Saturday, March 19, 2011

Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall

January 16, 1938: This is a seminal moment in American music history, one that established jazz and swing as a credible part of American culture. After all, Benny Goodman and his band were playing at the venue of high culture, Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Hera are some program notes on the concert:
 Goodman’s concert of a lifetime on January 16th of 1938 began as nothing more than a publicity stunt. Spurred by his publicist, Wynn Nathanson, the suggestion initially met with little enthusiasm from Goodman himself. The proposal was audacious! The prestigious Carnegie was hardly considered in the same league as the upstart genre born in the New Orleans jazz halls and refined in the poorer venues of the urban north by the children and grandchildren of slaves. But once Goodman wrapped his mind around the idea he grabbed hold of it with gusto. “If the stuff is worth playing at all,” he would reflect, “it's worth playing in any hall that presents itself.” The final product has been arguably hailed as the most significant jazz performance of all time.

The concert sold out weeks ahead of time and Goodman himself was forced to pay scalpers in order to secure tickets for his mother and family members. The performance’s opening numbers: “Don’t Be That Way,” “Sometimes I’m Happy,” and “One O’Clock Jump” followed by a history of jazz were met with polite, though certainly not overwhelming applause as was the subsequent jam session featuring musicians from the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands. But when the Goodman band performed the tunes that had launched their national acclaim the audience exploded.

Unprepared with an encore, Goodman pacified the crowd with the promise that Martha Tilton, who had performed the vocal on Jimmy Mundy’s arrangement of Claude Thornhill’s “Loch Lomond” would be returning to the stage shortly. The evening climaxed with Jimmy Mundy’s arrangement of “Sing, Sing, Sing” (Louis Prima) featuring Harry James on trumpet, Babe Russin on tenor saxophone, Gene Krupa on drums and Goodman himself on clarinet. Jess Stacy’s brilliant piano solo, on par with the most accomplished of classicists, put the icing on the cake.

Central to Goodman’s success, at Carnegie and throughout his career, was his insistence on playing with the best and most proficient musicians he could find,regardless of race. Unable to play in the American south where he could be arrested forviolating Jim Crow laws, he confined appearances to venues in which his integrated ensembles were allowed. Stubbornly refusing to bow to contemporary racist practice, Goodman eagerly incorporated such talent as Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson and Charlie Christian into the trios, quartets and big bands that bore his name. Though sometimes criticized as harsh, demanding and more than a tad arrogant, his tenacious adherence to principle transcended the color bar long before the anti-segregation movements of the 1950s and 60s.

While Carnegie may well have been the highlight of Goodman’s career, it was by no means the end. He continued on the entertainment scene, experimenting with Be-Bop and cool jazz, dabbling in film and documentary, and pursuing classical performance. It is a fitting epitaph that his death by heart attack occurred in his home — while playing Brahms on his clarinet – at the age of 77.
In many ways this concert was a defining moment in American history, establishing the United States as a  progressive free nation, at least in New York City, and helping it break away from its restrictive, puritanical roots, which would be more complete with rock 'n roll music twenty years later. The concert was as important to the nation as it was to Goodman and his ensemble.

It seemed, looking at some video shots of the concert, that New York' high society liked the removal of strictures, as well. At least for the concert's duration.

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