Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Benny Goodman: The King of Swing

Benny Goodman and long-time rival, Artie Shaw, are the two greatest and best-known white clarinetists in the history of jazz. Both men achieved huge commercial and critical success during their respective careers. It was Goodman, however, who would forever be identified with the title, “King of Swing,” for his role in the invention of the most popular jazz subgenre during the height of the music’s popularity.

Benny Goodman was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1909. His parents were Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire who struggled to provide for their large family. Despite the family’s relative poverty, David Goodman arranged for music lessons for three of his sons, including Benny, at a local Chicago synagogue. After a year’s training, Benny Goodman, aged eleven, joined a boys’ club band and received further musical training from the club’s director, and later from a classically-trained clarinetist. With this solid foundation, Goodman would launch a career that would span seven decades and would span musical genres from early classic jazz to classical music.

Goodman’s began his jazz career as a clarinetist in the Ben Pollack Orchestra at the age of sixteen. He would make his first recording with the Pollack Orchestra in 1926. He would continue performing and recording with the Pollack Orchestra and its various off-shoots until 1929. During this frenetic period, Goodman also recorded with nationally- known bands of Ben Selvin, Red Nichols, and Ted Lewis. He also recorded under his own name with trombonist Glenn Miller and others as “Benny Goodman’s Boys.”

In the early Thirties, John Hammond of Columbia records arranged for Goodman to record in the company of other stellar jazz musicians in a jazz “all star” band. Other members of the band included pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Gene Kroupa, two musicians that would form the core of the rhythm section of Goodman’s later orchestra. In 1935, Goodman expressed interest in appearing on the nationwide radio dance music show, “Let’s Dance.” At the advice of John Hammond, Goodman secured “swinging” arrangements of songs from Fletcher Henderson, leader of one of New York’s best jazz orchestras. These arrangements helped make Goodman a hit with the West Coast audience that heard his performance.

On the strength of the Let’s Dance performance and the rave reviews of Goodman’s recordings of “King Porter Stop” and “Sometimes I’m Happy” with Fletcher Henderson arrangements, a large and enthusiastic crowd of young fans were waiting in Oakland, California when the band played a show there in August of 1935. When the Goodman band began to play, the crowd went wild. The same reaction greeted the band in Los Angeles during the debut of a three week engagement at the Palomar Ballroom in August, 1935. During the three-week engagement the “Jitterbug” dance was born, and along with it, the “Swing Era.”

In the wake of the tremendous success of the Goodman band in California, Fletcher Henderson disbanded his great orchestra and become Goodman’s full-time arranger. With the addition of Henderson and pianist Teddy Wilson, both African-Americans, Goodman’s band became the first racially-integrated jazz band in America. Goodman would later add another African-American, the great Charlie Christian, on guitar.

Goodman was coined, “The King of Swing” in 1937, and was secured as such when his orchestra became the first jazz band to play New York’s Carnegie Hall, in 1938. The concert, which included members of Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s orchestras, was a true test for jazz music as an art form. If the high-brow Carnegie Hall set could be moved by jazz, the music would earn a much needed stamp of approval from the music establishment. After an uninspired start, the Goodman Orchestra slowly built momentum and climaxed with an epic version of “Sing, Sing, Sing” featuring spectacular solos by Goodman and pianist, Jess Stacy.

In 1939, John Hammond introduced the electric guitarist, Charlie Christian, to Goodman as a prospective band member. Despite initial doubts, Goodman was greatly impressed with Christian’s playing and included him in the Benny Goodman Sextet for the next two years. The sextet recordings with Christian including “Rose Room,” “Breakfast Feud,” and “Grand Slam” are some of the finest recordings in jazz history.

Goodman continued to have tremendous success as a big band leader until the mid-Forties when swing music began to lose steam. Goodman flirted with be-bop music and even formed a bebop band before finally denouncing the music. In 1949, at the age of 40, Goodman turned his back on jazz to devote himself to the study of classical music. Following a lengthy retirement from jazz, Goodman died of a heart attack in 1986.

A plethora of fine collections are available for Goodman’s recordings at various phases of his career including the fine four volume “Chronological Classics: Benny Goodman and His Orchestra” (1996) while “The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert Vol.1-2” (1950) is one of the finest live recordings of popular music ever made.

Benny Goodman (third from left) and his band

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