Benny Goodman

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Today, at seventy-two, he still keeps to a busy playing and practicing schedule, with an emphasis on the classics: he is the first jazzman ever to have achieved prominence in the world of classical music. His wife, the former Alice Hammond, died in 1978. He is a genial, accommodating man, who speaks with humor and candor about himself and his career. The material presented here emerged from a series of conversations at his apartment between November, 1980, and June, 1981.

Perhaps the best question with which to start is the most obvious—and the hardest to answer. That is, why did it happen to you? Did you deliberately set out to become the most prominent popular musician and bandleader of your time?

Oh no, no. Not at all. Goodness no. I started out as a clarinetist playing around Chicago, making a living, listening to other people like many other musicians did. I enjoyed playing—and I found myself really making money at age fourteen or so, around the time I was playing with those fellows who later were known as the Austin High Gang. You know, Jimmy McPartland and Bud Freeman and the rest. I was never at Austin High myself.

Several of those musicians have said that you always seemed to be on a track slightly different from theirs.

Well, that’s a good point. Some of the guys I played with in those days didn’t go around learning more about their instruments from an intellectual point of view. All they wanted was to play hot jazz, and the instrument was just a means. I’d imagine that a lot of them criticized me—said my technique was too good. Something like that. But I’ve always wanted to know what made music. How you do it, and why it sounds good. I always practiced, worked like hell.

My teacher was Franz Schoepp, one of the best-known in Chicago. I must have been about eleven. He had both colored and white students. I know Buster Bailey, for one, studied with him. He had a habit of keeping the preceding pupil there when you came in, and having you play duets. I think that’s how I got to know Buster. Schoepp was German and he used all German editions of his books. One day I said to him, “Mr. Schoepp, why do you have everything in German? Why don’t you have anything in English? We’re here now. ” And he said, “Dummkopf! Pretty soon everything will be in German.”

How did you become interested in music in the first place?

We always had a Victrola in our home. It was hand-wound, and we had all sorts of records to go with it. Caruso and people like that—but also Ted Lewis, who was a big thing in those days, and even the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. My father was the one who was very much interested: he thought it was a very good idea for us to play music, whether we made a living out of it or not. He loved music himself; he discovered that the Kehelah Jacob Synagogue, not much more than a mile from where we lived, would lend instruments to youngsters and supply them with lessons, so they could play in the band at the synagogue. So we all went down, and my brother Harry, who was about twelve and the biggest of us, got a tuba. Freddy, who was a year older than I was, got a trumpet, and I wound up with the clarinet.

Where did you make your public debut?

At the Central Park Theater, a Balaban and Katz presentation house on Chicago’s West Side. They tell me I imitated Ted Lewis. All I remember is that because of the child labor laws, I couldn’t perform onstage. So I played from the pit. I was still playing a C clarinet then [most conventional clarinets are pitched a whole tone lower, in B flat], so the band had to transpose everything to my key.

You began working around Chicago, and on the Lake Michigan excursion boats, where you met the cornetist and pianist Bix Beiderbecke. He was a good six years older than you, an experienced pro of twenty. What do you remember about him?

I think my first impression was the lasting one. I remember very clearly thinking, “Where, what planet, did this guy come from? Is he from outer space?” I’d never heard anything like the way he played—not in Chicago, no place. The tone—he had this wonderful, ringing cornet tone. He could have played in a symphony orchestra with that tone. But also the intervals he played, the figures—whatever the hell he did. There was a refinement about his playing. You know, in those days I played a little trumpet, and I could play all the solos from his records, by heart.

How did you come to join the drummer Ben Pollack’s dance orchestra?

That came about in a funny way. I had a job at the Midway Gardens, which was across from Washington Park on the near South Side. Gil Rodin, who was playing saxophone with Pollack and who later had quite a hand in the success of Bob Crosby’s band, came in to see me. He began talking about glamorous California; Pollack was working at Venice, outside Los Angeles, and it sounded so great. The more he talked about it, the better it sounded to me. Go west—the idea of going out there on a train, seeing places like Santa Monica, all beautiful hotels and glamorous people and places. It sounded too good to be true.