Legendary jazz saxophonist, Benny Golson, was this year's featured guest at the 2008 Emory University's jazz festival. Benny Golson has performed and recorded with just about every major jazz artist from the 50's and 60's, including Dizzy Gillespie, Art Farmer, Art Blakey, Curtis Fuller, Charles Mingus, and Sarah Vaughan. Benny Golson is also tremendously respected for his work as a composer. In fact, he's the only living jazz musician to have written eighth jazz standards: Killer Joe, I Remember Clifford, Along Came Betty, Stablemates, Whisper Not, Blues March, Are You Real?, Five Spot After Dark.
Like previous guests of Emory University's jazz program, Benny Golson participated in two master classes that were free and open to the public. The first master class was with Emory's jazz improvisation class and the second was more of a lecture format. I've attended both types of classes in the past (Kenny Barron, Wessell Anderson, Jon Hendricks), but this year I could only attend one so I opted for the improvisation master class.
The Benny Golson masterclass was a great mix of music and discussion. Benny Golson played three or four tunes with Gary Motley (the director of jazz studies at Emory) on piano, Paul Keller on bass, and Pete Siers on drums. Paul Keller and Pete Siers both live in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and for the past few years Gary Motley has had them come and play with the guest artist. It's always great to hear them play and it's also been interesting to hear how they complement different artists.
Following are my notes from this year's masterclass with Benny Golson:
LEARNING JAZZ BY EAR
Benny Golson learned to play jazz by listening to jazz recordings. He and his friends would listen to recordings and learn the melodies and solos by ear. Oh, I should mention that these friends included Jimmy Heath, Percy Heath, John Coltrane, and Red Rodney (to name a few!). That experience of listening to music and learning by ear no doubt helped all of those musicians to develop great ears for music. It's too bad that learning by ear isn't a major part of music education today, especially during the first years of playing an instrument. Oh well, at least it's never too late to start ear training.
SLOW IS BETTER THAN FAST
Many aspiring jazz musicians believe that the pinnacle of jazz improvisation is the ability to play fast. That assumption makes perfect sense, especially when you consider how challenging it can be for a beginner to play a jazz solo at any tempo. Being able to play fast, however, isn't necessarily an indication of jazz superiority. For example, when people play fast there is usually a greater tendency to fall back on pre-learned jazz licks/patterns because there's less time to think of new ideas. Once you get enough of these licks under your fingers, it's actually pretty easy to string them together. Also, when playing rapidly you can play a lot of "bad" notes in your solo and they'll go by so quickly that most people won't even notice. With the high incidence of pre-learned licks and bad notes, a fast solo may simply obscure poor or uninspired playing.
Slow tempos, on the other hand, reveal every nuance of a musician's solo and therefore represent a true test of a musician's capabilities. If you play a ballad at a slow tempo (not double time), each mistake is painfully obvious. It's also readily apparent whether you're playing interesting ideas vs. a flurry of random notes. Benny Golson summed up the dichotomy between slow and fast when he said, "Good isn't playing fast. Good is playing slow."
Gary Motley continued the discussion about slow tempos by telling us that his students learn new tunes by playing them as ballads. The slow tempos allow the students to lock in on the chord changes and better hear the relationship between the melody and underlying harmonies. Gary Motley then sat down at the piano and played "There Will Never Be Another You," a jazz standard that was originally written as a ballad, although it's typically played up-tempo. I had never heard this tune played at such a slow tempo and I was amazed at how refreshing it was to hear each chord change resonate and linger before moving on the next change. While playing the tune, Motley played a couple of wrong notes in the melody. As soon as he played the notes, he heard that the intervals weren't quite right and he corrected himself. Gary's a fantastic jazz pianist and it's possible that he intentionally messed up to illustrate a point, but it was evident that slower tempos make it easier to hear each note and therefore make it easier to identify how things should sound.
IT'S BETTER TO BE HUMBLE
As I mentioned earlier, Benny Golson has played with just about every fantastic jazz musician of his time. Occasionally, one of these great jazz musicians would let their success and abilities go to their heads. In one of Benny Golson's early bands he played with one such musician. This musician thought the world revolved around him and that everyone else was beneath him. As Golson put it, that attitude was like poison to the band and caused all sorts of tension among the musicians. Benny Golson was eager to get out of that situation and finally had his chance when he landed a spot in Dizzy Gillespie's band. Golson was in awe of Dizzy and couldn't believe how fortunate he was to play in his band. After one performance, Golson went up to Dizzy and told him how much he admired his playing. Instead of beaming with pride, Dizzy, clearly embarrassed by the attention, responded by saying "Oh, that wasn't anything." Impressed by Dizzy's humility, Golson has tried to keep a level head throughout his career regardless of his success or stature. And as he later stated, no musician ever wakes up and says "That's it! Now I know everything there is to know." Even after playing his instrument at the top of his field for 50 years, there's still plenty more for him to learn.
Benny Golson told several more anecdotes about the musicians he grew up with and his early days as a jazz musician. I always enjoy hearing these types of stories myself so I thought I'd pass a couple more along.
HE REMEMBERS CLIFFORD
One of Benny Golson's more popular compositions is the ballad "I Remember Clifford" which Golson wrote shortly after he heard that jazz trumpet genius Clifford Brown died in a car crash. Prior to that tragic event, Benny Golson was friends with Clifford Brown and got to hear him play many times. On one such occasion, Clifford Brown was playing at a nightclub in Philadelphia. This nightclub frequently had top players from New York join the band and on this particular night trumpeter Fats Navarro was scheduled to appear. Fats Navarro was running late, so when he finally did arrive Clifford was already on the stage playing. As soon as Fats heard Clifford Brown playing, Fats was in awe and asked, "Who is that guy?" Fats Navarro then joined Clifford Brown on stage and the two commenced in the fiercest trumpet battle that Benny Golson had ever heard. After the two trumpeters finished playing, it was the alto saxophonist's turn to take a solo. Stunned by the brilliant playing of Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro, the alto player simply stood up there and played the tune's head over and over again when he should have been playing a solo. In his 50+ years as a jazz musician that was the one and only time he'd ever heard anyone that afraid to play.
WHO WAS THAT?
While in high school, Benny Golson often had local musicians come over to his house to listen to music and play jazz. Golson's mother always stayed upstairs while the kids played jazz. She never came downstairs to listen to the music, nor did she bother to see who was playing. Well, one day a friend of Golson's told him about a young saxophonist who played a great version of "On the Sunny Side of the Street." Golson invited the saxophonist over and sure enough he was really good. Just as soon as he finished playing, Golson's mother came downstairs and asked, "Who was that?" Golson replied, "He's a new friend. His name is John Coltrane." Golson laughed as he said, "All those times that my friends and I were playing downstairs she never once cared to come down, and then John Coltrane comes over and all of the sudden she's interested. How's that supposed to make me feel?!"