Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
A project of Jazz Appreciation Month, KNKX and Jazz24 celebrate highly regarded jazz creators who continue to inspire.

Impactful saxophonist and composer Benny Golson played multiple roles in jazz history

 Benny Golson perfroms in the KPLU studios on February 29, 2012.
Justin Steyer
Benny Golson perfroms in the KPLU studios on February 29, 2012.

Benny Golson didn’t write “Moanin'," the essential opener to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' 1958 album. However, if it hadn’t been for saxophonist Golson, the history of his Philadelphia roots could have taken a different course.

Golson only played in the Jazz Messengers around for about a year in 1958. He said that Art Blakey was one of the most integral band leaders he’s ever known.

The two were close enough that Blakey revamped the Jazz Messengers, on Golson’s advice, to include Philly players Bobby Timmons on piano, Lee Morgan on trumpet and Jymie Merrit on bass.

It was that line-up, along with Golson on tenor saxophone, that would go on to record the Jazz Messengers' quintessential song, “Moanin’,” composed by pianist Bobby Timmons.

Golson studied piano as a child until he witnessed a dramatic stage show during a Lionel Hampton concert that left him enthralled with the saxophone.

He was one of many players to come from Philadelphia. It’s where Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, the Heath Brothers and John Coltrane got started. Coltrane was a high school friend; the two were introduced after Coltrane moved to town. Golson heard about him being the guy who could “play like Johnny Hodges”

The '50s were an important time in bebop’s history. Golson connected with the titans of the era through his playing and compositions.

Golson’s first gig was a tour with jump blues singer and saxophonist Bull Moose Jackson in 1952. He played with the Jazz Messengers, Johnny Hodges, Gillespie’s big band, and he recorded as a leader.

His compositions, including “I Remember Clifford,” “Killer Joe,” “Along Came Betty,” and “Blues March," became standards and were played by bands that he wasn’t a part of.

Shortly after playing with the Jazz Messengers, Golson wanted to get a sextet together to mix things up with extra voices/instruments. He approached trumpeter Art Farmer and it turned out to be one of Farmer's lasting partnerships. Farmer was happy to join him in the larger ensemble; he was also planning to ask Golson to start sextet, too. They started The Jazztet in 1959.

By then, Golson was already in New York, but he knew of a young piano player in Philadelphia who would fit in The Jazztet. He made the call to McCoy Tyner, who accepted his offer and planned to stay with Golson in New York City. On the way to Golson’s, Tyner’s car broke down, and he called for help. Golson didn't have his own car, so he reached out to his friend who did - John Coltrane.

The chance meeting, through Golson's need of a car, proved to be pivotal. Later, Tyner would join Coltrane in his quartet after his recording debut with Golson in 1960.

The Jazztet continued recording until 1962. After, Golson would eventually head west to work on films and TV scores. He composed music for MASH, The Partridge Family and many others.

Golson returned to the saxophone, touring and recording through the decades, including new formations of The Jazztet and many reunions with Art Farmer.

In 1996, he was named an NEA Jazz Master.

In his autobiography, Whisper Not, Golson writes about his life and jazz journey. He’s kept his musical peers’ memories alive with stories from the golden era of bebop, and his repertoire of compositions is considered amongst the greatest jazz standards ever written.

In 2021, Golson received a Trustees Award from the Recording Academy, recognizing his contributions as a composter, including being "the only living artist to write eight jazz standards."

In 2012, Golson played a session at the KNKX (then-KPLU) studios, marking his second half-century as a touring and recording jazz artist. Watch the full session, where he's accompanied by pianist Sharp Radway and drummer Jason Marsalis, below.

Copyright 2024 KNKX Public Radio. To see more, visit KNKX Public Radio.

Justus Sanchez