Saxophonist Benny Golson has composed some of the most memorable numbers in jazz, such as “I Remember Clifford,” “Whisper Not,” “Along Came Betty” and “Killer Joe.”
In a recent NPR interview with Scott Simon, Golson tells the story of playing a gig in a club one evening. Before the performance, one of the owners asked him what he planned to do for a solo number. The owner was astounded when Golson told him that he wasn’t sure of his selection. Golson explained his reasoning in this way: “Jazz is improvisation. You go to the same forest night after night, but each time it’s to a different tree.” In other words, you go with the flow; and when the time comes, you perform as the spirit moves you.
An interesting aside here is that, as a young man, Golson aspired to become a concert pianist. His favorite composer was Chopin. It’s well worth listening to his rendition of Chopin’s L’Adieu (Farewell Waltz) with Eddie Henderson on trumpet accompanied by piano. (By the way, Eddie went to medical school and trained as a psychiatrist before cashing it all in for a career as a jazz musician.)
Thirty years ago, when I was a student in training, I worked at a neighborhood health center in the seventh ward of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with a family physician who hailed from Bayonne, New Jersey. One morning a mother brought her baby girl to the clinic to have the infant’s ears pierced.
At that time we didn’t have prepackaged 14-carat gold sterile studs available to push directly through the earlobe. Instead, we instructed mothers to bring a set of earrings along, which we would then insert through holes in the earlobe made with a large-bore 18-gauge hypodermic needle. The only problem with this method was that many times it was difficult to feed the post of the earring through the opening in the flesh that would immediately collapse after the needle was withdrawn.
This particular morning the physician decided to let me have a go at piercing the baby’s ears. We mummy-wrapped the infant, then the mother and our nurse held the child steady while I cleaned off one of her earlobes with an alcohol pad. I opened the 18-gauge needle, withdrew it from its plastic sheath and regarded the ear before me.
I lifted the lobe and punctured it from the back, pushing the needle out through the front of the fleshy appendage. Then I had a thought. Instead of withdrawing the needle immediately, I inserted the post of one of the earrings directly into the bore of the hollow needle, then pushed the entire assembly back through the earlobe. When I pulled the needle out, there stood the post protruding from the back of the lobe, waiting for me to attach the backing.
“Wow!” the physician exclaimed. Everyone stood still for a moment, reflecting on the improvised procedure they had just witnessed. I couldn’t help but grin at my humble success.
“You know what that was like?” the physician said. “That was like, like…that was like the bull’s head that Picasso made from a bicycle seat and handlebars.”
I knew the piece of contemporary sculpture he was referring to. I could see it in my mind’s eye. Improvisation it was. Just like an impromptu jazz sax solo blown in the far reaches of the night.
Two years later, when it came time for me to leave the clinic to pursue further training, this same physician, who was also an artistic photographer, gifted me a black and white print of a bull charging a matador, who waits with a pair of banderillas held high in his uplifted arms. The images are drawn with a few strokes of an inked brush; the date in the upper left-hand corner reads “3.4.59.”
The artist is Picasso, of course.
The drawing hangs on the wall in my office above my desk, a reminder of a long ago friendship born in part from an improvisation, blue like jazz.
I like to think that Benny Golson would approve.