Goodman, Benny (1909-1986)

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Goodman, Benny (1909-1986)

Known as the "King of Swing," bandleader Benny Goodman left his mark on the swing era of the late 1930s and early 1940s in several important areas. He adapted both jazz and popular songs into a unique style of big band jazz. His superb technique and distinctive solo style made him the outstanding clarinetist of that era. During a time of racial segregation, he became the first leader to include African Americans in his orchestra. He innovatively returned jazz to its roots by using band members in small combos—from trios to sextets. His career was long-lasting, and when almost seventy, he impressed jazz critic John McDonough as "the only bankable jazz star left who can fill a concert hall all by himself," adding that "the Goodman mystique has not only survived, it's thrived."

When Chicago-born Benny was ten he joined a synagogue boys band, immediately showing a natural aptitude for the clarinet. Within a year he enrolled in the boys' band at famous Hull House, which offered free instruction in the arts to children of immigrant families. There his teacher was Franz Schoep, an instructor of woodwinds in the Chicago Symphony. Benny was twelve when he appeared on stage in Chicago doing an impersonation of clarinetist Ted Lewis, even then attracting the attention of bandleader Ben Pollack, who later hired him. At thirteen Goodman was playing phenomenal jazz solos with the famous Austin High Gang, which included such stars-to-be as saxophonist Bud Freeman, drummer Dave Tough, cornetist Jimmy McPartland, and clarinetist Frank Teschemacher. When he first jammed with the band, McPartland said, "This little monkey played about sixteen choruses of 'Rose' and I just sat there with my mouth open."

At thirteen, he was a full member of the musicians' union and working several nights a week in clubs and dance halls. In August 1925, the sixteen-year-old prodigy left Chicago wearing adolescent knickers to join Ben Pollack's band in Los Angeles. Pollack led one of the best jazz bands in the United States during the late 1920s and early 1930s. By 1927 Goodman was gaining the respect of other musicians, and that same year Melrose music publishers issued a folio called One Hundred Jazz Breaks by Benny Goodman. In 1928 he left Pollack briefly for the Isham Jones band, but when Pollack got a job that year in New York City, young Goodman rejoined him for the chance to play regularly with such standout jazzmen as Bud Freeman, Jimmy McPartland, Glenn Miller, and Jack Teagarden. He was undaunted by his fellow stars, and Pollack commented that "Benny Goodman was getting in everybody's hair about this time, because he was getting good and took all the choruses."

In 1929 he began a successful career as a freelancer in New York City, playing in Broadway pit bands and on recordings and radio. Of the 130 recording dates Goodman made during this period, only about fifteen were genuine jazz sessions. In these, however, he played with such jazzmen as Bix Beiderbecke, Red Nichols, Joe Venuti, Fats Waller, blues queen Bessie Smith, and even his early idol, Ted Lewis.

By 1933, having determined the kind of music he wanted to play, Goodman began making plans to organize his own band, and in 1934 the Benny Goodman Orchestra was featured on an ongoing NBC radio series called "Let's Dance." After a few recordings on Columbia, he signed a long-term contract with Victor in 1935 and took his band on the road. Success was gradual at first, but with the extraordinary arrangements of Fletcher Henderson, enhanced by the solos of Goodman, trumpeters Bunny Berrigan, Ziggy Elman, and Harry James; pianists Jess Stacey and Teddy Wilson, and drummer Gene Krupa, the band attained phenomenal nation-wide success in 1936. On January 16, 1938, Goodman, wearing white tie and tails, led his band into Carnegie Hall for the first pure jazz concert held there. The vocals of Peggy Lee—including "Why Don't You Do Right?" and "My Old Flame"—helped the orchestra remain a prime attraction until it was disbanded in mid 1944 to allow Goodman to focus on concerts with his combo groups.

He reorganized his big band in 1945 and appeared as its leader off and on until 1950, when he toured Europe with a sextet. After that, he fronted the big band on only one brief tour in the spring of 1953, involving himself in a number of other projects. He assembled a special band in 1955 to record the soundtrack for the film The Benny Goodman Story, starring Steve Allen as Goodman.

A wide variety of projects drew his attention: in the winter of 1956-57 he toured the Far East and in 1962 the Soviet Union, both for the State Department; sandwiched between were appearances with the Budapest String Quartet as well as concerts of works he had commissioned from Bartok, Hindemith, and Copland.

In the early 1970s he presented a television show from Carnegie Hall in which he reunited his original quartet and played a memorable version of "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas." The same group, with an ailing Gene Krupa, played the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival.

By the 1980s Goodman's health problems began to increase as he suffered from arthritis in his fingers and a heart ailment that required a pacemaker. As late as 1986 he continued to play with a big band on occasional radio broadcasts. His biographer, Russell Connor, found these performances "brilliant, effortless, faultless, inspiring," adding that the sidemen were "visibly impressed."

The respect of his peers was far more important to Goodman than the long string of victories in jazz polls taken by Downbeat, Metronome, Playboy, and Esquire. His special niche was to change the course of jazz during the swing era. He was the "King of Swing," who, as James L. Collier wrote, "opened the door for the bands which rushed through the gap—among them Basie, Herman, Barnet, Lunceford, Berigan, Crosby, Webb, Shaw, and eventually Kenton, Raeburn and the modernists."

—Benjamin Griffith

Further Reading:

Collier, James Lincoln. Benny Goodman and the Swing Era. New York, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Connor, D. Russell. Benny Goodman: Listen to His Legacy, Lanham, Maryland, Scarecrow Press, 1988.

Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era. New York, Oxford University Press, 1989.

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Goodman, Benny (1909-1986)

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