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Jazz Great Benny Golson Is Young Again

Benny Golson at The Music Box at the Fonda in Hollywood. Photograph by R. Diamond/WireImage for The Recording Academy

Viktor Navorski, Tom Hanks’s character in "The Terminal," spent nine months in an airport waiting to get tenor saxophonist Benny Golson’s autograph. The least Loot could do was brave New York's frigid streets to see Golson’s sold-out show at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.

The Saturday-night gig may have looked like countless others in a 55-year jazz career, but this was a special occasion. For Golson’s 85th birthday, the Benny Golson Quartet went back in time, donned their sharpest pocket-squared suits and played their set, "Stories From the Past," as their younger selves.

"There’s no end to jazz," Golson says as he takes the stage. "We’re never satisfied with ourselves." That sets up "Horizon Ahead." It’s a classic upbeat jazz sound -- happy, even -- as it is scattered around the acoustically fine room (the waves in the ceiling aren't just decorative).

Is it also kind of canned ? You get the feeling this tight-knit group can do this with their eyes closed. Yep, drummer Carl Allen’s eyes are closed. I wonder if this gig is one too many.

The cool-cat crowd doesn’t seem to mind. They’re head-bobbing, finger-snapping and tucking into Dizzy’s fare: cherry bourbon cocktails, hush puppies and fried green tomatoes hot enough to melt ice. Maybe, alongside the southern succotash, the band is just getting warmed up.

As if on cue, the liquid notes of "Autumn Nocturne" remind me to slow down my judgments and give my ears time to take it all in. As I do, Golson tells stories of growing up with John Coltrane in Philadelphia.

"We were just teenagers, aspiring musicians lucky enough to be playing with a band called Jimmy Johnson and His Ambassadors," he recalls. "We thought we were doing all right. But one afternoon, Coltrane at my house as usual, someone showed up to tell us our weekend gig was canceled. Canceled? We were crushed. My mother took one look at our long faces and said, 'I bet they're playing without you.' No, they wouldn't do that, would they? Off like a shot, we snuck into the club, and sure enough, John turned and said to me, 'They're playing our music.' Next time I played with Coltrane was years later at the Newport Jazz Festival. We had hit the big time, and Mr. Jimmy Johnson was still back in Philly."

Next Golson channels his "late, great" friend Clifford Brown, playing his "Tiny Capers." These particular songs, on this particular night, must have invoked powerful memories of a friend, a love, a loss. Because suddenly, the set leaps out at me with an improv so unrestrained and vibrant I stand corrected. It isn't canned. It's being created right in front of us.

"Jazz is all about imagination. We’re going to the same forest, but not to the same trees. I have no idea what solo I’m going to play. I play what’s on my mind," Golson says. Friends long gone are on his mind, and with each breath into the saxophone, he's giving them new life.

Fluidly now, the solos begin, first from Carl Allen, then pianist Mike LeDonne and finally Buster Williams on the double bass. Some are slow and sultry, others fast and loose, but each band member is letting it rip. Counting decades-long careers, they no longer have anything to prove. They're jamming, and it’s what makes them seem so young.

As if to prove it, the quartet is embarking on a cross-country U.S. tour right after this trip to New York -- the guys live in different cities and rehearse on tour. And, it seems, they can't get started fast enough. No sooner were the rhythms taking over, and the music transporting us to those magical stories from the past, than Benny brings the night to a premature end.

"To put it poetically, we've thrown ourselves on the naked bosom of your applause," he declares. "Thank you so much. Goodnight."

What? No encore? Oh. It's one of those clubs. We're in at 7:30, out at 9:00. Fair enough, the man is 85. But I can't help thinking that no amount of southern fried food and bourbon can make a New York jazz lover not feel slightly shortchanged. Would this have happened at Blue Smoke's Jazz Standard or Smalls Jazz Club? They run longer sets, and Blue Smoke's barbeque is a step or two up from Dizzy's southern fare.

To steal a little more time, I meet Benny backstage. The pre-tour excitement prompts Buster, 71, to share some words of wisdom with the band: "Whatever you do, don’t get home by midnight. Get home by midnight, women expect you home by midnight. Do yourself a favor and stay out till 4."

As the laughter dies down, Benny becomes sentimental. "I’ve known Buster 40 years. These are great guys, and they are loyal to me. I’m at my best when I play with them, I truly am," he says of the 15-year-old quartet.

Maybe Viktor Navorski's nine-month wait in the airport to see Golson wasn't so crazy. He and his band are one of a kind. Luckily, they're not breaking up any time soon (see the tour schedule). Plus, Benny says they'll be back playing the "jazz mecca" that is Lincoln Center this fall. Fresh from a $20 million cash infusion from philanthropist and chairman Robert Appel, the institution is well equipped to host jazz legends, and even wayward teenage musicians in the making.

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