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SCOTT SIMON, host:

There's a birthday celebration tonight at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Benny Golson is turning 80 years old. Benny Golson played the saxophone with Dizzy Gillespie's band of the 1950s, also played alongside Lionel Hampton and Johnny Hodges. He was co-leader of the famous Jazztet with trumpeter Art Farmer in the early '60s. As a composer, he's written some of the most memorable melodies in jazz including "I Remember Clifford," "Whisper Not," and this one, "Killer Joe."

(Soundbite of song "Killer Joe")

SIMON: In a busy and varied career, Benny Golson has also written scores for TV shows, including "Mission Impossible," "M*A*S*H," and "The Cosby Show." He was immortalized in "The Terminal" when that hapless traveler played by Tom Hanks is finally released from airport purgatory and takes a cab straight to a club to meet his idol, Benny Golson.

(Soundbite of movie "The Terminal")

Mr. TOM HANKS: (As Viktor Navorski) You are Benny Golson?

Mr. BENNY GOLSON (Jazz Musician): Yeah, yes, I am. Yeah.

Mr. HANKS: (As Viktor Navorski) Benny Golson, I am Viktor Navorski. I am from Krakozhia. My father, Dimitar Asenov Navorski, he was a great, great fan of your music.

Mr. GOLSON: Oh, a jazz fan, fantastic.

Mr. HANKS: (As Viktor Navorski) Yes, it is. Sign your name please.

Mr. GOLSON: Uh-oh. Can I do it a little later? We have - we have to get started now. Just a minute.

Mr. HANKS: (As Viktor Navorski) Oh, I will wait.

Mr. GOLSON: OK.

SIMON: Benny Golson just released a new CD on Concord Jazz. It's called "New Time, New Tet."

(Soundbite of jazz music)

SIMON: Benny Golson joins us in our studio. What a pleasure to meet you. Thanks so much.

Mr. GOLSON: Pleasure to meet you. I've heard a lot about you.

SIMON: Well, I think it's safe to say I've heard more about you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: You're Benny Golson after all.

Mr. GOLSON: I am seeing and hearing close up now for the first time.

SIMON: Well, it's a real pleasure to meet you, Benny. And tell us again about this new CD, "New Time, New Tet." The title means?

Mr. GOLSON: Well, it's a resurrection of the old Jazztet. See, when we had the group together, it was a Jazztet, but we used to refer to it as the Tet. What time does the Tet hit? When is the Tet's next gig? Just cutting everything short. And I think they drew upon that. With the resurrection and its news, we have some new members. Of course my partner Art Farmer passed on a little while ago. And all new musicians - I'm the only one from the past. And we've got a new approach to what we're doing now. We didn't only draw upon the jazz things, but we went to the realm of some of the classics like Chopin and Giuseppe Verdi with a new approach to it.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

SIMON: We've been talking about some of the classical - some of the classical arrangements and classical compositions that you have on the CD. Let's listen, if we can, to some Chopin in its original form on the piano, and then we'll see how that makes the transition into your arrangement.

Mr. GOLSON: Interesting.

(Soundbite of Chopin Waltz performed on the piano)

Mr. GOLSON: Yes.

SIMON: Now that's the Chopin waltz that's often known as the "Farewell Waltz."

Mr. GOLSON: Yeah.

SIMON: L'adieu.

Mr. GOLSON: L'adieu, yeah.

SIMON: And here's your version, which you called L'adieu.

(Soundbite of composition "L'adieu")

Mr. GOLSON: I started out as a piano student when I was nine, and he was one of my favorites. And what I wanted to do is transfer the sound from the piano to the trumpet. But you notice as he's playing, there is a piano accompanying him, just the two in the beginning.

SIMON: Oh.

Mr. GOLSON: Later the horns join, and it becomes something from the 21st century.

SIMON: Yeah.

(Soundbite of composition "L'adieu")

SIMON: Eddie Henderson on trumpet.

Mr. GOLSON: Eddie Henderson - he's a doctor. I don't know if you know that.

SIMON: I did not know. Medical doctor or...? No, doctor...

Mr. GOLSON: He was a psychiatrist. He had a practice in San Francisco for 10 years. And the music, the trumpet won out. And he was also an ice skater. He was in Ice Capades.

SIMON: (Laughing) No, I didn't know that.

Mr. GOLSON: Incredible.

SIMON: He said he was at the Ice Capades?

Mr. GOLSON: Yes, an ice skater...

SIMON: That in and of itself, an ice skating psychiatrist, is pretty unexpected, but then he becomes a great trumpeter.

Mr. GOLSON: What an aberration. Yeah, that's him, Dr. Eddie Henderson.

SIMON: How did - may I ask, how did you find - you grew up in Philadelphia, right?

Mr. GOLSON: Yes.

SIMON: How did you find the saxophone, or how did the saxophone find you?

Mr. GOLSON: Well, as I said, I started as a piano student, and I went at it assiduously, I mean, I fancied that I wanted to be a concert pianist, and that got a few chuckles in the ghetto, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLSON: Everybody is playing the blues, and I'm talking about Chopin. But when I reached the age of 14, I went to the theater in downtown Philadelphia to see Lionel Hampton, and everybody was saying at high school how great this band was.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

Mr. GOLSON: And I'd never seen a live band before, and I was mesmerized. And the saxophone stood up from the section, came out to the edge of the stage, and lo and behold, right from the floor, this microphone came up out of the floor, and he started to play. And that's when the piano paled.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of jazz music)

Mr. GOLSON: Arnett Cobb was the fellow that was playing that saxophone. Many years later, I told him that I played the saxophone because of him. He was so impressed, I saw a tear in his eye.

SIMON: Oh...

Mr. GOLSON: Yeah.

SIMON: Well, of course. Now, do I get this right? Growing up in Philadelphia, you knew the great John Coltrane and Jimmy Heath?

Mr. GOLSON: Oh, John and I were like blood brothers. I mean, I was 16 when I met him, and he was 18. And we spent our time in my living room listening to lots of 78 records, trying to figure out what was going on. And we had a beat-up piano in the corner, and I'd play after a fashion while he played. And he played worse than I did, for me. We really annoyed the neighbors. We were on the front room and it was the summertime.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I see, this is hilarious. You annoyed the neighbors. But I wonder what the neighbors would think if, you know, Benny Golson and John Coltrane...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: ...were playing next door.

Mr. GOLSON: But we knew we were getting better. My mother would go to the market, and after a few months, we were getting requests. Do they know "Body and Soul"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLSON: Do they know "Don't Blame Me"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOLSON: So we knew we were progressing, see?

(Soundbite of jazz music)

SIMON: And what's the performing life for you?

Mr. GOLSON: The performing life - let me start by saying this. One night at the club, one of the owners came up and he asked, are you going to play a particular song? I said, oh, yes, we'll play it. And then he asked, what solo will you play? And I said, I don't know. And he was taken aback. You don't know? As though I was disorganized. I said, no, no, no, jazz is about improvisation. Metaphorically it's like going to the same forest all the time, but to different trees. That's what happens with music, the moment, improvisation.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

SIMON: The CD also has one of your most famous tunes, sung here by Al Jarreau.

Mr. GOLSON: Oh, yes.

SIMON: "Whisper Not." Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of song "Whisper Not")

Mr. AL JARREAU: (Singing) Sing low, sing clear, Sweet words in my ear. Not a whisper of despair, But love's own prayer...

SIMON: Of course Ella Fitzgerald, Anita O'Day, Mel Torme the - among the vocalists who've sung this is one - considered one of the great jazz standards.

Mr. GOLSON: You're au courant. Not everybody knows that.

SIMON: Oh, well, I have the advantage of producers who make me au courant. Problem is you can't bring them round in your personal life, so I'm often...

Mr. GOLSON: OK.

SIMON: I'm often stumped in my personal life.

Mr. GOLSON: Great.

SIMON: But do I have this right? This song began as an instrumental?

Mr. GOLSON: Oh, yes, definitely. Leonard Feather, he was - he's passed on now, he was a jazz critic.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. GOLSON: He wrote them without my knowledge and sent them to me one day and told me, what do you think of this? It sounded pretty good.

(Soundbite of song "Whisper Not")

Mr. AL JARREAU: (Singing) So now, we'll be, On key constantly. Love will whisper on eternally. So do you see what I did.

SIMON: "Whisper Not," I gather, is the title of your forthcoming autobiography.

Mr. GOLSON: Yes, it's coming. The problem is the publisher wants no more than 300 pages. I have well over a thousand. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Oh my word.

Mr. GOLSON: Trying to boil it down.

SIMON: Well, you have a rich life.

Mr. GOLSON: Yeah.

SIMON: Is it a time in your life when you ask what you hope people take from your music?

Mr. GOLSON: I hope they have privy to look into the deepest grotto of my heart's core to understand what I'm about musically. And maybe they'll understand that what they hear is the reflection of my inner parts - my thinking, my curiosity, my imagination, and creative ability.

SIMON: Benny, thanks so much.

Mr. GOLSON: Thank you.

SIMON: And happy birthday.

Mr. GOLSON: Thanks so much.

SIMON: Composer and saxophonist Benny Golson. He will be celebrated at the Kennedy Center tonight for his 80th birthday, which is actually tomorrow. "New time, New Tet" is on the Concord Jazz label. And once again, Happy Birthday.

Mr. GOLSON: Thank you.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

SIMON: And you can hear full audio cuts from Benny Golson's new album - really worth doing too - on our Web site, nprmusic.org.

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