A Conversation with Benny Golson, an NEA Jazz Master

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Benny Golson photo portrait

Benny Golson.  Photos by Tom Pich

Saxophonist, composer, and educator Benny Golson was born in Philadelphia in the early 20th century. He picked up the saxophone at age 14, after five years of studying piano. Golson has played with some of the 20th century’s most notable jazz artists including Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. In 1959, he formed the Jazztet with Art Farmer. Golson also has composed widely for television and film as well as for symphony orchestras. Golson’s many honors include several honorary doctorates, a 1994 Guggenheim Fellowship, and a 1999 Grammy nomination.

In 1996, the newly honored NEA Jazz Master spoke with NEA Public Affairs Specialist Karen R. Nelson about his contributions to the field and his hopes for the future of jazz.

NEA: As a long-time jazz musician, composer, and an educator, what do you think you were able to bring to different people you have worked with and to the field?

BENNY GOLSON: Like so many others in a position of responsibility and expertise, I want to help take jazz forward in a direction it’s been traveling for years. Those of us who are creatively and conceptually concerned want to give jazz a forward motion. We give it more of a thrust as we continue to process our ideas through the machinery of our imaginations. The only limitations we now have are those we inflict upon ourselves.

Things have changed. When I was a student at Howard University in Washington, DC, I went with sax in hand and they told me to put the sax away. They said we only deal with clarinet here—only classical music. There were no jazz programs; it was strictly European. This was in 1947.

But I was a rebel and stuck with it. I was the guy who got in everybody’s hair; the guy who was always asking questions. Just recentlyit was strangethey asked me back to Howard to honor me, this former rebel. They instituted a Benny Golson award. I couldn’t believe it. To me, this is just one indication that jazz has moved ahead and continues to move forward. Students are benefiting from the many things jazz can teach and they have become better informed. It’s not unusual now to hear young people playing tremendous jazz. Wynton Marsalis and Joshua Redman are just a few who started early and now have come into their own. There are many others stepping up to do the same. I recently heard a 15-year-old trumpet player who blew me away.

This level of playing and this type of phenomenon wouldn’t have been possible in my time. For one thing, we didn’t have the programs. Maybe more importantly, we didn’t have the right attitude of people in high places. In many ways, I’m different from the people who were around when I was starting to play. They used to ask me, "What is that stuff you’re trying to play?" Now, when I’m working with students, I say "I love the stuff you’re playing." I want to lay it bare before them. Anything they want to know, I’ll tell them. What we do is communal jazz.

We should pass it on. It’s imperative that we pass it on.

NEA: What do you think jazz and the arts can bring to people and communities? Why is it important?

GOLSON: Music gives you satisfaction and enjoyment. It inspires you to develop the ability to overcome obstacles as you move ahead in the quest of what you’re seeking. Many students ask, "What is the secret?" I tell them there is no secret. It’s practice, practice, practice.

There is a certain redeeming value in what we do. The newer and younger generation of jazz players has left the stigma of drugs behind. Their desire to play music has placed more demands on their personality. They are more serious when they look in the mirror. They are very serious about what they’re doing and who they are as musicians. They are also serious about being responsible people in the community. They go beyond just holding the horn and playing.

Jazz has long since left the back rooms and alleys of our communities. It has taken the concert stage and more. Jazz now has a place in the communities. Like-minded people tend to gather together. When you hear or play jazz and direct your energies toward the music, you don’t think of war and crime and all those things that debilitate hearts. When you’re involved in music, you’re taking it in and enjoying itas well as learning more about it.

Time on its one-way course is moving indefatigably ever forward. It either takes you with it, or leaves you behind. You have to keep an open mind. But this doesn’t mean you can’t continue to question or pursue new directions or acquire more knowledge.

Jazz is an indigenous culture that generates its own energy. But it also invokes energy from the people who listen. They become a part of the fabric from a listening point of view, which in turn encourages the performers. It creates a symbiosis.

NEA: I have heard that Americans and Europeans treat art and artists differentlythat there is more respect for jazz. What has been your experience?

GOLSON: Unfortunately this might be true. If so, maybe it’s because jazz was born in America. There’s so much of it in the Statesin the big cities anyway. The Europeans got it laterbut they’re supporting art and culture right and left. Jazz is our heritage. It was born in the USA. But it’s the Europeans who are clinging to it.

I know the economy is not as it used to be for the arts, but I can say that the level of support here is different. Last year, for example, I was in Europe performing for three months. This year I’m going to stay six monthsplaying steady gigs. I can’t do that in the States. Maybe Miles or Coltrane could have done it, some of the big names.

NEA: But you’re a big name.

GOLSON: I never try to think more of myself than what I am, so it leaves room to grow. The greatest hindrance to gaining knowledge is thinking that you already have it.

NEA: Would you like to comment on the ongoing debate over whether or not the U.S. government should continue to support arts and culture?

GOLSON: The government with the bucks could care less. They want to cut out awards like Jazz Masters because they’re concerned about armaments. People need more than food and air to have a life. You need to have music. You need to have art.

I really do think it’s a throwback and it’s a shame. The situation reminds me of a friend of mine. He wanted to be a sax player, but his family wouldn’t support him in this idea. He ended up walking outhaving to leave his home to try and pursue this passion and make it on his own. It was a long hard haul for him, and I won’t mention any names, but he did eventually arrive at his destination and it was a trip worth takingnot just for him but for others who now can share and partake in his music.

My situation was different. I came from a one-parent family, but my mother was a major influence and very supportive. I remember one day, I was standing in our living room with [John] Coltrane. Our hearts were heavy because there was this band we wanted to play with, but they didn’t want us. I still recall how she encouraged Coltrane and meshe said, "Don’t worry, one day they’ll want to play with you and you’ll be playing at a level above." And you know, years later when we were backstage waiting to perform at Newport [Jazz Festival], and there they were warming up to backup another bandand we were headliners.

I think in general, we don’t have the kind of support my mother gave me. Like my friend, he had to leave home, he had to leave home to make it on his own. Maybe that’s [what] it’s like in the States. People have become inured to jazz. Here in Europe, they’re like chicks with their mouths open. They are hungry for the music. In the U.S. they’re more like cats.

NEA: Why do you think it is important for young people to learn music, experience the arts, and have it be a part of their lives?

GOLSON: It is important, but in addition it’s only important if young people want to do it. Then the music and the work allows them to take quantum leaps and really benefit from that experience. This then becomes potential and it’s talent that gives birth to it. Potential will one day then cross paths with reality. The thing about music and jazz is that it’s open-ended. No one ever finishes. It’s like a relay race where one person picks up the baton where the other one leaves off.

NEA: What did getting the American Jazz Master Award* from the National Endowment for the Arts mean to you?

GOLSON: It was more than the money. It was the accomplishment and continued encouragement. Getting that award helped me honor the best in myself. It helped me live up to the standards that people see in me. It was a high point in my life and I know that J.J. [Johnson] and Tommy [Flanagan] felt the same. It’s also great to be recognized by such an organization as the NEA. It’s such a significant organization.

NEA: Is there anything else you would like to add to this conversation?

GOLSON: You know I used to be a truck driver. You have to pay the rent and the rent man has no appreciation for esthetics. You can’t pay him in music. This thing called jazz is a real adventure. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to make moneyand good moneyat something you love so passionately. I get paid for playing music. How much better than that can it get?

Jazz is moving forward. It definitely is. But from both sides, from performer to listeners, we have to do all we can to help. As a player, you have to put it all in. Never short-change yourself or the audiences. Keep your music at the highest level possible, because it is an art form. As a listener, you need to buy the records and the CDs. You have to keep going to the box office to purchase those tickets. We need to keep all of this intact to ensure the continued life of jazz and ensure its growth. I’d like to see it take over the world.

* In 2004 the American Jazz Master Award was renamed the NEA Jazz Master Award.