One of a very few jazzmen whose accomplishments as a jazz composer are on a par with his accomplishments as a player, Benny Golson began his musical training with some rather arduous home schooling. Having just begun to play the tenor saxophone, he wanted to learn how to play the solos that he'd heard on records. To that end, he would transcribe the sounds on to paper: "In my own crude way, I just made whole notes for each note they would play, and I'd remember the syncopation. Then I started to get a little more sophisticated and began learning note values; then I started wanting to harmonize things so people could play with me... Later I got some training in college." As these beginnings might suggest, Golson is a meticulous man, who is not in the habit of sparing himself any pains. That said, his music is anything but labored. His tunes are marked by a mellifluous quality that makes them easy to assimilate, which is why, no doubt, so many of them have become modern-day jazz standards.
Born in Philadelphia in 1929, Golson's first instrument was the piano. At 14, he picked up the tenor saxophone after being captivated by the sounds of Arnett Cobb, the tenor man in the Lionel Hampton Band. In the mid-40s, and his own mid-teens, Benny served his jazz apprenticeship sitting in on jam sessions on Philadelphia's Columbus Ave., and playing with fellow up-and-comers such as John Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Philly Joe Jones, Percy Heath, Red Garland, Red Rodney, and others. In 1947 he headed off to Howard University. Shortly after his graduation in 1950, he joined the rhythm 'n blues group of Benjamin Clarence "Bull Moose" Jackson. There he met the man whom he considers the single greatest influence on his creative style - Tadd Dameron.
Golson was beginning to make a name for himself as a sax virtuoso when he got his first big break as a composer in January 1955 — James Moody recorded a song of his called "Blue Walk." Toward the end of the year, he got an even bigger break when Miles Davis recorded "Stablemates", a song Golson began to write during an intermission of a show, when he stayed on the bandstand after spotting someone in the audience whom he wished to avoid. In addition to composing, Golson was also making a name for himself as a sax virtuoso. In 1956 he joined the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band and went on tour to South America. In November of that year the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra made the first recording of the Golson original, "Whisper Not" during a Bandstand USA radio broadcast from New York's Birdland Club.
One of, if not the greatest modern composer of jazz standards, Golson wrote one of his most enduring and oft recorded tunes in 1957 "I Remember Clifford" in response to the tragic death of his friend, the trumpet player Clifford Brown. The Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra played the song in July of that year at the Newport Jazz Festival, and it was subsequently recorded by a host of artists. 1957 also marked the first time that Golson recorded an album as a leader. It was called New York Scene, and it featured Art Farmer, Jimmy Cleveland, Gigi Gryce, Sahib Shihab, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Charlie Persip. One distinguishing feature of Golson's tunes is that they seem to cry out for lyrics. For instance, after the critic Leonard Feather wrote words for it, "Whisper Not" was recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O'Day and Mel Torme.
After the DizzyGillespie Orchestra broke up early in 1958, Benny Golson took the place of Jackie McLean in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. He stayed with Blakey for just under two years and, in that time, completely transformed the band, bringing in fellow Philadelphians Lee Morgan, Jymie Merritt and Bobby Timmons. That edition of the Messengers, with Golson as musical director, is regarded by many, including Blakey himself, as the best in the 46-year history of the group, producing what is widely considered the best album the Messengers ever made: "Moanin", recorded for Blue Note on October 30th, 1958. Four of the six compositions on the album were Golson's including "Blues March", the irresistible blues theme which was to become probably the greatest hit in the Messengers' book. At the 1990 memorial for Art Blakey in Harlem's famous Abyssinian Baptist Church, when all the participating musicians got together to play a final number, there was absolutely no question as to what that number should be — "Blues March," the very first tune Golson wrote for the Messengers.
At the ripe old age of 29, Benny Golson found that he was getting considerably more recognition for his composing than for his playing. He says: "It wasn't anything I was trying to do - it just turned out that way." And, in November 1958, in an effort to redress the balance, he went into the studio to record The Other Side Of Benny Golson, his second album for Riverside, to give emphasis to his instrumental capabilities. Ultimately, though, he decided he could achieve greater success writing music than playing it. After forming the stylish, yet relatively short-lived Jazztet with Art Farmer and Curtis Fuller, Golson began devoting considerable time to studying arranging and composition.
In 1965, after returning from Europe where he'd been writing music for movies and television shows, he put away his horn and moved to Hollywood. There he wrote scores and themes for, among other things, M*A*S*H, Mission Impossible, Room 222, The Partridge Family, Mannix, and It Takes A Thief, as well as dozens of melodies for television commercials. He also did arrangements for Lou Rawls, Eartha Kitt, Connie Francis, Ella Fitzgerald, Eric Burdon, Nancy Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr. and Diana Ross, to name a few.
For a man as dedicated to and in love with music as Benny Golson, it was, of course, only a matter of time before he broke his exclusive engagement with composition and returned to the stage. In 1974, he resumed his playing career in earnest, freelancing extensively and recording with Curtis Fuller, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw and Pharaoh Sanders, among others. In 1983 he reconstituted the Jazztet and subsequently appeared with it, and also with his own quartet, in festivals all over the world. Since 1995 he has also been a member and musical director of the all-star saxophone repertory band, Roots, which toured extensively in Europe and has recorded four albums. Meanwhile, he has continued to write music, undertaking a number of ambitious projects, including a 1993 concerto for bass, which was performed by Rufus Reid at Lincoln Center. A year later he was awarded a Guggenheim Scholarship which enabled him to get started on his second symphony. And while his output has diversified in recent years, Golson has not abandoned the world of show business. The current edition of The Cosby Show features a Benny Golson theme.
With a long and storied career already behind him, Benny Golson has settled into the role of elder statesman. In 1989, he started a two-year residency at William Paterson College in Paterson, New Jersey, where he lectured on music to music students and on social matters to sociology students. In that same year he began work on a major textbook for aspiring arrangers which is expected to run to a massive 750 pages. In 1995, together with J.J. Johnson and Tommy Flanagan, Golson was given the Jazz Masters award by the National Endowment of the Arts.