- Historic Sites
An Interview With the King of Swing
October/november 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 6
Benny Goodman strolled down New York’s Second Avenue one recent morning, covering the nine blocks between his apartment and a health club, where he swims each day, in about ten minutes. During that time no fewer than four strangers recognized him and vigorously shook his hand. They varied in age from near-contemporaries to youngsters clearly born long after Goodman’s glory days. But all had much the same thing to say. “I just want to thank you,” said one, who appeared to be in his late forties. “I can’t imagine my life without you and your music.” Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine twentieth-century America—at least that part of it which has to do with entertainment—without Benny Goodman. No other jazz figure—not even Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong—has come to mean so much to so wide a cross-section of the population as has this quiet-spoken, bespectacled jazz clarinetist.
Benjamin David Goodman was born in Chicago, May 30, 1909, ninth of twelve children of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. His father, a tailor, worked hard; but it was clear from the outset that the Goodman siblings would have to learn quickly and well how to be self-sufficient in a tough, keenly competitive—and not always just—world. Young Benjamin received his first clarinet at age ten, and within four years he was playing it professionally around Chicago.
He couldn’t have come along at a better place and time. Chicago in the early 1920’s was full of a new music called jazz; its delirious charm spoke most forcefully to the young. Still in short pants, Goodman soon fell in with other youthful musicians who spent most of their time frequenting speakeasies and dance halls on the South Side, listening to such black jazz pioneers as cornetist Joe (“King”) Oliver, whose Creole Jazz Band included the eloquent clarinetist Johnny Dodds and, on second cornet, a legend-to-be, Louis Armstrong.
Things moved fast thereafter. His reputation spread quickly, especially after he started making phonograph records; by the time he arrived in New York as a member of Ben Pollack’s orchestra, the word was out—a new and revolutionary clarinet talent was on the scene. He played a hot style comparable to others of his time—Pee Wee Russell, Don Murray, and fellow-Chicagoan Frank Teschemacher among them—but there was a difference. Young Goodman was clearly a clarinet virtuoso, fusing his jazz influences in a concept that rode on—but never lost itself in—blinding, seemingly flawless technique. Passages that might have seemed feats of execution for other reedmen lay easily under his fingers. He had tone, control, pinpoint accuracy—yet the capacity to remain logical and melodically appealing even at roller-coaster tempos.
He worked through a number of bands, playing as a peer with most of the top white jazz names of the day and a few of the black ones—though jazz, like the rest of the entertainment business of the late twenties and early thirties, was still rigidly segregated, at least in public. Goodman performed and recorded with Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden, Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller, Bud Freeman, Red Nichols, Ethel Waters—and even on the final recording of the legendary “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith.
When the Depression hit, Goodman was firmly established in radio and recording-studio orchestras, able—though not always willing—to play expertly any music put in front of him. There he stayed, until a combination of ambition and circumstance began to place him in front of bands rather than in them. His ultimate success as a bandleader has been attributed to any number of causes: astute management, the advocacy of such influential figures as his brother-in-law and sometime manager, John Hammond, excellent sidemen, fine arrangements by Fletcher Henderson and others—even, as Goodman himself contends, a large measure of determination and plain old good luck.
He reached the zenith of his popularity between 1936 and 1940, though he led several notable and highly regarded bands after that. His January 16, 1938, concert at Carnegie Hall was a music landmark—the first time an evening in that concertgoers’ shrine had been devoted entirely to jazz. His bands were collections of stars and stars-in-the-making, including drummers Gene Krupa, Dave Tough, and Sid Catlett, trumpeters Bunny Berigan, Harry James, Ziggy Elman, Cootie Williams, and Billy Butterfield, and pianists Jess Stacy and MeI Powell. He was among the first to successfully bridge the color line by hiring pianist Teddy Wilson and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and by refusing to appear anywhere—even in the deepest South—without them.
His records still sell. Such Goodman anthems as “Let’s Dance,” “Stomping at the Savoy,” “King Porter Stomp,” ‘Roll ‘Em,” and, of course, Sing Sing Sing” remain popular today, still found on juke boxes, label-to-label with the latest rock-and-roll trifles.
Though Goodman’s greatest triumphs are nearly half a century behind him, his name remains magic at the box office. A Carnegie Hall concert commemorating the fortieth anniversary of his 1938 triumph sold out within twenty-four hours. His influence on jazz clarinetists is unquestioned and universal: like Louis Armstrong on the trumpet, Goodman determined the very shape of a jazz approach to his instrument.