Composer Benny Golson Speaks Jazz
Composer Benny Golson Speaks Jazz to Alcorn Festival Crowds
By Earnest McBride w/pix: Golson and Sherrill Holly and Alphonso Sanders
(Cutline for pix: Jazz Great Benny Golson, right, holds forth at workshop and concert at Vicksburg Convention Center during Alcorn State University's annual Jazz Festival last Saturday during the Riverfest celebration. With Golson are musicians Sherrill Holly of Jackson, left, and Alphonso Sanders of Mississippi Valley State University.)
Vicksburg---The crowd of jazz aficionados attending the workshop headed by famous composer Benny Golson at Vicksburg's Convention Center last Saturday realized that they were about to get a total immersion in living musical history.
Only the night before at the Alamo's monthly Jazz & Blues and Lots More concert in Jackson, bandleader Sherill Holley announced that their theme song---"Killer Joe"---was a Benny Golson product. Retired Jackson State University professor London Branch sat in awestruck delight as Golson pulled his shiny golden tenor saxophone from its stand and began the familiar lamenting strains of "I Remember Clifford," Golson's most memorable composition.
The high school and college jazz musicians were the greatest beneficiaries of all, nevertheless, because these neophytes in the great stream of black music found themselves in the presence of one of the titans of the field, a icon on mount Parnassus willing to extend a symbolic hand to them to guide them to the mountaintop, if they wish to get there.
Telling of his beginnings in music, Golson credited his mother as the greatest inspiration and facilitator in getting him started. She started him out with piano lessons. But six years later, he wanted to play music in the style of Ornette Cobb, a saxophonist with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra that he had seen at a downtown Philadelphia theater. Although she could not afford to buy him a saxophone, Golson says, his mother sacrificed her budget to please him.
"One day she came home from work," he says, "and she had this long case, and my heart just jumped. She said as she approached me, I've got something for you, baby. And as I opened it up, there it was, not one from the pawn shop, but a brand new one. And I looked at it and I immediately became depressed. It didn't look like the one Ornette Cobb played."
He did not know that he needed to assemble the neck and mouthpiece on the main frame of the horn until a neighbor showed him.
As teenagers, he, John Coltrane, and Philly Joe Jones---all natives of Philadelphia---joined a rhythm and blues band and played locally at first for pennies. Later on, they began touring, especially in the South. "During those days, the blues were the most popular music everywhere we played.
"I played my saxophone at night down in the laundry room.," he says.
"There were no teachers per se who taught jazz at the time. I was expected to play clarinet as my first instrument. But I would go down into the laundry room and practice jazz on my saxophone."
Looking back on the musicians who studied music in college with him, Golson said that he and his musical peers faced the threat of being expelled if they were caught playing jazz. They persisted in learning to play and compose it nonetheless, he said.
Curiosity is the primary entrée into any creative endeavor, says Golson.
"That burning desire to move ahead was always there. That desire to learn on the deepest level possible. The mind was always open. Knowledge of itself means nothing. But the one thing that is crucial in any undertaking is understanding. So we move on to the next step, which is applying the knowledge and understanding that you now have. And that will arrive in due time. And it all began with curiosity."
Golson came along
"Whatever direction you want to go in, you should be the best you can," Golson advised the workshop attendees. "If you want to be a blues player, a harmonica player, a guitar player, be as good as you can be."
Golson praised the faculty at Alcorn State University for taking jazz to the surrounding communities and involving young students in their program.
"This program here at Alcorn would not exist if there were no teachers of jazz," he said. "The teachers in turn have to be informed to accurately pass on information to the students so they can use it one way or another. Such programs as these are important. And when one teacher replaces another hopefully it's for the better to prove the program ahead, instead of doing the same thing year after year, or to watch it go down.
"This music should be progressive like everything else around us," he said. "Clothes, cars, housing---everything around us changes. So why shouldn't music likewise change. It should move ahead like everything else."
Golson said that his piece devoted to Clifford Brown, the amazing young trumpeter who died in a tragic car accident in 1956, was brought about through an overwhelming wave of emotions felt by nearly all jazz musicians of the time.
"When he was killed, it just hurt all of us," Golson pointed out. "We all called him "Brownie." It inclined me to write a melody to help people remember this fine, talented young man. When we got the news that he was dead, we were about to open with the Dizzy Gillespie band. As we were playing, tears began flowing from our eyes. And that's what inclined me to write this tune."
It took Golson several weeks to finish "I remember Clifford." He wanted to make every note a reflection of some aspect of Clifford Brown's musical imago.
"It took me longer to write that song longer than it's taken me to write any other song," Golson said. "And I wish I had never written it. I say that because if he hadn't been killed, then I never would have written it."
Golson's appearance took place concurrent with the River Fest activities on the main streets of downtown Vicksburg. The ASU-sponsored events were all free to the public and included performances by the JSU Jazz Band, Mississippi Valley State Jazz Band, and bands from Ole Miss, USM and Delta State. Some of the high school bands competed for special awards presented by the Alcorn faculty. Sherrill Holley was one of the two adjudicators.