A celebrated standard-bearer: Benny Golson

Boston Globe, April 11, 2008

As the passage of time inexorably thins the ranks of living jazz masters who were present at the birth of bebop, so too risk fading the memories of that key moment in the shaping of what would eventually become known as “America’s classical music.” In the 1940s and early 1950s, jazz was still outsider art, its evolution the fruit of struggles that jazz education programs today both celebrate and, in a way, obscure.

It falls to those who soldier on, like 79-year-old tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, who arrives at Harvard this week for the college’s spring jazz residency, to remind us of the full picture. And Golson, whose Cambridge appearances will include a retrospective discussion of his career on Thursday and a Sanders Theatre tribute concert with pianist Mulgrew Miller on April 19, is a perfect ambassador for his generation, not only for the memories, but also for his own towering contribution to the genre.

A celebrated composer as well as instrumentalist, Golson is the author of some of jazz’s most-recognized standards, including the moody eulogy “I Remember Clifford,” honoring trumpeter Clifford Brown, and the brilliant and catchy “Blues March,” which he originally contributed to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and which is liable to set nodding in recognition even people who worry they know nothing about jazz.

The durability of his work is a direct testament to Golson’s deep melodicism, a sense of the art of the song and a careful delivery that are as evident on a recent album, “Terminal 1” (2004), as they are on tracks recorded half a century ago.

Golson recently moved from New York to Los Angeles, where he first went to try his hand composing for Hollywood and where he has now had a home for 35 years. On the phone from there, he recalls coming of age as a performer in 1940s Philadelphia, surrounded by the likes of John Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones, and Percy Heath. It was a time when nothing came easy and musicians felt they had to be entertainers to succeed.

“We did things that we thought people were going to like,” Golson says. “I sang songs. I’d get up on the bar, walk along the bar, stepping on drinks. John Coltrane did it.

“We all did it.”

But eventually jazz developed its canon and schools of thought, and its intellectual heft. Entertainers, Golson says, became artists. “As artists, we do things we’re satisfied with, that come from the deepest grotto of our heart’s core. And we hope that the audience likes it.”

Audience dislike has rarely if ever been a problem for Golson. On one level, his music is supremely accessible: In the tradition of precursors like Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins, his tenor approach is eminently melodic, deliberate, and soft. He does not traffic in frenetic sheets of sound or dizzying, querying honks.

But don’t mistake ease of listening for lack of sophistication. A veteran of some of the edgiest, most seminal acts of his era, Golson is a craftsman of the old school acclaimed as one of the music’s great writers.

“For many years I’ve been a musical bigamist,” he says. “I love playing, and I love writing. So I have two wives. Metaphorically speaking, of course.”

For several decades, Golson’s love of writing – and his melodic inclinations – made him a well-regarded composer for film and television in Hollywood, where his credits include music for “M*A*S*H,” “Mission: Impossible,” and “The Partridge Family,” as well as numerous commercials.

That career choice earned him a living and helped to form friendships with the likes of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, two avowed jazz lovers with whom he finally had a chance to collaborate when he took a small part in the 2004 film “The Terminal.”

In the early days, though, Golson says Hollywood wasn’t easy to adjust to. His achievements in jazz notwithstanding, he was a newbie to the film world.

“I came out there the first two years and I thought, `So this is how it ends,”’ he says. “My nest egg fell like an elevator out of control. In the motion-picture industry, people said, `Who is he, and what has he done?’ And, of course, I had done nothing. It was like a closed society. You had to prove yourself.”

Among the adjustments required to write for film, Golson says, was “writing for the clock” – according the composition to the precise timing of events on film. Though seemingly anathema to the improvisational freedom of jazz, this constraint and others, Golson says, also gave him new ideas for jazz writing.

In the past few years Golson has once again become a more frequent presence on the jazz circuit and hasn’t lost any of his touch, neither in his playing nor in his congeniality and warm sense of humor.

He accepts the mantle of elder statesman and representative of peers who have now passed on.

“The first feeling I get is one of appreciation,” he says. “If you do it and people appreciate it enough to cite you, it’s a sign that somewhere along the way you did something of consequence. You did something that made sense.”