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Benny Goodman: Forever The King Of Swing

Beyond making jazz a viable music form, Benny Goodman was the first to hire an African-American, Teddy Wilson, to play piano onstage with a white band.
/ Hulton Archives/Getty Images
Hulton Archives/Getty Images
Beyond making jazz a viable music form, Benny Goodman was the first to hire an African-American, Teddy Wilson, to play piano onstage with a white band.

Bandleader Benny Goodman was born 100 years ago Saturday. Raised in Chicago, Goodman rose from poverty to become a virtuoso clarinetist and the poster boy for the Swing Era. Along the way, Goodman's innovations changed the landscape of American music.

By the start of World War II, Goodman was an international celebrity. On a "V-Disc" created for the troops overseas, he recalled one of the moments that got him there.

"We gave the first swing concert that was ever heard in Carnegie, and I can tell you, it was a real thrill for me," Goodman said.

"Yes, and I can vouch for the fact that, from the response you got, a lot of the long-hairs in the audience got a big kick out of hearing the music you dished out to them," an announcer said.

The Game-Changer At Carnegie Hall

On the evening of Jan. 16, 1938, Goodman took the first jazz band to the stage of Carnegie Hall.

"Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall in 1938 takes a stand that jazz, however folk-rooted, can be high art and can make it just as a listening concern," jazz historian Phil Schaap says.

Schaap produced the 1999 reissue of Goodman's Carnegie Hall Concert. Up to that point, swing was music for dances and nightclubs. Schaap says the performance at America's most prestigious music venue was a courageous step on Goodman's part.

"Because he was risking some very bad reviews, since the music critics at the time were not jazz people," Schaap says. "You didn't have a jazz critic at a publication. You had a music critic who probably was on the record saying jazz was junk."

Instead, critics and audience members were bowled over by the sophisticated, up-tempo "hot" jazz arrangements written by Fletcher Henderson. The concert was the culmination of a process that began three years earlier at the Palomar Ballroom in Hollywood, where Goodman premiered this sound. The dancers went wild. Other bands copied Goodman, and the Swing Era was born.

A Human Quality

In her Waverly Place apartment, Israeli-born clarinetist Anat Cohen is transcribing Benny Goodman solos, preparing to celebrate his centennial next month at the Village Vanguard.

"I wish I could just be there at that time, and I could just get up and dance, and jitterbug with everybody else," Cohen says. "His swing is just so exciting. And he really goes all the way from top to bottom and back up on the whole clarinet — and it's hip, it's traditional and it's Benny."

Cohen says what's special for her about Goodman's clarinet playing — aside from being virtuosic and swinging — is its human quality.

"So when you listen to him playing, you hear a personality," Cohen says. "It's not just clarinet playing. It's someone that's just expressing everything they can on clarinet."

Not So 'Sweet' Beginnings

"Sweet" is how they described the music at the time. But Goodman's life was anything but. He was born Benjamin David Goodman in Chicago on May 30, 1909, to poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Benny was the ninth of 12 children. His father worked menial jobs, including shoveling lard at the Chicago stockyards. By the time Goodman was 14, he was able to help his family playing music.

"Then, when they were making a little money, they bought their father a newsstand. And then one day, on his way home, he was crossing the street, there was a hit-and-run driver who killed him," says Dan Morgenstern, author of Living with Jazz. "And that was one huge blow to Benny, because Benny was very close to his father."

Integrating The Band

Goodman went on to have a huge impact on American culture beyond music. In 1936, he hired Teddy Wilson to play piano in his trio. It's widely regarded as the first time a black musician appeared onstage with a white band.

In 1979, Wilson was interviewed for the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies by fellow musician Milt Hinton. The pianist recalled that, unlike Jackie Robinson's experience in baseball 11 years later, the integration of the Goodman band met with almost universal acceptance.

"As a matter of fact, it was an asset, the racial mixing," Wilson said. "The interest in the United States was just tremendous. And the public was so for the thing. Not one negative voice in any audience that we ever heard — just tremendous enthusiasm. The jazz fans were like — they were just hungry for this sort of thing."

Later that same year, Goodman added electric vibraphonist Lionel Hampton to the mix, and in 1939, the Goodman band gave listeners another surprise: an electric guitar played by another African-American, Charlie Christian.

Goodman Made Jazz Exciting

Amazingly, every innovation worked. For the second half of the 1930s, Goodman was the most popular instrumentalist in jazz, at a time when jazz was the most popular music in America. Anat Cohen calls Goodman's career an inspiration.

"I think it's incredible," Cohen says. "I think what he achieved — the amount of admiration he got from all ages, from young people to older people... People just were crazy for him. And his music was exciting. And that's something that maybe at some point, jazz was a little bit forgotten — how jazz can really be exciting."

Goodman died in 1986, at the age of 77. When the Swing Era ended, Goodman experimented with bebop and studied classical clarinet, even commissioning new work from Bela Bartok and Aaron Copland. But Benny Goodman will always be best remembered as "The King of Swing."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Tom Vitale