Saturday, May 30, 2009

The King Of Swing

Benjamin (Benny) David Goodman was the ninth of twelve children born to poor Jewish immigrants from Russia. At the age of 10, he and two of his older brothers were enrolled in music lessons through an area Synagogue. In the following years, he also played with a boys band and studied with a classical clarinetist. He was greatly influenced by the New Orleans style jazz musicians who played at some of the local Chicago clubs. He learned quickly and by his mid teens, was already playing with some of the top bands in the city. He made his first recordings under his own name in 1928 on Vocalion Records. Goodman also worked as a sessions musician, recording under an array of group names and recording numerous pieces.

Benny Goodman moved to New York City in 1929 and continued to build his reputation as a solid musician who was reliable and prepared. He did recordings for Columbia, Melotone and many other labels before signing with Victor in 1935. Some of the Columbia sides featured Jack Teagarden, Joe Sullivan, Dick McDonough, Arthur Schutt, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, Coleman Hawkins and the first vocal recordings of a very young Billie Holliday.

Goodman was also doing regular appearances on radio shows. Since he needed new arrangements every week, his manager John Hammond, suggested that he purchase jazz charts from a very popular African American musician named Fletcher Henderson. Goodman purchased all of Henderson's charts during the 1929 stock market crash and also hired Henderson and members of his band to teach his musicians how to play the music.

In 1934 and 1935, Goodman was one of the featured bands on NBC's "Let's Dance". The east coast broadcast was fairly late so he didn't have much of a following outside of Harlem, but unbeknownst to him, he was developing a large fan base on the west coast who were hearing the broadcast much earlier. The show was cancelled due to a strike in spring 1935 so Goodman took his show on the road to tour America. His reception was less than favorable in many locations as audiences weren't impressed with his "hot" jazz. They wanted a smoother jazz to dance to.

"King Porter Stomp" and "Sometimes I'm Happy" were released to rave reviews in July 1935, but the band was on the road and unaware of the success of this recording. The last stop on their tour was a three week engagement starting August 21 at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. The band was discouraged and nearly broke. The ballroom could hold 4,000 couples but the response was tepid to the opening set of traditional smooth jazz. With a little urging from his drummer, Gene Krupa, Goodman decided to go for broke. If they were going down, then they were going down playing the music they loved - the arrangements of Henderson and other swing arrangers that were writing for the band. With the opening notes of "King Porter Stomp", the audience went wild! This was the music they had been hearing on "Let's Dance" and what they had come to hear!

During that engagement a new dance craze known as "The Jitterbug" came into being and newspapers across the country were praising the new phenomenon which was called "The Swing Era'. This era quickly led to the explosion of the "Big Band Era".

In 1937, Goodman's publicist, Wynn Nathanson, suggested that Goodman should do a concert at Carnegie Hall. Goodman was skeptical as this was a venue that catered to more refined and elitist music, but eventually went along with it. He had already gained some mainstream success with his recordings and appearences on the silver screen in movies like "Hollywood Hotel" (1937).

The Hall was sold out weeks in advance. Top prices were US$2.75 - a lot of money for the time. The audience was reserved in their response in the beginning, but by the end of the night it was a smashing success. The recordings of the concert that were eventually released have never been out of print. Goodman had brought Swing to the masses and been accepted.

Goodman, focused much of his career on the swing music and the big band arrangements. He worked in various size groups such as trios, quartets, sextets and full orchestras. He had forays into classical and bebop, but the most success was with what he knew best - swing.

Benny worked with many, now legendary artists, including Coleman Hawkins, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian, Louis Armstrong and many others. Through the years he featured many great soloist such as Anita O'Day, Helen Forrest, Helen Ward and Rosemary Clooney. He wasn't the easiest man to get along with. He was seen by many as a taskmaster and a domineering perfectionist who could freeze you out with a cold stare if you didn't tow the line the way he expected. At the same time, he apparently was a generous private contributor for several young people to attend college with scholarships. He acknowledged that the music that he played - in particular that of Fletcher Henderson - had been a part of the black community for years, but it was Goodman who brought the swing music to the masses and made it a hit in the white community as well. He was also instrumental in helping to integrate the black musicians into the usual white only groups. He opend doors for other professions to also cross that racial line.

John Hammond was one of Goodman's closest friends and advisors. Goodman dated his sister, Alice Frances Hammond (1913 - 1978) and married her on March 14, 1942. They raised two daughters, Benjie and Rachel. John and Benny didn't always see eye to eye and the relationship was strained for many years, but they did reconcile the friendship in their later years after Alice had died.

Mr. Goodman continued to play the clarinet and occasionally perform, despite increasing health problems, right up to his death of a heart attack at age 77 on June 13, 1986 in New York City.

Today, May 30, 2009 marks the 100th birthday of this incredibly talented musical genius. Over the years, he has been honored with countless tributes and awards to celebrate his contributions to the musical world. His biggest hits such as "Sing, Sing, Sing", "Stompin' At The Savoy", and many others are still being played and recorded today.

Happy 100th Birthday to The King Of Swing!


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