Born Benjamin Golson, January 25, 1929, in Philadelphia, PA. Attended Howard University, late 1940s. Addresses: Record company--Evidence Music, 1100 East Hector Street, Suite 392, Conshohocken, PA 19428.

While tenor saxophonist and composer Benny Golson may not be a household name, his compositions are among the most frequently recorded jazz standards. Golson summed up his philosophy of writing music to Down Beat in 1958, "I feel that the best contribution any writer can make is to create compositions that are impressive, meaningful, and lasting. I think all serious writers consciously or unconsciously strive for this."

Born in Philadelphia, Golson began playing piano at age nine, tenor saxophone at age 14, and composing at age 17. He studied briefly at Howard University where he wrote his first professional arrangements for the school band. Golson's first job after leaving Howard in 1951 was Bull Moose Jackson's rhythm and blues band. There he met pianist and composer Tadd Dameron, whose work Golson had admired. In a Down Beat interview, Golson explained that "Tadd's music really ignited the spark for me. After hearing things like 'Our Delight' and 'Lady Bird' ... I wanted to do more than play tenor sax. I wanted to write."

In the early 50s, Dameron included Golson and a promising young trumpet player named Clifford Brown on a recording session. Benny and Clifford developed a close friendship until Brown's death in a car accident in 1956. Golson composed the standard "I Remember Clifford" as an homage to his friend. "At the time of his death", Golson reminisced in 1961 in Downbeat, "Brownie was going in his direction more determinedly than anyone I've ever seen. Really, the last two years of his life, he got a hold of what he wanted to do. His imagination was infinite. He always had a bag of surprises."

In 1956 Benny Golson joined trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie's band, accompanying them on U. S. State Department sponsored tours, until 1958, when he became a member of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. During this time, Golson was also a leader on several record dates for the Riverside and Contemporary labels. In 1959 Benny and trumpet player Art Farmer cofounded the Jazztet with trombonist Curtis Fuller and pianist McCoy Tyner. Golson was the main writer for this successful group, which won the New Star Award in Down Beat's 1960 International Poll.

Golson explained his compositional goals in Down Beat in 1960, "Basically, I'd like to stay simple. I'd like to write melodically, and pretty harmonically.... Although I'm not consciously looking for it, maybe I want something that's easy to remember.... Beauty can be simple, beauty can be simplicity." Downbeat critic Ralph J. Gleason confirmed the appeal of Golson's compositions, "What is attractive about Golson's writing, of course, is that it is not only original, but it is also lyrical and instantly communicative to both musician and fan. That his tunes are a gas to play is obvious from the number of recordings and the people who play them. That they are a gas to hear is, it seems to me, just as obvious."

Following the breakup of the Jazztet in the early 60s, Golson concentrated on composing, and not just jazz tunes. In 1966, he told Down Beat that "I used to compose a lot, but as I look back on it, I was composing indiscriminately.... So then I started working a little bit slower and being a little more precise about what I was doing." Golson's biggest hit was "Killer Joe" which was recorded by Quincy Jones on his Walking in Space album.

In the late 60s, Golson furthered his studies in compositional technique. He described what he learned to Jazz Journal International in 1983, "{My teacher} really opened up vistas for me that I didn't know existed. I became involved in writing music antiphonally, symmetrical, pandiatonic things. After I'd had three or four one-hour sessions with him I got called to do a film in Germany and I used absolutely everything he taught me."

At the urging of Quincy Jones, Golson moved to Hollywood, where he began writing for films and television. His work included Ironside, M.A.S.H., and Room 222. Golson did not play jazz during this period; he didn't even take his saxophone out of its case for a decade. By 1975 he was ready to return to playing the saxophone, however, it wasn't easy. He described the process of relearning to Crescendo International, "It was like I'd never played the instrument; it felt like a piece of plumbing from the kitchen in my hand. My mind seemed like it wanted to go ahead--my fingers were those of a dead man; my lips were like ripe tomatoes. It was quite a physical struggle. I had no muscles in my lips or jaws... I sounded so bad, I was even embarrassed for my wife to hear me!"

Golson eventually returned to the public eye, where audiences welcomed his comeback. In 1982, after playing at a festival in Japan with Art Farmer, the two of them decided to revive the Jazztet. The new Jazztet broke attendance records around the world and received rave reviews. Golson enthused to Crescendo International, "The reception for the revived Jazztet was so warm last year that it was almost like coming back home this second time. The enthusiasm of the audiences has been very encouraging for us--it gives us some incentive to go on in that same direction."

The Jazztet was not revived merely for nostalgia's sake. Golson explained to Crescendo International, "In twenty years, as you might expect ... our musical approach is just a little different from the way it was then. Although there's some nostalgic things, like 'Whisper Not' ... I've written a lot of new tunes, and we've moved away somewhat from the hard, straight-up-and-down, strict harmonic kind of approach."

Over the course of his 50-year career, Benny Golson has contributed some of the most memorable standards to the jazz repertoire. In addition, he has expressed himself in a variety of musical settings. From jazz standards to film and television soundtracks, his music has found a warm reception around the world.

by Jim Powers

Benny Golson's Career

Arranged for Howard University band, late 1940s, performed in Philadelphia jazz scene, early 1950s; performed with the bands of Bull Moose Jackson, Johnny Hodges, Earl Bostic, Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, 1955; composed, recorded albums, and freelanced, 1950s-1990s; co-led The Jazztet with Art Farmer, c. 1959-61; scored films and television c. 1960s-70s; performed solo and with reformed Jazztet, 1981-82; appeared in film A Great Day in Harlem, 1995.

Benny Golson's Awards

(With Jazztet), Down Beat New Star Award, 1960.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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almost 16 years ago

Benny Golson made a cameo appearance in "The Terminal", a film directed in 2004 by Steven Spielberg, and starring Tom Hanks, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Tom Hanks' character tracks down Golson in order to obtain his autograph, which is the last one needed to complete his collection of all 57 jazz performers who were in the photo by Art Kane, "A Great Day in Harlem 1958".