Benny Goodman - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


            August 21, 1935 found the Benny Goodman Orchestra at the end of a poorly received, depressing road trip. They started their set at Los Angeles’ Palomar Ballroom with polite dance music, and the audience soon seemed bored. With little left to lose, Goodman let his men loose to wail on some of the up-tempo arrangements they’d perfected on a radio show called Let’s Dance. Although Goodman didn’t know it, the show had been very popular on the West Coast, and the young crowd was primed to respond enthusiastically to the swinging sounds they’d heard on the air. The evening turned into a total triumph for the band, effectively launching the swing era. At the center stood clarinetist Benny Goodman, equally skilled in New Orleans style playing and the classical repertoire, and about to be  known far and wide as the “King Of Swing.”


            Benjamin David Goodman was born in Chicago, Illinois, on May 30, 1909, into a large, poor Jewish family. His clarinet lessons began in a synagogue at the age of 10. The following year, he joined the boys club band at Jane Addams’ Hull House. He also had two years of instruction from classical clarinetist Franz Schoepp. A fast learner, Goodman made his professional debut at 12 with an imitation of then-fashionable clarinetist Ted Lewis. In high school, he played occasionally with the so-called Austin High School Gang which included future stars like Bud Freeman and Dave Tough, all equally devoted to the hot jazz of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. NORK clarinetist Leon Roppolo was an early influence on Goodman, soon to be joined by Jimmie Noone, Barney Bigard, and other New Orleans players. Goodman joined the musician’s union in 1923, at the age of 14, and was soon gigging regularly in the Chicago area. In August, 1925, Goodman left for Los Angeles to join Ben Pollack’s orchestra, where he quickly became a featured soloist. Back in Chicago in 1926, Goodman made his first recordings with the Pollack group that December. He also had the opportunity to make his first records as a leader, with groups featuring Glenn Miller on trombone and Jimmy McPartland, another Austin High associate, on cornet.


            Pollack moved his base of operations to New York early in 1928. Goodman followed, and Manhattan became his lifelong home. Goodman stayed with the Pollack band until September 1929. By now an established musician, Goodman proceeded to work and record with trumpeter Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, as a leader of his own record dates, and as a very busy studio musician, accompanying the likes of Ruth Etting, Ethel Waters, and Hoagy Carmichael, among others. The sheer volume of his work on a sideman in the years 1929-1933 gave him extraordinarily broad exposure to the popular songs of the day, along with “the chance to consolidate his natural instrumental versatility,” as Gunther Schuller describes it in The Swing Era.


            In the early 1930s, Goodman began a long professional and personal relationship with jazz enthusiast and entrepreneur John Hammond (marrying Hammond’s sister Alice in 1942). Hammond, commissioned to produce jazz records for release in England, approached Goodman and helped him put together a nonet that recorded for Columbia as Benny Goodman and His Orchestra. By 1934, free-lance work was drying up, and Goodman needed a new source of income. With Hammond’s assistance, he formed a group to audition for a club run by showman Billy Rose. “There were practically no hot bands using white musicians at the time,'' as Goodman later recalled, ''and there was a lot of talent around town, both in jobs and laying off, that hadn't gotten the breaks.” The group was hired at Rose’s Music Hall to play for dancers. Their repertoire was small, with charts by Will Hudson and Benny Carter, among others. Carter’s “Take My Word,” recorded in August, 1934, was influential in its treatment of the saxophone section.


            In November 1934, just as a management change was about to put an end to their Music Hall run, the band successfully competed to be the “hot” band on the three hour national radio program Let’s Dance, winning their spot by a one-vote margin of the sponsor’s employees. With a weekly budget that enabled him to buy eight arrangements (at $37.50 each) for the 26-week run of the show, Goodman was able to build a much stronger book for the band. Edgar Sampson's chart for “Stompin' at the Savoy” was played on the first broadcast, and became one of Goodman's signature tunes. Another arranger, Gordon Jenkins, penned ''Goodbye,'' which became the band's closing theme. But it was Fletcher Henderson who supplied the most important arrangements for Goodman’s fledgling organization. Pianist and arranger Henderson had just given up the band he’d been leading for 11 years, and Hammond urged Goodman to make use of his talents. The first two charts he adapted for Goodman were the sure-fire audience pleasers, Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp” and brother Horace Henderson’s “Big John Special.”


            When Let’s Dance ended in May 1935, Goodman and his group followed Guy Lombardo at an ill-received hotel engagement in New York. A dispirited orchestra soon hit the road for its first cross-country tour. Every time they increased the heat of their performances, the group would be told to keep it gentle. By the time they arrived in California in August, the band was nearly broke and the musicians ready to quit. Then came Los Angeles, and finally audience approval for the hottest of the Henderson charts. It turned out that the Goodman band’s segment on Let’s Dance, presented live, was on the air too late at night to garner many fans on the East Coast. But young audiences in California were tuning in at prime time and digging what they heard. If Goodman had been unsure of his direction up to now, the rapturous reception in Los Angeles pointed the way forward. Two tunes recorded that July,  “King Porter Stomp” and “Sometimes I’m Happy,” both featuring trumpeter Bunny Berigan, were big hits for the Victor label.


            The Goodman orchestra became a national sensation. They stayed at the Palomar for two solid months, then headed for Chicago and what became a six-month stay at the Congress Hotel. Before the orchestra had left on tour, Goodman had recorded some trio sides with pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Gene Krupa. In December 1935, the Goodman group performed at a sit-down-and-listen performance organized by fans. For a follow-up concert on Easter Sunday 1936, Goodman invited the African-American Wilson with the trio as part of the festivities. Although black and white musicians had long recorded with one another in the studio, this was the first time that an integrated ensemble appeared on a public stage. Vibraphonist Lionel Hampton was added to the group later that year.


            Goodman was at the height of his fame in the latter part of the Thirties. The band had 15 Top Ten hits in 1936 alone, including"It's Been So Long,""The Glory of Love," "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)," and "You Turned the Tables on Me," all with vocals by Helen Ward. Goodman became the host of the CBS radio series Camel Caravan, which ran until the end of 1939. The orchestra started appearing in films, beginning with The Big Broadcast of 1937. In March, 1937, Goodman began a residency at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York, a venue he would return to annually for extended engagements.


            On January 16, 1938, the band played an historic, sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, later released on Columbia. In one edition or another, the music from that night, highlighted by a climactic “Sing, Sing, Sing,” has never been out of print. In 1939, once again at Hammond’s urging, Goodman was induced to listen to the Oklahoma guitarist Charlie Christian during a stop in Los Angeles. Duly impressed, Goodman immediately added him to his small group, now a sextet, and brought him to New York. Goodman is often characterized as a stern and demanding taskmaster who set the highest standards for himself and expected everyone else to live up to them, but his nurturing of Christian’s raw talent for two years, until the guitarist was too ill to play, shows another side to his character.


            It was also in this period that Goodman established himself as an all-around musician, recording Mozart with the Budapest String Quartet in 1938, and performed his first-ever recital at New York’s Town Hall that November. He also commissioned a work from Béla Bartók, Contrasts, which he premiered in concert at Carnegie Hall in 1939. There were later commissions for Aaron Copland and Paul Hindemith.


            In the summer of 1940, in spite of a full booking schedule, Goodman broke up his band, taking three months off to undergo surgery for a painful case of sciatica. When he got back to work that fall, he had a new arranger in Eddie Sauter, and new musicians in the group like trumpeter Cootie Williams, lured away from the Duke Ellington band, and young pianist Mel Powell alongside familiar faces like Christian, drummer Dave Tough, and tenor saxophonist George Auld. His sextet of the period, with Williams, Auld, Christian and a variety of pianists including Count Basie, is often considered the best of the Goodman ensembles. His 1947 group with tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray, guitarist Billy Bauer, and fellow clarinetist Ake “Stan” Hasselgaard had Goodman moving in a bop direction, but the experiment lasted only a few months.


            In the Fifties, Goodman returned to the swing style that he’d established in the Thirties, touring sporadically with specially organized ensembles. A film about his career, The Benny Goodman Story starring Steve Allen as Goodman, appeared in 1956, with a band filled with veterans of the Goodman group performing on the soundtrack. In the spring of 1958, Goodman made a triumphant appearance at the Brussels World Fair for a week of concerts, including a televised appearance, with an orchestra featuring saxophonists Zoot Sims and Seldon Powell, and pianist Sir Roland Hanna. As an ambassador of jazz on tours sponsored by the US State Department, Goodman traveled to South America in 1961, Russia in 1962, and Japan in 1964. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, Goodman continued to perform in a variety of settings, including occasional reunions with the trio or the quartet. In 1978, he performed at a concert commemorating the 40th anniversary of his famous Carnegie Hall show. His final appearances, in the Eighties, had him fronting the Loren Shoenberg big band, with a new generation of swing enthusiasts in the ranks, including trumpeters Randy Sandke and John Eckert, reedmen Ken Peplowski and Ted Nash, plus the powerhouse drumming of Louis Bellson.


            Among the many honors that Goodman received in his lifetime were induction into the DownBeat Hall of Fame in 1957, a slew of honorary doctorates Honorary doctorates from Union College, University of Illinois, Bard College, Columbia University, Yale and Harvard, a Kennedy Center Award in 1982, and the First Annual Distinguished Service Award from Hull House in 1985.


            Goodman had few peers as a jazz clarinetist, with his contemporary Artie Shaw and bop master Buddy DeFranco among the very few others who have played on his level. His massively successful orchestra stood at the center of the swing phenomenon, bringing genuine jazz to the forefront of American musical culture and popularity in the Thirties. With his small groups, he also established a model for a style of chamber jazz that remains influential to this day. By paying no attention to the skin color of his associates (he once said

"If a guy's got it, let him give it. I'm selling music, not prejudice."), Goodman played a significant role in breaking down racial barriers in the United States. And through his commitment to the classical repertoire, and his insistence on looking sharp on the bandstand, he brought a new level of respectability to jazz music. Not bad for a kid from a poor family who learned his instrument at a settlement house. Not bad at all.




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