His passion was music and his big band sound quickened the pulse of a generation ready the shrug off the Depression and dance. With clarinet in hand, Benny Goodman was transformed for a child in Chicago’s impoverished Jewish ghetto into the so-named King of Swing. Greeted with near pandemonium, wherever his band played, Goodman led jazz into the commercial mainstream and brought with him gifted and original musicians
Benjamin David Goodman was born on May 30, 1909, in Chicago, Illinois. He was the ninth child of immigrants David Goodman and Dora Grisinsky Goodman, who left Russia to escape anti-Semitism. Benny’s mother never learned to speak English. His father worked as a tailor to support his large family, which eventually grew to include a total of 12 children and had trouble making ends meet. Despite the family’s poverty, Benny’s father insisted that his children study music.
When Benny was 10 years old, his father sent him to study music at Kehelah Jacob Synagogue in Chicago. There, Benny learned the clarinet under the tutelage of Chicago Symphony member Franz Schoepp, while two of his brothers learned tuba and trumpet. He also played in the band at Jane Addams’ famous social settlement, Hull-House.
Benny’s aptitude on the clarinet was immediately apparent. While he was still very young, he became a professional musician and played in several bands in Chicago. He played with his first pit band at the age of 11 and became a member of the American Federation of Musicians when he was 14 when he quit school to pursue his career in music. When his father died, 15-year-old Benny used the money he made to help support his family. During these early years in Chicago, he played with many musicians who would later become nationally renowned, such as Frank Teschemacher and Dave Tough.
When Benny was 16, he was hired by the Ben Pollack band and moved to Los Angeles. He remained with the band for four years and became a featured soloist. In 1929, the year that marked the onset of the Great Depression and a time of distress for America, Benny left the Ben Pollack band to participate in recording sessions and radio shows in New York City.
Then, in 1933, Benny began to work with John Hammond, a jazz promoter who would later help to launch the recording careers of Billie Holiday and Count Basie, among many others. Hammond brought Goodman to hear Billie and he was quite impressed, both musically and personally and the two had a lengthy affair, to the disapproval of both sets of families.
Hammond wanted Benny to record with drummer Gene Krupa and trombonist Jack Teagarden, and the result of this recording session was the onset of Benny’s national popularity. Later, in 1942, Benny would marry Alice Hammond Duckworth, John Hammond’s sister, and have two daughters: Rachel, who became a concert pianist, and Benji, who became a cellist.
Benny led his first band in 1934 and began a few month stint at Billy Rose’s Music Hall, playing Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements along with band members Bunny Berigan, Gene Krupa and Jess Stacy. The music they played had its roots in the Southern jazz forms of ragtime and Dixieland, while its structure adhered more to arranged music than its more improvisational jazz counterparts. This gave it an accessibility that appealed to American audiences on a wide scale. America began to hear Benny’s band when he secured a weekly engagement for his band on NBC’s radio show “Let’s Dance,” which was taped with a live studio audience.
The new swing music had the kids dancing when, on August 21, 1935, Benny’s band played the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. The gig was sensational and marked the beginning of the years that Benny would reign as King: the Swing Era.
Teenagers and college students invented new dance steps to accompany the new music sensation. Benny’s band, along with many others, became hugely successful among listeners from many different backgrounds all over the country.
Goodman is also responsible for a significant step in racial integration in America. In the early 1930s, black and white jazz musicians could not play together in most clubs or concerts. In the Southern states, racial segregation was enforced by the Jim Crow laws. Benny Goodman broke with tradition by hiring Teddy Wilson to play with him and drummer Gene Krupa in the Benny Goodman Trio. In 1936, he added Lionel Hampton on vibes to form the Benny Goodman Quartet; in 1939 he added pioneering jazz guitarist Charlie Christian to his band and small ensembles, who played with him until his death from tuberculosis less than three years later. This integration in music happened ten years before Jackie Robinson became the first black American to enter Major League Baseball. ” His popularity was such that he could remain financially viable without touring the South, where he would have been subject to arrest for violating Jim Crow laws.” According to Jazz by Ken Burns, when someone asked him why he “played with that nigger” (referring to Teddy Wilson), Goodman replied, “I’ll knock you out if you use that word around me again”. Benny once said, “If a guy’s got it, let him give it. I’m selling music, not prejudice.”
Goodman was regarded by some as a demanding taskmaster, by others an arrogant and eccentric martinet. Many musicians spoke of “The Ray”, Goodman’s trademark glare that he bestowed on a musician who failed to perform to his demanding standards. It could bring the most recalcitrant musician into submission. Guitarist Allan Reuss incurred the maestro’s displeasure on one occasion, and Goodman relegated him to the rear of the bandstand, where his contribution would be totally drowned out by the other musicians. Vocalists Anita O’Day and Helen Forrest spoke bitterly of their experiences singing with Goodman. “The twenty or so months I spent with Benny felt like twenty years!” said Forrest. Helen called Goodman “the rudest man I have ever met” and claimed to have left Goodman “to avoid a nervous breakdown.” “When I look back, they seem like a life sentence.” “Benny was a terrific leader,” recalled pianist Jess Stacy, “but if I’d had any spunk I’d probably have thrown the piano at him.” At the same time, there are reports that he privately funded several college educations and was sometimes very generous, though always secretly. When a friend once asked him why, he reportedly said, “Well, if they knew about it, everyone would come to me with their hand out.”
The next year, at the pinnacle of the Swing Era, the Benny Goodman band, along with musicians from the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands, made history as the first jazz band ever to perform in New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall. This performance was labeled as “the single most important jazz or popular music concert in history.”
Following the concert at Carnegie Hall, the Benny Goodman band had many different lineup changes. Gene Krupa left the band, among others, and subsequent versions of the band included Cootie Williams and Charlie Christian, as well as Jimmy Maxwell and Mel Powell, among others.
The Swing Era began to come to a close as America got more involved in World War II. Several factors contributed to its waning success, including the loss of musicians to the draft and the limits that gas rationing put on touring bands. The big band days were drawing to a close and new forms of music were emerging. By 1940 Goodman was in need of fresh inspiration. His band was losing fans to newer bands such as those of Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey. When Goodman entered the hospital for spinal disc surgery in July 1940, he had to break up his band and then put together a new one after his recovery.
The Fletcher Henderson charts remained part of this band’s repertoire but new arrangers, including Mel Powell, Buster Harding, and Jimmy Mundy, took the band in more modern directions. Noted Goodman recordings of the early 1940s include “Mission to Moscow,” “Clarinade,” “Oh, Baby,” and “Why Don’t You Do Right,” the last featuring Goodman’s discovery, singer Peggy Lee. (Ms. Lee and Goodman carried on an affair for years, long after she has left the band and enjoyed enormous success on her own.) As the 1940s progressed, however, it became increasingly clear that swing music had run its course.
He dabbled in the “bop” movement of the 1940s, but never succumbed, as the rest of the world did, to the allure of rock and roll influences in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, Benny tried his hand at classical music, doing solos with major orchestras, and studying with internationally acclaimed classical clarinetist Reginald Kell.
These appearances further demonstrated Benny’s range as a musician. His talent was unquestionable from the time he was 10 years old, and in recording sessions throughout his career, he very rarely made mistakes. Krell had helped him to improve some of his techniques, making Benny’s playing even stronger.
In 1953, Benny’s band planned to join Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars in a tour together, but the two band leaders argued before their opening at Carnegie Hall. Eventually, the tour was canceled due to Benny’s illness or the conflict between the band leaders.
Goodman enlisted the aid of his brother-in-law, the famed record producer and discoverer of talent, John Hammond, to help launch and promote the tour. The relationship between the two was always strained for various reasons–including Hammond being accused of taking credit for Goodman’s successes– but this particular project would bring things to a boil.
The band was assembled, programs were printed, and tickets were sold for the upcoming tour. All sellouts, by the way.
There is evidence that Goodman believed, even before the gigs began, that he didn’t need Louis Armstrong. However, Pops was contracted and showed up dutifully to rehearse his part in the program.
Here’s where things went wrong, and everyone who was there, including Hammond’s account of it in his autobiography, Steve Jordan in his own book, Bobby Hackett and Georgie Auld who were there at rehearsals, has a different account.
The gist of it is that Goodman and Armstrong finally met for a rehearsal, only days before the tour began, to determine what Armstrong’s role would be in the program, other to serve as “opening act.”
As the story goes, Pops and the All-stars, weary from yet another one-nighter, showed up at the rehearsal hall early the next day, while Goodman was in the midst of drilling his reconstituted big band in yet another rundown of “Don’t Be That Way.”
Armstrong wanted to rehearse his piece of the show with Goodman and get out of there ASAP, as he–and the All-stars–were dead tired. Goodman indicated that Armstrong and the gang would have to wait until he was through rehearsing his own band.
Pops, rightly, was insulted and incensed, and unceremoniously split the scene.
“It was clear to observers that Goodman wasn’t himself,” according to John Hammond. “Goodman acted erratically, he was drinking more than usual, and that he seemed generally distracted. Finally, barely two weeks into the tour, Goodman apparently collapsed in his hotel room. A week later, he withdrew from the tour, citing health problems.”
What occurred, it appears, is that Armstrong and the All-stars, doing their normal, vaudeville act at the actual show, totally upstaged the Goodman crew. And Benny, with his Mount Rushmore-sized ego, just couldn’t handle it, saw everything slipping away, and just abandoned the tour citing illness as a way of getting out of the tour. Some who were around at the time, however, do say that Goodman was actually very ill. We’ll never know for sure.
It could have been marvelous if Benny would have just let everyone do what they did. There are thousands of folks out there who would have loved to hear just what things really sounded like. It is not certain whether the tour was canceled due to Benny’s illness or the conflict between the band leaders.
The rest of the decade marked the spread of Benny’s music to new audiences around the world. The Benny Goodman Story, a film chronicling his life, was released in 1955, exposing new and younger audiences to his music. Benny also toured the world, bringing his music to Asia and Europe. When he traveled to the USSR, one writer observed that “the swing music that had once set the jitterbugs dancing in the Paramount aisles almost blew down the Iron Curtain.”
During the late 1960s and 1970s, Benny appeared in reunions with the other members of his quartet: Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa and Lionel Hampton. In 1978, the Benny Goodman band also appeared at Carnegie Hall again to mark the 30th Anniversary of when they appeared in the venue’s first jazz concert.
In 1982, Benny was honored by the Kennedy Center for his lifetime achievements in swing music. In 1986, he received both an honorary doctorate degree in music from Columbia University and the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. He continued to play the music that defined his lifetime in occasional concert dates until his death in June 1986, of cardiac arrest. He was laid to rest after a short nonsectarian service with around 40 family members and friends in attendance on June 15, 1986, at Long Ridge Cemetery in Stamford, Connecticut. Through his amazing career, Benny Goodman did not change his style to conform to the latest trends but retained the original sound that defined the Swing Era and made him the world renowned King of Swing.