Benny Golson has been playing tenor sax since he was a teenager in Philadelphia — and that was 75 years ago.
The legendary performer, composer, arranger and educator will soon turn 91, yet he maintains the energy and enthusiasm of anyone a third his age. So it’s no surprise that he’s teaming up with 29-year-old piano phenom Emmet Cohen and his trio for a rare appearance as part of Xavier University’s Jazz Series on Jan. 17.
Despite their 60-year age gap, the two musicians have much in common. Golson has an extensive discography; Cohen already has 11 recordings. Both men are composers and in addition to busy touring schedules, they regularly conduct master classes for young musicians.
“Playing with someone like Emmet inspires me,” Golson tells me, speaking from his home in New York. “He shows such imagination in his playing and that’s what we need as performers. He’s very talented and has a lot to say.”
Golson grew up surrounded by a vibrant Jazz community in Philadelphia, a city that fostered the talents of legendary Jazz artists Percy and Jimmy Heath, Stan Getz, Red Garland, Philly Joe Jones and the iconic John Coltrane.
“When Trane and I met, I was 16 and he was 18,” recalls Golson. “He just stood in the door till I asked him to play something, and when he did, he sounded like Duke Ellington’s sax player Johnny Hodges.”
Coltrane and Golson remained friends and colleagues throughout their lives; he credits their regular jam sessions with forging his style.
After years of thriving on Jazz’s freedom of expression, Golson hit a wall as a music student at Howard University.
“They hated to see me coming because I challenged everything,” he says with a chuckle.
“One thing in particular they taught was that, in composing, you had to return to the tonic or base note from the fifth position, no matter what,” he continues, adding that he wrote “Killer Joe” years later — a tune that goes back to the tonic from the fourth position. Funny enough, no one’s ever chided that the song “doesn’t come back from the fifth position!”
Golson dropped out of Howard and didn’t perform for several years, a period he calls the worst in his life. But in 1951, he made his first recording at Cincinnati’s own King Records as part of Bull Moose Jackson’s R&B band.
“We had to sing on that recording,” he laughs. “But it was very loose, like being in someone’s living room.”
He is delighted to learn of plans to restore the King studio building in Evanston, recalling owner Syd Nathan “as if it were yesterday. He sat like a judge during every session.”
Golson’s own discography numbers over 40 recordings as bandleader and as co-leader (with trumpeter Art Farmer) for the famed Jazztet; his catalog of over 300 compositions includes scores for TV shows, films and commercial jingles, as well as classic Jazz standards like “Blues March,” “Whisper Not” and “Stablemates.”
One or more of those classics will be on the Xavier setlist, Golson assures me, along with newer material.
Golson has been able to earn respectable royalties from those standards, thanks to being one of the first Jazz musicians to have his own publishing company. It’s another instance of Golson’s penchant for questioning authority.
“Recording companies would just stick their names on the writer’s credit and I wanted to hold on to my material,” he says. “At first some of the labels were surprised but they got used to it!”
Cohen is committed to documenting iconic Jazz masters through his Masters Legacy Series releases, recordings that document performances and conversations with Jazz greats. He recorded with Golson earlier this year.
As Golson approaches his 91st birthday on Jan. 25, he is upbeat about Jazz’s future and in awe of the newest generation of performers.
“I listen to them intently, because they represent the future,” he says. “Music moves ahead, like everything else.”
Benny Golson and the Emmet Cohen Trio perform at Xavier University’s Gallagher Theater (3800 Victory Pkwy, Evanston) on Jan. 17. Tickets/more info: xavier.edu/musicseries.