Benny Golson spent nearly 20 years as a composer for film and television shows. It became a prison that he's finally escaped.
"Sitting there at that desk day in and day out, writing, writing, writing. Making deadlines," Golson said. "The family goes to Malibu Beach and I walk to the front door with them and that's as far as I can go. Then I go back into the dungeon."
Many of those deadlines were for "M*A*S*H," "Mission: Impossible" and other series, for TV and radio commercials and for arrangements recorded by Peggy Lee, Diana Ross and others.
Three years ago a call came from a producer in Europe who wanted Golson, a tenor saxophonist, to reactivate the Jazztet, the group that he and fluegelhorn player Art Farmer led in the early 1960s. "It's like therapy for me," said Golson, who plays at Charlie's this week as part of the new Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet.
Before he started cutting back on his TV work, Golson said he had even disposed of all but a couple of his horns and hadn't played for seven or eight years. "I guess I would have sold them all, but something inside said, 'Just hold on to these for awhile.' "
When he made his move back to performing, Golson rang up Farmer, who had settled in Vienna, and trombonist Curtis Fuller, a Jazztet alumnus as well as a former member of the Count Basie and Lionel Hampton bands. Both agreed to come back in the old format. They have been joined by Mickey Tucker at the piano, Ray Drummond on the bass and Marvin (Smitty) Smith at the drums.
"I started going to Europe around 1964," Farmer said, "and then I got a job offer with the Austrian Broadcasting System." Performing as a soloist with the national network's studio orchestra left him free for 20 days of the month and three months of the year, so he continued to tour with a small combo. Since leaving radio work in 1978, he has led a Vienna-based quintet that travels throughout Europe. Farmer returns to the States several times a year for month-long tours with the Jazztet.
"The most ironic thing about being over there," Farmer said of his two decades abroad, "is that I play concerts in small towns where the population might be 10,000 and I fill up a hall of maybe five or six hundred. It amazes me that the people know about me. But if I go to some small place here, it would be hard to find someone in the whole town who knew anything about me!"
Farmer noted that many of the concerts he plays in on the Continent are filmed for TV replay, which adds to his exposure overseas. He is lined up for a speaking and musical role in a forthcoming German film biography of Lester Young, the legendary saxophonist who died in 1959.
Farmer, who grew up in Phoenix, began his musical studies early. "Most middle-class black families at that time had a piano and there was always someone there to play the boogie-woogie or something, somebody who had some kind of natural talent. It happened that in our family everybody studied the piano. I started when I was around 6."
Later on, he studied violin until he "heard some people playing jazz, and I didn't think you could play jazz on the violin, so I started looking for a horn." Farmer's subsequent progression was from tuba to cornet to trumpet to fluegelhorn.
Golson, who attended Howard University in the late 1940s, added, "We have really updated the Jazztet. What we did when we stopped is not what we do now. Of course, there are things that we do have to keep in the repertoire -- like 'Killer Joe,' 'Blues March' and 'Farmer's Market' -- but we're constantly adding new things.
"We're like a slide rule, which leaves some of the older things behind, but it's always focusing on the things at present."