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A talent for landing in the pictures

Saxophonist and composer Benny Golson plays himself in 'The Terminal,' which at its core is about independent thinking.

July 04, 2004|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Benny Golson is frustrated. It's the day before the Los Angeles premiere of "The Terminal," the Steven Spielberg film in which Golson has a starring role, and he's unable to attend, recovering from a minor medical procedure.

"Starring role?" In a Spielberg film, for a veteran jazz saxophonist and composer?

Not exactly. At least not in the traditional sense, Golson explains. In fact, he has only a few lines, and he doesn't actually appear until the closing scenes in the picture.

Golson's role, however, is vital to the story -- the central element in what Alfred Hitchcock would have called a McGuffin (or plot-moving device) that provides the primary emotional energy for the film's complex, sweeping story line.

And Golson, a vigorous looking 75-year-old with a warm smile and an engaging presence, is as surprised as anyone that his presence, his name and his music have come to figure so significantly not in a film by directors usually associated with jazz such as Clint Eastwood or Woody Allen but in a major motion picture directed by the one of Hollywood's reigning powers, featuring one of the industry's top box-office stars.

"I was in Europe when my office got a call from Steven Spielberg," Golson says, "The message was, 'Would Benny Golson like to participate in my new film in a small speaking role with Tom Hanks?'

"They reached me in Europe," he continues, chuckling as he recalls his initial reaction. "I said, 'Are you kidding? Of course I would.' " But it wasn't until he returned to the U.S. that Golson finally had the opportunity to discuss how he would "participate" in "The Terminal."

"I asked Steven who I would be portraying, and he said, 'Yourself.' So I said, 'Sure, OK, sounds good to me,' even though I still didn't quite get it. They sent a script -- which wasn't much of a script -- but it contained the lines that I was to say."

Next, Golson had his first experience with the life of an actor via a screen test in New York.

"They sent me to a specified place and I did it," he says. "They said, 'OK, that's fine.' But it didn't feel quite right to me, so I said, 'You know what? That's not the way a musician would say it.'

"So they said, 'OK, then let's do it again.' And this time I did it the way I felt a musician would say it. They sent it back to Spielberg in L.A., and he said, 'That's it. We love him.' "

At that point, Golson -- like the actors in Woody Allen films who receive only a few script pages a day -- still didn't have a full perspective on the picture. And it wasn't until he heard that it had something to do with the fascination that Viktor Navorski, the Hanks character, expresses for a famous jazz photograph -- perhaps the most famous jazz photograph -- that the pieces of the puzzle began to come together.

The photograph, shot in 1958 by Art Kane for an Esquire magazine spread, has come to be known as "A Great Day in Harlem," reflecting the title of the Jean Bach documentary film chronicling its creation. A seemingly simple mass portrait, it includes 57 of the most famous jazz artists in the world, from Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Thelonious Monk to Gerry Mulligan, Mary Lou Williams, Gene Krupa -- and Benny Golson.

"I was a new guy in town when I got the call to participate," says Golson, adding, with another chuckle, "I still had hair at that time. So when I got there and looked around, I said to myself, 'What am I doing here? Monk, Basie, Dizzy, Art Blakey, Chubby Jackson! Why am I here? But there I was."

And as it turned out, with good reason.

Philadelphia-born Golson was just beginning to establish his Big Apple jazz presence at the time. His tenor saxophone style, with a dark and brawny sound that went against the grain during a period in which many players were emulating the cooler timbres of Lester Young, stamped him as a man with a musical vision of his own.

His compositions -- starting with "Stablemates," recorded by Miles Davis in the mid-'50s, and reaching to such often-heard items as "Killer Joe," "Along Came Betty," "Whisper Not" and the lovely Clifford Brown tribute, "I Remember Clifford" -- quickly became staples of the jazz repertoire.

Golson feels, in fact, that it is those compositions that may have led to his selection for the film.

"I really didn't get it at first," he says. "Most of the musicians in the photograph are gone. But I was still thinking, 'Well, let's see: Johnny Griffin's still alive, Sonny Rollins is still alive, and he's a bigger personality than me. Marian McPartland, Hank Jones, Horace Silver, all still alive. So why did he choose me?'

"I think I found the answer when both Steven and Tom, independently, told me how much they liked my song 'I Remember Clifford.' And when they said they liked it the best of all my tunes, I realized that they were familiar with my body of work as well."

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