Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Benny Goodman: Let's Dance, Again

Great Artists

If a guy's got it, let him give it. I'm selling music, not prejudice.
 Benny Goodman

I feel that after you´ve done all the work and prepared as much as you can, what the hell, you might as well go out and have a good time.
 Benny Goodman, Seattle Times, 1979

Benny Goodman is our "International Ambassador With Clarinet."
President John F. Kennedy, after Goodman´s return from a U.S . State Department-sponsored concert tour of Russia, 1962

Benny Goodman [1909-1986]: Playing in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1971. “Listening to Benny talk about the clarinet was like listening to a surgeon get hung up on a scalpel,” said Artie Shaw,  as quoted in the liner notes by Richard M. Sudhalter for the CD “Benny Goodman: The Complete Trios.”
Photo Credit: Hans Bernhard (Schnobby)
Source: Wikipedia

When Benny Goodman played Carnegie Hall in New York City at that concert in January 1938, it was a defining moment in jazz history. Critic Bruce Eder called it "Jazz's coming out party," and thus jazz become respectable and legitimate. The audience of more than two thousand patrons, mainly drawn from high society, enjoyed the show, giving their assent to jazz music and its various sub-genres.

In his career, spanning sixty-five years, Goodman had well over one hundred hit songs, including such favourites as Sing, Sing Sing, Don't Be That Way and Let's Dance. Such songs were perfectly suited for dances like the Jitterbug, Lindy Hop and Charleston, and synonymous with the swing era that many music historians say started in Los Angeles in August 1935. (His full discography can be found here.)

An equally significant gesture was Goodman's use of black musicians when it was considered a risky practice. That is also part of Goodman's legacy. Truly, for Goodman, it was all about the music, and his looking beyond skin colour and race, and integrating his band in 1936, was about finding talent where it could be found.

Thus, it's no surprise that, two years later, at the peak of his career, the twenty-eight-year-old Goodman played that hall in New York. It was Goodman who helped usher in the swing era in the 1930s, earning the well-deserved nickname "The King of Swing" in the late 1930s. That concert on January 16, 1938, was equally important for Benny Goodman and his band:
That night at Carnegie Hall was a great experience. When the thing was first put up to me I was a little dubious about it, not knowing just what would be expected of us. But as soon as it was understood that we could handle things in our own way, and let the people listen to it as they would any other kind of music, the proposition really began to mean something. Personally, it was the thrill of my life to walk out on that stage with people just hemming the band in (some of the overflow audience actually sat on the stage) and hear the greeting the guys got.
Maurice Peress, professor of music at Queens College in New York City, places Goodman as an accomplished musician, who brought in classical training and elements to the music that millions enjoyed and adored:
“I first knew and loved Benny Goodman’s music from my small collection of 78’s and first heard him live at the old Paramount. I brought along a lunch bag so I could stay for two shows. On trumpet I used to imitate Ziggy Elman playing the freilach variation on Benny’s recordings of  "The Angels Sing."

And years later, when I became the music director of the Corpus Christi Symphony, I had him as a soloist in Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. He told me we should play it as if we were singing “Don Giovanni.” Benny Goodman was a complete musician, the first-ever model for so many American artists who make no distinction between jazz and the classics."
That is an important point to make, one which will come up time and time again. Goodman's jazz and swing was stylized from a knowledge of classical music.
Benny Goodman: Saint Patrick's Day Spirit at Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., March 17, 1939. Seen in this staged photo are (left to right): Senator Joseph O'Mahoney, Wyoming;  Eunice Healy, dancer in Goodman's show;  Benny Goodman; and Senator Claude Pepper of Florida. It was more than a year after the concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Photo Credit: Harris & Ewing: March 10, 1939.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div.

Growing Up Poor In Chicago

Benny Goodman was born Benjamin David Goodman to Dora Goodman (nee Grisinsky) and David Goodman in Chicago, Illinois, on May 30, 1909, the ninth of twelve children of poor Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. They lived in the Maxwell Street area, a predominantly Jewish ghetto full of tenements. His father was a tailor from Warsaw, Poland; and, his mother was from Kaunas, Lithuania.

His parents had met in Baltimore, Maryland, where they married in 1894. They moved to Chicago before Benny was born in 1902 to the Maxwell Steeet ghetto, an overcrowded slum near the railroad yards and a mile from downtown Chicago. They first settled at 1227 South Sagamon, but moved around a lot, depending on the father's precarious work situation.  When Benjamin was born the family lived at 1342 Washburne. Thay moved many times afterward and suffered all the slights common to the poor.

In Swing Swing Swing: The Life & Times of Benny Goodman (1993), Ross Firestone writes where music fit in to Benny Goodman's life and calculations to better it:
Playing music, well, maybe, it was a great escape from the poverty . . . I don't know. I wanted to do something with myself. And the music was a great form for me. I was absolutely fascinated by it. So I set out at an early age to do what I could—and devote my efforts to it, and enjoy it.
That he did. Benny Goodman was only ten when he first picked up a clarinet, receiving lessons at Kehelah Jacob Synagogue. Further training came from his time at  philanthropist Jane Addams's Hull House, where he received lessons from the director James Sylvester, and two years of instruction from Franz Schoepp, a clarinetist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

When he was twelve, in 1921, Goodman made his professional debut at the Central Park Theater in Chicago doing an imitation of Ted Lewis. After entering Harrison High School in 1922, he played occasionally with the Austin High School Gang, composed of Bud Freeman, Jimmy McPartland, Frank Teschemacher, Dave Tough, and others). Their inspiration was the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, and Goodman's early influence was Leon Roppolo of the Rhythm Kings.

At age fourteen, Goodman was in a band with Bix Beiderbecke, and at sixteen was already regarded as a "comer" as far away as the west coast. Goodman was asked to join a California-based band led by another Chicagian, Ben Pollack. He played with Pollack for four years, becoming better known and established:
His earliest recording was made with Pollack, but he was also recording under his own name in Chicago and New York, where the band had migrated from the west coast. In 1929, when he was just 20, Benny struck out on his own to become a typical New York freelance musician, playing studio dates, leading a pit orchestra, making himself a seasoned professional.
By 1934 he had formed his own band, The Benny Goodman Orchestra. Then Goodman and the band were one of three bands picked for the NBC radio show, "Let's Dance," a three-hour show on various forms of dance music broadcast nationally. To tighten things up, he added Gene Krupa on drums and Fletcher Henderson to write the arrangements.

The Beginning of Swing

It took six months of endless rehearsals and touring, perfecting their sound, perseverance in the face of failure, nearly broke, to usher in a new era of music—Swing. But it didn't come together until their last date in Los Angeles at the Palomar Ballroom. Suddenly, they made it big:
The only plausible explanation for what happened there is that "Let's Dance" was aired three hours earlier on the west coast than in the east. The kids in Los Angeles had been listening, and thousands of them turned out to hear the band in person at the Palomar. They hadn't even come to dance; instead they crowded around the bandstand just to listen. It was a new kind of music with a new kind of audience, and their meeting at the Palomar made national headlines.
After two months at the Palomar in Los Angeles, Goodman was famous. The next decade was a whirlwind of performances, touring and records. After the west coast, they returned east, first home to Chicago's Congress Hotel for a six-month engagement, where Teddy Wilson joined Goodman and Krupa to complete the Benny Goodman Trio. And then in New York Lionel Hampton made it the Benny Goodman Quartet, and the band was a hit at the Hotel Pennsylvania's Manhattan Room. 

In June 1936, Goodman went to Hollywood, where, on June 30, 1936, his band began CBS's "Camel Caravan, a popular radiuo show. Then came the idea for the concert at Carnegie Hall, the shrine of classical music. The concert of January 16, 1938, was sold out weeks before, with all 2,760 seats going for the top price of $2.75 a seat, then premium price for a ticket. Needless to say, Goodman and the 15-piece band pulled off a performance of a lifetime.

Benny Goodman married Alice Frances Hammond [1913-1978] on March 14, 1942. They had two daughters: Rachel Goodman Edelson, an English instructor, and Benjie Goodman Lasseau, a performing artist.

After the War: Change in Musical Tastes

After the Second World War ended in 1945, musical tastes changed among jazz fans, and it moved from swing to bebop, as part of a larger cultural shift. His band disbanded by the end of the 1940s, and he formed ad-hoc groups for particular tours.  After the war, he became a musical ambassador, touring the Far East for the State Department in 1956-1957 and playing at the Brussels World's Fair in 1958. And in 1962, went on to tour of the Soviet Union in a cultural-exchange program.

Goodman played in many places around the world, and with many jazz greats, including Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie. Goodman was no stranger to classical music and its forms. He commissioned Béla Bartók to compose Contrasts, for violin, clarinet, and piano, in 1938.

He also became quite proficient in classical music, and recorded a number of songs, including Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, Debussy's Premiere Rhapsodie for Clarinet and Brahms' Clarinet Sonata No. 2 in E flat. Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Morton Gould all wrote music for him.

Benny Goodman died of cardiac arrest at his Manhattan apartment on June 13, 1986, just days after his final performance. He was seventy-seven. He was buried beside his wife in Long Ridge Union Cemetery in Stamford, Connecticut.

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