If you saw Steven Spielberg’s somewhat unfocused 2004 film Terminal starring Tom Hanks, you may remember that Hanks’ character travels to America, where he proceeds to get stuck at JFK Airport, in order to fulfill a promise he had made to his late father.
It seems the aged parent had collected the John Hancocks of all but one of the 58 jazz musician subjects of Art Kane’s famous 1958 Esquire photo “A Day in Harlem” and he made his son Viktor promise to complete his project. (The photo was the subject of Jean Bach’s moving 1994 jazz documentary A Great Day in Harlem.) Luckily for Viktor, the omitted musician was tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, one of the half dozen jazz legends from that photo shoot who are still alive.
Luckily for us, Benny Golson, who turned 77 on Jan. 26, is still very much alive and, along with his combo from the Spielberg film, he plays at Yoshi’s later this week.
Golson was part of the Northern industrial urban generation of jazz musicians who spawned hard bop. He grew up in Philadelphia and while still in high school was playing with friends like John Coltrane, Jimmy and Percy Heath, Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones. Later, while with Lionel Hampton, he worked alongside Clifford Brown. Within a few years, these players were to build on the innovations of bebop to create hard bop in the bands of Art Blakey, Miles Davis and Max Roach.
Golson is one of the greatest hard bop tenor saxophonists, second only to Sonny Rollins. He is also a master composer and arranger having penned more than 300 compositions. His most famous pieces, all jazz standards, are “Stablemates,” “Along Came Betty,” “Five Spot After Dark,” “Blues March,” “Whisper Not, Fair Weather,” “Killer Joe,” and “I Remember Clifford,” his hauntingly lyrical elegy for his friend, trumpet great Clifford Brown, killed in a car crash in 1956.
From 1959 until 1962 he co-led a famous all-star group of his own, the Jazztet featuring Art Farmer and Curtis Fuller.
From 1963-1974 he worked in the studios and composed music for television shows you probably saw and can still see in syndication like Mission: Impossible, Ironsides, Mannix, It Takes a Thief, Room 222, M*A*S*H, and Six Million Dollar Man. Although he returned to playing live jazz in the ‘70s and even re-formed the Jazztet in 1982, he still found time to do the music for Guy Debord’s 1978 documentary In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni and wrote the theme for Cosby in 1996.
Golson’s place in the history of modern jazz is analogous to that of swing era alto saxophonist Benny Carter. Both Carter and Golson were masters on their horns: virtuosic, inspired improvisers, innovators, but with composers’ minds. This gave their work greater formal coherence than that of many of their compatriots. It also led them into the studios and the world of film and television writing. Both were too great to be hurt by their forays into the commercial world. In fact, even in the commercial milieu, they performed at a higher level than most of their contemporaries. Yet both knew that they had to continue to play authentic jazz.
Benny Golson is here to tell us that he is still doing exactly that.
The Benny Golson Quartet featuring Mike LeDonne (piano), Buster Williams (bass), and Carl Allen (drums), performs at 8 and 10 p.n. Thursday through Sunday and at 2 and 8 p.m. Sunday at Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland. 238-9200. www.yoshis.com.a