Benny Golson, jazz’s Renaissance man, had been courted by big-name film directors before. They’d say they wanted him for a part, then it turned out to be a cattle-call audition.
So when Steven Spielberg reached out to Golson for his 2004 movie “The Terminal,” the instant response was no. A second phone call, however, convinced the acclaimed saxophonist/composer that this film would be different.
“I asked him: ‘Why did you pick me?’ He said, ‘When I was at college [Long Beach State], I used to come and hear you play.’ Wow.”
Also, Golson was being asked to portray himself.
In “The Terminal,” Tom Hanks plays an immigrant stuck at JFK Airport who is trying to score the final autograph — Golson’s — of 57 jazz stars who gathered for a legendary photo now known as “A Great Day in Harlem.”
Only two of those musicians are still alive.
Golson’s 1½-minute cameo in the 2004 Spielberg film “didn’t change anything,” said the saxman, who performs this week at Crooners in Fridley. “The money didn’t increase. I didn’t become a superstar or anything like that. It did introduce me to some younger audiences.”
While “The Terminal” may not have changed his life, that photograph remains a cornerstone in his career, as well as the subject of a 1994 Oscar-nominated documentary.
“I remember everything about it,” said Golson, who at 90 is sharper than any tool in your shed.
Esquire magazine gathered the jazz stars one morning in August 1958 for a portrait outside a Manhattan brownstone. Golson stands at the top of the steps, behind drummer Art Blakey, with dozens of his heroes at his feet: Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk.
The only other one left is saxophone giant Sonny Rollins, who no longer performs because of pulmonary fibrosis.
“I was the least known of anybody,” Golson said. “I’d just come to town.”
Golson had been invited by noted critic Nat Hentoff. Photo call was at 10 a.m. in, of course, suit and tie.
“We didn’t [usually] get up that early,” he remembered. “In those days, when we played Birdland [a Manhattan jazz spot] it was from 10 at night till 4 in the morning.
“We were late dwellers. We were the night roamers.”
Best buds with Coltrane
Recognized as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, Golson is modest about his inclusion in the famous portrait. But by 1958 he’d already made his mark as a performer — with Gillespie and Lionel Hampton, among others — and as a bandleader and composer, too.
Miles Davis recorded his song “Stablemates” in 1955, the first in a string of jazz standards penned by Golson, including “Whisper Not,” “Along Came Betty” and “Killer Joe.”
As a youth in Philadelphia, Golson palled around with another soon-to-be-famous saxophonist, John Coltrane.
“We grew up as teenagers together. We practiced in my living room together,” said Golson, who started piano at 9 and took up the sax at 14.
“We were in the same band. We got hired together, we got fired together. When we went on the road with somebody, we slept in the same beds trying to save money. We were like brothers.”
He remembers the powerhouse innovator as “quiet, reserved and full of talent.
“We didn’t have any idea about the future. We didn’t have any idea of where it was that we wanted to go. But we wanted to get there as soon as possible.
“We weren’t concerned about being famous. We wanted to learn how to play the instruments, and we weren’t concerned about making a lot of money. We wanted to engage ourselves in the music.”
After graduating from Howard University, Golson gigged with various jazz luminaries, then launched a band called the Jazztet, featuring Coltrane’s future pianist McCoy Tyner. But his career soon took a different direction.
In the early ’60s, the saxophonist/composer headed to Hollywood to write music for TV and films. His credits included such popular series as “Mannix,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Mod Squad” and “M*A*S*H.”
It was hardly glamorous work, he said. “My wife and my daughter would go off to Santa Monica Beach and I’m like a hunchback in the studio, writing, writing till midnight, getting up at 6 o’clock in the morning.
“Oh, man, the pressure was always on. There were no holidays. And there was nothing like telling the studio ‘I’m not ready.’ Because then you’re finished.”
‘I feel maybe 45 or 50’
That grind is far behind him now, but Golson remains active. He has 10 gigs this month and will perform in 12 countries this summer, including two trips to Japan.
“The rent man likes for me to work,” he said from his hotel room in Seattle, where he played earlier this month. “I’m a musician. I can still play, and I want to play.”
Moreover, he has the spirit of a younger man.
“I feel about maybe 45 or 50,” he said. “Let’s be glad I didn’t pick soccer or football. There are no 90-year-old quarterbacks.”
No outlier, he proudly rattled off the names of other jazz figures still active in their 90s, including composer/arranger Johnny Mandel, saxophonist Jimmy Heath and singer Tony Bennett.
Quipped Golson: “Last time I saw Tony, I said, ‘What are you doing — taking youth pills?’ ”
In concert, he is known for sharing back stories about his songs. One of his best-known ballads, “I Remember Clifford,” came to him after his friend, trumpeter Clifford Brown, was killed in an auto accident at age 25.
“Some people tell me they like the stories as much as they do the music,” he said.
The titles of his songs come “from things in my life or things I dream of,” he explained. “Titles are very important to me. I don’t just come up with the name. Except ‘Whisper Not.’ Which doesn’t really mean anything. I just liked the sound of those two words.”
Golson has taught master classes for years, and has been working on a textbook for jazz musicians.
“It’s somewhere in my computer,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever finish it. It’s hard for me to set time aside. There’s so much pulling on me. Every day I get requests for interviews and for teaching from all over the world.”
The desire to learn still motivates him.
“Even now at 90, I don’t know everything there is to know. So when I teach master classes, sometimes the teacher learns from the kids. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it should be. Like Sonny Rollins said to me once: ‘There’s no end to this music.’ ”
When: 7 & 9 p.m. April 24-25.
Where: Crooners, 6161 Hwy. 65 NE., Fridley.
Tickets: $30-$40, croonersmn.com
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719