he says, he mentions all of them in passing but some merit discussing at length, including his friend and fellow Philadelphian, John Coltrane.


Golson and Coltrane met as teenagers. Golson hadn’t long given up his ambition to become a concert pianist, after seeing Arnette Cobb and taking up the saxophone, and in the summer he used to practise at home for hours with the windows open.


“The neighbours wanted to kill me,” he says. “Then John joined me and they wanted to kill two people. We were amateurs at the time but we got better because we put in a lot of practice. We’d play all day with our two saxophones and our 78rpm records. That was our school.”


On leaving high school Golson went to Howard University, where he became, he says, a nuisance.


“I wanted to question everything. They didn’t want me to play saxophone, so I had to play clarinet, and they threatened to expel me if they caught me playing jazz,” he says. “The professors hated to see me coming down the corridor. Things change, though, and years later they offered me a teaching position. Then they introduced the Benny Golson Scholarship and I said, Really? Named after me, the pill?”


After graduating from Howard, Golson joined Bull Moose Jackson’s band, where he met Tadd Dameron, and word began to get around about his saxophone talent. He worked with Lionel Hampton (eventually he told Arnette Cobb that it was Cobb’s fault that he pursued saxophone and brought tears to the older man’s eyes) and toured with Dizzy Gillespie before joining Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, where his tenor playing on Bobby Timmons’ gospel-flavoured classic Moanin’ created a lasting impression.


Golson’s compositions were beginning to make an impact by this time and the Messengers took Along Came Betty, Blues March, Killer Joe (later a hit for Quincy Jones), and Stablemates into the standard jazz repertoire. The tune that means most to Golson, however, is I Remember Clifford, written for his friend, trumpeter Clifford Brown, who died in a car accident aged twenty-five in 1956.


“Every tune you write is an adventure and I remember writing all my tunes, although at one point I was writing two or three a day and many of them didn’t mean all that much to me,” he says. “With I Remember Clifford, though, I wanted every interval, every note to be a reflection of that talented young man who was taken far too soon. It’s the tune that took me longest to write, about two weeks. It was special and the funny thing is, nobody called him Clifford at the time – everybody called him Brownie.”


Over the past fifty years Golson has travelled the world and been pleased to discover that his compositions are known by musicians in every corner he has visited. Not bad, he says, for someone who is completely self-taught as a composer but went on to score TV series including M*A*S*H, Mission Impossible, and Ironside when he moved to California in the 1960s. In California his next door neighbour turned out to be Davy Jones, of the Monkees, and a whole new set of adventures and commissions in the pop world began.


“You never know what’s in store for you,” he says. “But the thing that inspired me to get into this business, being a saxophonist playing in front of a big band, the pleasure that brings has never left me.”


From The Herald, September 18, 2015.


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