So the Story Goes: Benny, Brownie, and Dizzy

Dizzy Gillespie, courtesy of the William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress

News | Jul, 5th 2016

If you get a group of jazz musicians in a room together, it’s only a matter of time until they start sharing stories from the road. In this original series, “So the Story Goes,” we will highlight some of those great stories. See other entries in this series.

In the jazz world, Benny Golson is the complete package. A talented tenor saxophonist, Golson toured with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Johnny Hodges, Tadd Dameron, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Blakey, to name a few. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, he is also an illustrious composer responsible for numerous jazz standards. Of Golson’s compositions, perhaps the most recorded is “I Remember Clifford.”

While Golson was playing with Dameron, he became friendly with bandmate Clifford Brown, a gifted trumpet player affectionately referred to as “Brownie.” Years later, Golson was playing a gig at Harlem’s Apollo Theater with Gillespie’s band when he got word that Clifford lost his life in a tragic car accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The news devastated Golson, and out of his grief came the composition “I Remember Clifford.” From conception to initial reception, here’s what Golson had to say about the song in an episode of Jazz Stories:

I decided I would try to write a song that would be reminiscent of Clifford. And during those days, I could write a song in one day. You know, just a half-hour or so—might not have been that great though. But this tune, because of what he meant to me as a friend and fellow musician and what I wanted the song to be, consequentially, it took me almost a whole two weeks to do it. And once I did it, I wasn’t sure what I had.

So Dizzy came in early one night and I had come with my uniform that afternoon knowing that I wouldn’t be going back to the hotel. So since he was there, I decided to ask him what he thought about it. Chairs were still up on the tables, they hadn’t really prepared, but somehow he came early. So I asked him did he have a moment to listen because I wanted him to hear something. And he said, “Okay.”

He came over and sat down at the table and I started to play this tune and he said, “Hmm…” And then he started to take his trumpet out of the case and I thought to myself, “The man doesn’t even know the tune and he’s going to try to play it!” But he fooled me.

He took out his kerosene he used to use to oil his valves, and he took the valves out and he started pouring kerosene on the valves. Then he poured it in the horn and he held the horn up and he started blowing to clean out the horn. The kerosene got on me and it got on the piano and on the floor and I thought, “Oh man…he doesn’t mean anything. I haven’t got anything here.”

I mean, inside I was going crazy! I was bungee jumping and playing chicken and Russian roulette! But I simply said to him, “Yeah, I suppose it’d be cool.”

But when I finished it, he stopped and said, “What are you going to call that?” So I thought, “Maybe he’s interested?” So I told him I was thinking about calling it “I Remember Clifford” and how I felt about Clifford... And he said, “That’s beautiful! I have a [recording] date coming up for Norman Granz [a well-known jazz impresario] in about a month. Can I record this song?”

Now, Dizzy Gillespie is asking me! I could have come here to New York, stood in Times Square buck naked and people would have walked by me and not known who I was—that’s how obscure I was. I used to have [Dizzy’s] picture at the foot of my bed on the wall. I looked at it every day and every night and had dreams about the future. This man had come down over the wall, approached me and asked me if he could record “I Remember Clifford.” But musicians are supposed to be cool. I couldn’t reveal what was happening inside. I mean, inside I was going crazy! I was bungee jumping and playing chicken and Russian roulette! But I simply said to him, “Yeah, I suppose it’d be cool.”

And he did record it. But Lee Morgan was in the band and Blue Note had just locked into him and his first [recording] date was coming up in two weeks and somehow he heard it—I guess I played it for him—and he wanted to record it. So Lee recorded it first, Dizzy recorded it second, and Donald Byrd, who was with Columbia Records, was the third one to record it. And then I lost track! I wrote the tune thinking that it would be a trumpet tune but, lo and behold, while I was in Japan I heard a saxophone version by Sonny Rollins! And then I heard a version by Oscar Peterson, and then George Shearing, and then other people! I said, “Wow!”

Click here to read more entries of So the Story Goes.


Image credits: Dizzy Gillespie, courtesy of the William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress; Benny Golson, courtesy of the artist.

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