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A talent for landing in the pictures

Saxophonist and composer Benny Golson plays himself in 'The Terminal,' which at its core is about independent thinking.

By Don Heckman
Special to The Times

Jul 4 2004

Benny Golson is frustrated. It's the day before the Los Angeles premiere of "The Terminal," the Steven Spielberg film in which Golson has a starring role, and he's unable to attend, recovering from a minor medical procedure.

"Starring role?" In a Spielberg film, for a veteran jazz saxophonist and composer?

Not exactly. At least not in the traditional sense, Golson explains. In fact, he has only a few lines, and he doesn't actually appear until the closing scenes in the picture.

Golson's role, however, is vital to the story the central element in what Alfred Hitchcock would have called a McGuffin (or plot-moving device) that provides the primary emotional energy for the film's complex, sweeping story line.

And Golson, a vigorous looking 75-year-old with a warm smile and an engaging presence, is as surprised as anyone that his presence, his name and his music have come to figure so significantly not in a film by directors usually associated with jazz such as Clint Eastwood or Woody Allen but in a major motion picture directed by the one of Hollywood's reigning powers, featuring one of the industry's top box-office stars.

"I was in Europe when my office got a call from Steven Spielberg," Golson says, "The message was, 'Would Benny Golson like to participate in my new film in a small speaking role with Tom Hanks?'

"They reached me in Europe," he continues, chuckling as he recalls his initial reaction. "I said, 'Are you kidding? Of course I would.' " But it wasn't until he returned to the U.S. that Golson finally had the opportunity to discuss how he would "participate" in "The Terminal."

"I asked Steven who I would be portraying, and he said, 'Yourself.' So I said, 'Sure, OK, sounds good to me,' even though I still didn't quite get it. They sent a script which wasn't much of a script but it contained the lines that I was to say."

Next, Golson had his first experience with the life of an actor via a screen test in New York.

"They sent me to a specified place and I did it," he says. "They said, 'OK, that's fine.' But it didn't feel quite right to me, so I said, 'You know what? That's not the way a musician would say it.'

"So they said, 'OK, then let's do it again.' And this time I did it the way I felt a musician would say it. They sent it back to Spielberg in L.A., and he said, 'That's it. We love him.' "

At that point, Golson like the actors in Woody Allen films who receive only a few script pages a day still didn't have a full perspective on the picture. And it wasn't until he heard that it had something to do with the fascination that Viktor Navorski, the Hanks character, expresses for a famous jazz photograph perhaps the most famous jazz photograph that the pieces of the puzzle began to come together.

The photograph, shot in 1958 by Art Kane for an Esquire magazine spread, has come to be known as "A Great Day in Harlem," reflecting the title of the Jean Bach documentary film chronicling its creation. A seemingly simple mass portrait, it includes 57 of the most famous jazz artists in the world, from Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Thelonious Monk to Gerry Mulligan, Mary Lou Williams, Gene Krupa and Benny Golson.

"I was a new guy in town when I got the call to participate," says Golson, adding, with another chuckle, "I still had hair at that time. So when I got there and looked around, I said to myself, 'What am I doing here? Monk, Basie, Dizzy, Art Blakey, Chubby Jackson! Why am I here? But there I was."

And as it turned out, with good reason.

Philadelphia-born Golson was just beginning to establish his Big Apple jazz presence at the time. His tenor saxophone style, with a dark and brawny sound that went against the grain during a period in which many players were emulating the cooler timbres of Lester Young, stamped him as a man with a musical vision of his own.

His compositions starting with "Stablemates," recorded by Miles Davis in the mid-'50s, and reaching to such often-heard items as "Killer Joe," "Along Came Betty," "Whisper Not" and the lovely Clifford Brown tribute, "I Remember Clifford" quickly became staples of the jazz repertoire.

Golson feels, in fact, that it is those compositions that may have led to his selection for the film.

"I really didn't get it at first," he says. "Most of the musicians in the photograph are gone. But I was still thinking, 'Well, let's see: Johnny Griffin's still alive, Sonny Rollins is still alive, and he's a bigger personality than me. Marian McPartland, Hank Jones, Horace Silver, all still alive. So why did he choose me?'

"I think I found the answer when both Steven and Tom, independently, told me how much they liked my song 'I Remember Clifford.' And when they said they liked it the best of all my tunes, I realized that they were familiar with my body of work as well."

Spielberg affirms that in an e-mail, writing, "I've known of Benny Golson from my days in college when I was a frequent patron at jazz clubs like the Lighthouse [and] it was an honor for all of us lovers of jazz to have experienced [him] live and up close playing his songs in 'The Terminal.' "

A question of survival

The decision to use jazz and the "Great Day in Harlem" photograph as pivotal elements in the story is a somewhat thornier question to ponder.

Like other characters Hanks has portrayed Forrest Gump, Josh in "Big" and Chuck in "Cast Away" come to mind Viktor Navorski must deal with unique questions of survival. And like many of the themes in Spielberg pictures, starting as far back as "Duel," it is singular survival, one man finding, even inventing, his own answers.

All of which is a process not unlike what a jazz artist encounters whenever the moment for improvisation arrives.

Navorski facing the great unknown that greets him when his carefully planned trip is summarily interrupted, is not all that different from a jazz player, poised on the edge of the musical cliff that awaits him when the written part of the music ends, and he must make the inspired leap into the mysteries of instant invention.

"I remember," Golson says, "when I first saw that early Spielberg picture 'Duel,' with Dennis Weaver in his car being followed by this big menacing tanker truck. You never saw the driver, only the truck, so instead of the physiognomy of a face, you only saw the smokestack, huffing and puffing. And as Weaver kept trying to spontaneously figure out how to get away, all alone in his car, I thought, 'Man, Spielberg has something going that I can really relate to.' "

Golson, whose busy professional life is based from a home in Los Angeles and apartments in New York City and Friedrichshafen, Germany, finally got around to seeing "The Terminal" at the New York premiere in mid-June, shortly before he left for a European tour.

"It was the whole opening-night experience," he explains by phone a week later from Vienna. "Red carpet, limousines, photographers, video cameras. It was really something."

And so too, he adds, was the film.

"I loved the way jazz is so subtly used, the way it gradually becomes such an important part of the story. Spielberg brought everything together beautifully, and I had a great time doing my scene with Tom Hanks knowing that both of them are real jazz fans."

He is more diffident, however, about his own acting.

"I'll admit that I was curious to hear how my lines came out, how I looked, and how my band sounded in the scene where we're performing," he adds. "But there is one thing I already knew, that I was absolutely sure about, even before I saw the picture. And that's that I'm definitely not anticipating winning an Academy Award."

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Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times