Keeping My Music in Its Place
AS AN eight-year-old boy in Philadelphia, I felt somehow that I was different. One day I took a razor blade and slashed my finger, figuring that if I bled as others did I was doomed eventually to share the same end—like our neighbor down the block who died and ended up in a casket. I watched the blood spurt forth. “Benny Golson,” I said to myself, “you too will die.”
For the next five years or so, when I was alone, concerns about death periodically filled my mind. I would look down at my hands and make them move, listen to my voice as I spoke a word or two, and would look at myself in the mirror. I was frightened, since I knew that one day I would be no more.
I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live. But it seemed now I was engaged in a race with time, since the time allotted to me was not of a tremendous length.
Because of the interest I was showing in music, at age nine my mother began giving me piano lessons. At 14 I added the tenor saxophone. I fell in love with the instrument. Every time Lionel Hampton would come to the Earle Theater, I was there taking in every note and wishing that I could play like his featured sax man, Arnett Cobb.
About that time, during World War II, a number of us aspiring teenage musicians did a lot of rehearsing together. During one of these sessions at my house an acquaintance, a much older person, said: “One day all of you will be smoking, drinking and taking dope.” I was indignant, and told him that music was the only thing on our minds. But he repeated what he had said, and added: “Wait and see.”
The anger he stirred in me became sort of a defense mechanism. I was determined to be a “clean” musician, and though I was able to avoid these things, many of my former friends, including ones at the rehearsal that night, later fell victim to them. In fact, some are now dead from drug overdoses.
Beginning of a Career
In 1948 I entered Howard University in Washington, D.C., to prepare to become a schoolteacher. Yet music remained my real love. I daydreamed a lot about becoming an internationally recognized musician, and became consumed with practicing my saxophone. Would courses in psychology, public speaking and other such subjects help me to play my horn better or to create new melodies? I packed up one day and never returned to school.
I felt I was ready to tackle the world, since I had been doing a lot of playing off campus in the local night clubs. I received seven dollars for each band arrangement (17 pieces), and the bands played everything I wrote. I didn’t care about the money—it was the experience I wanted.
When I arrived back home in Philadelphia I received an offer to join the band of “Bullmoose” Jackson, a popular singer. Tadd Dameron was on piano. He was one of my idols as an arranger. I felt I had finally made it.
Achievements in Music
Later, when I was with another band, I was writing jazz tunes during my off hours. As we traveled from city to city, I would give them to musicians in these various places.
“Hey, Benny, remember that tune I took with me to New York?” John Coltrane, one of these musicians, asked me on the street one day. “Well, Miles liked it so much we recorded it.”
I was delightfully surprised because Miles Davis was a major jazz recording artist. That recording, “Stablemates,” started me on my way as a jazz composer.
After that, everybody seemed to want me to write and arrange music for them. As a result, I was writing every day. I sought to manifest a certain conviction I had that songs, even though jazz, should be melodic. Later that conviction became my trademark, and possibly led to my success as a jazz composer. About the same time I also began to gain recognition for my tenor saxophone.
It was in 1956 that I got a call from “Dizzy” Gillespie to join his band. He had just returned from a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour of the Middle East, and was about to embark on a similar trip to South America. While with him I won first place in the Downbeat International Jazz Poll as “New Star Tenor Saxophonist” and “New Star Arranger.” Gillespie’s band finally broke up, and I decided to remain in New York so as to become firmly established within the network of musical activity.
Something I Wanted to Believe
While I was in New York, Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my apartment door. I felt they were a dedicated people but were wasting their time. Who had time to read religious magazines? I threw mine in the trash when they left. The one thing that stuck with me, however, was how well-mannered and nice they were.
One week, while working at the Apollo Theater in New York, I noticed a couple with magazines in their hands at the stage entrance. When I saw that they were copies of The Watchtower and Awake! I said to myself, “Oh, no! Not here too.” But I also noticed that all the musicians, many of whom were quite world-hardened, were kind and polite to them. I couldn’t understand it. Later I learned that the husband, Paul White, had been in show business and knew many of the performers personally. He and his wife concentrated on talking to show people about God’s purposes.
Finally they approached me. I was ready to hear what they were talking about simply because I was so curious. It was then I realized why the other fellows were so respectful and attentive. These were the kindest and mildest people I had ever met. But they spoke of things that sounded to me pure fantasy—the end of this entire system of things and its replacement by a new one where people would live forever on earth in happiness.—2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:3, 4.
I wanted to believe it, if it were only true. But it couldn’t be, could it? I’d never heard “Reverend” Lewis at the Faith Tabernacle Church in Philadelphia talk about such things. I saw Paul and Ida White again in Chicago while I was playing at the Regal Theater. Later they talked to me in Miami, Florida. “These people are really dedicated, or crazy, or both,” I thought.
Helped by Another Musician
A few years later Art Farmer and I formed a group called “The Jazztet.” Eventually a trombonist, Tom McIntosh, joined us. We learned afterward that he was studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. He would talk to anybody in sight about things he was learning—waitresses, club owners, washroom attendants, fellow musicians and patrons alike. I never remember seeing his spirit dampened and he was never embarrassed.
We would often travel by station wagon between engagements in various towns. When Tom started to ride with us our topics for conversation changed dramatically, along Biblical lines. Somehow, the guys always wanted to prove Tom wrong. Yet he would turn to the Scriptures and say: “Check this out.”
It wasn’t very long before the fellows became annoyed with Tom because again and again he was proved right by the Bible. They even took a vote to stop him from talking about his beliefs anymore. But, then, a strange thing happened. Tom had given just enough information to make them curious, and so invariably they would bring up Bible topics, usually beginning with questions. So the Bible discussions in the station wagon never stopped.
During his stay with the group, Tom told me something that was to keep echoing through my mind long after he had gone. “You’re doing many of the right things,” he said, “but you’re not going to get any benefit from them.” What he meant was that I would have to live my life in harmony with all of God’s requirements, not just part of them, if I was to benefit from His gift of everlasting life.—Rom. 6:23; John 17:3.
Now I felt I had to know what God’s will was. So when the group broke up a little later, my wife, Bobbie, and I began to study the Bible with Tom back in New York. Through our studies I came to understand matters I had long wondered and even worried about. The frightened little boy I had been was wrong—there was opportunity to escape dying. Humans, I learned, originally were not meant to die, but to live forever in an earthly paradise. And through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ the way was opened for persons eventually to enjoy the prospects of everlasting life.—John 3:16.
A New Way of Life
Shortly afterward, in 1967, we left for Los Angeles. I wanted to write for films and television. Many established musicians and friends of mine had already gone to the West Coast and they kept saying to me, “Come!” I did.
In Los Angeles, my total concern was to become established in the industry. I put my saxophone away temporarily, and concentrated all my energies on film writing. In time, I wrote for such television shows as Mission Impossible and The Partridge Family, as well as major films. Things were going well for me materially, but I didn’t seem to have time for anything else. When we first came to Los Angeles I kept saying that as soon as I got a foothold we would look for Jehovah’s Witnesses. It never happened. The more I was achieving materially, the more I wanted, just as the Bible says at Ecclesiastes 5:10.—Matt. 16:26.
Then one day when I returned home my wife met me at the door with, “Guess what! The Witnesses were here today.” She said that they would be back the following week. Later we learned that Tom McIntosh had requested that someone who had a similar interest—music, of course—be sent to my house. Al Kavelin and his wife came, Al having been a successful bandleader.
Through our renewed studies we finally started to develop a true appreciation for sacred things. In time, both my wife and I dedicated our lives to serve Jehovah God, and symbolized this by water baptism. Eventually, after growing to Christian maturity, I was appointed an elder in the congregation.
Yes, I love music. I always have. And I constantly pray that I will keep the right Christian balance concerning that love. I realize that no matter how well I play my instrument or how well I write a song or how great a film score turns out or whatever other successes come, not one, or even all of them, will make me worthy of life in God’s new system. It has been over 12 years now since I dedicated my life to serve Jehovah, and I can testify that one must keep alert to maintain one’s spirituality.
For example, it wasn’t long after my baptism that I started to miss Christian meetings. My music again began to crowd out more important spiritual interests. But a Christian elder kindly drew to my attention what was happening, and, grateful for his help, I made adjustments. Money and a reputation in the music world no longer were the important things in life to me. Does this mean that I gave up my work as a musician and writer?
No, it doesn’t. I realize that my type of work can expose one to a bad environment—many musicians are involved in drugs and immorality. But can you think of any secular job situation, professional or nonprofessional, where there are no traces of dishonesty, corruption, immorality, alcoholism, gambling or the like? These things, and even drugs, are now in all strata of society. If one is to hold practically any job, they can’t be escaped.
At the same time, if a Christian’s spirituality begins to suffer because of his employment, this should be brought to his attention, as it was to me. I took the necessary steps to safeguard my spirituality. And, as a musician, I have had opportunities of speaking to many in the entertainment business that other Witnesses could never reach with the message about God’s kingdom.
Music has long rated a much less important place in my life than in earlier years. The privilege of serving Jehovah is my most precious possession. He wants his people to be happy, and I am happy. Furthermore, I trust that if I gain the reward of life in his new system I will be eternally happy, saxophone or no saxophone.—Contributed.