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Benny Goodman

July 2024
23min read

An Interview With the King of Swing

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.

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.

All I could think was, “Gosh, I’ve got to get out there some way.” Later in the summer—it was ’26, I guess—as soon as I got word that Pollack had an opening, I quit my job. My parents, of course, weren’t nuts about having me go so far away, but I told them, “Look, I lost my job at the Midway Gardens. This other one [meaning Pollack’s] is the only one I’ve got.” There was no way they could object. I’d be making decent money—and, of course, I always sent money home. So off I went.

And when you got there, all of seventeen years old?

Oh boy. It was the sleaziest place. Rides, roller coasters, and all that. I just looked around and I thought, “What the hell did I come here for?” But there I was—and the band was very good, after all.

What kind of a bandleader did Pollack turn out to be?

It’s hard to say, but to me he always seemed to be doing something wrong. Instead of just letting things come his way in their natural order, he’d always be reaching for something that was inaccessible. He had the wrong managers. They were always telling him how great he was, encouraging him to make decisions which were just wrong. Mistakes. Like singing. Or ending his records in that silly, whiny little voice, saying, “May it please you—Ben Pollack.”

He just wasn’t the kind of guy to stop and reflect and ask himself, “What am I? Who am I? Where am I going and why?” No objectivity, no insight. And no sense of humor about himself. Wasn’t able to think, “I’m doing well. I ought to treat these kids well”—meaning us—“accept ideas from them and encourage their confidence.”


I’ll give you an example of Pollack’s capacity for going in the wrong direction—but one which actually wound up having a funny side to it. When the band came to Chicago from California, we were playing well, but in comparison with a lot of other bands of the day we didn’t have a lot of instruments. Sure—saxophones and clarinets in our section, for instance, but nothing more. Now a band like Roger Wolfe Kahn’s—they had a million instruments: all sorts of woodwinds, like oboes and flutes and things. And it looked sharp! Well, Pollack took one look at them and decided that we had to have all that stuff too. They cost a fortune at that time: a Lore oboe, for example, which probably costs about twenty-five hundred dollars now, was three hundred dollars then.

Well, being a kind of serious musician, I thought I’d better learn something about all this, so I went to a teacher named Ruckl, who used to play with the Chicago symphony orchestra. Nice guy—I went to him religiously for oboe lessons. After a couple of lessons, he sent me to buy the Lore method book. So I went, and looked—and looked and looked. And I couldn’t find any book for oboe by that name. So I went back and apologized and said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Ruckl, but all I could find was something for the ‘hot-boy/ ” Boy oh boy, did he laugh! Hautbois , of course, is French for “oboe.” But I wound up playing it pretty well—even took a chorus on it on “Japanese Sandman.”

You played New York for the first time with Pollack’s band. What was that like?

When I first arrived, it seemed to me the most terrifying city in the world… all those big buildings. I remember walking on Broadway, looking up at this huge, mountainous place—and being so lonely. But things started to clear up when I met a few people on the street whom I’d met before—all of a sudden there got to be a certain familiarity about the place, and the terror kind of evaporated. There was a lot of playing going on, and the New Yorkers, of course, were a completely different crowd from what I’d known. Red Nichols, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Miff Mole, Adrian Rollini—they came down to hear us, and there was this intermingling. It was quite exciting, with a lot of mutual respect. And within the band, we were all very close.

Glenn Miller was in that band, writing arrangements. Another trombonist, Jack Teagarden from Texas, joined the band after you did.

Jack wasn’t an easy guy to know. He drank quite a bit. I, being a nice Jewish boy, didn’t drink that much. Jack—well, he was a singular kind of guy. Had a vocabulary of about eight words and wasn’t really interested in any more. But he was an absolutely fantastic trombone player, and I loved to listen to him take solos—although that almost got me into trouble with him at one point. The reed section used to sit in front, and the brass behind us, and when Jack would play, I’d hear these marvelous notes and I’d sort of wheel around in my chair to listen. He interpreted that wrong—he seemed to think I was giving him a look, putting him down. Well, one night he got a couple of drinks in him and came up to me and said, “What the hell are you turnin’ around like that for?” He was ready for a fight—and it took me a little time, swearing on my word of honor, to convince him that I really meant well.

You and Pollack used to play clarinet and drum duets.

We did that on songs like—what was it—“I want to go where you go, Do what you do. …” You know—“Then I’ll Be Happy.” Pollack had a fly swatter, and he’d lean over and be banging on the bass drum with it, yelling. “Take another one, take another one,” and we’d keep on like that, generating a lot of steam. I must have enjoyed it, because I guess we did it a lot. Nobody else at the time was doing it.

How did you get started as a bandleader?

We were doing broadcasts somewhere in Brooklyn. Russ Columbo, the crooner, had a manager named Con Conrad, who had also written things like “Barney Google,” “Margie,” and “Ma, He’s Makin’ Eyes at Me.” He heard about me, and told me Columbo wanted to get a band for a job up at the Woodmanston Inn. I got guys I knew—Gene Krupa on drums, Joe Sullivan on piano, Babe Russin on tenor sax—and we worked there for the summer, and I was the leader. Columbo sang and walked around with a fiddle under his arm, and everything seemed okay. It was a good little band—but Conrad wound up getting mad at me, because whenever we played for dancing, people seemed to really like it. I mean, we’d play “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” or some song like that, and all of a sudden the joint was rocking. He’d say, “Hey, wait a minute—you guys aren’t supposed to be the attraction here,” and he meant it.

Did that experience spur greater ambition to lead your own band?

No, not really. I don’t think so. All I knew was that I was bored as hell, playing in stupid little radio bands, playing for “Pick and Pat,” and all sorts of other acts. I think the idea that was foremost in all our minds was that we wanted to play some kind of music. Good music. And we just grabbed any opportunity that presented itself.

You were then on the verge of great success, an extraordinary pattern of success and good judgment, even good luck. Still, a lot of people played good clarinet and a lot led good bands. But once things started happening for you, they never stopped. What’s your explanation?

Well, you can call it luck if you want to. But I’d go a little further, and say that there are, always have been, people out there who have just a little bit more than everybody else has got. In musicianship, in stamina. You can even call it a certain kind of integrity if you want to. The important thing, to me, has always been setting an example: an orchestra’s got to follow what you do. If you’re playing five shows a day—that’s five shows—and they see you’re not complaining but are instead up there really giving everything, they’re not going to complain either.


Some people run a good store and some don’t. I remember Glenn Miller coming to me once, before he had his own band, saying, “How do you do it? How do you get started? It’s so difficult.” I told him, “I don’t know, but whatever you do, don’t stop. Just keep on going. Because one way or the other, if you want to find reasons why you shouldn’t keep on, you’ll find ‘em. The obstacles are all there—there are a million of ‘em. But if you want to do something, you do it anyway, and handle the obstacles as they come. ”

Didn’t you also have doubts at the start? Weren’t there times when you wanted to give up?

Well, in a way, I guess. After we got the job at Billy Rose’s Music Hall on Broadway at Fifty-fourth Street—it’s now the Ed Sullivan Theater—I had moments. It was tough as a son of a bitch. I couldn’t pay any money. I didn’t know, night after night, who was going to be there and who was going to send in a sub. Sometimes I’d stand outside the front door and think, “Shall I go inside or not? Maybe I should just get out.” But even then, after we’d been there six or seven weeks, I was listening one night and remember thinking, “Gee, this is a pretty good band!” I think it was right after that that we got our notice.

Was that about the time you got a job on that late-night NBC radio show, Let’s Dance? That proved to be a turning point for you, didn’t it?

You know what I remember about all that? I remember the fact that we had to audition for the job—well, really it was an audition to audition—and I was worried. We had to be heard by some people from the ad agency that was helping put the show together—McCann Erickson, I think—and if they thought we were the kind of band they wanted, then we’d be able to audition for the show. I kept after this one guy to find out what time they were coming to the Music Hall to hear us because I had to get hold of the players and make sure they’d be there for that hour or so, nail them to their chairs if necessary. Think how it would have been if we’d had a band full of subs that night. Also, we had maybe fifteen special arrangements in the book—“Cokey,” “Bugle Call Rag,” “Nitwit Serenade,” some of those. That meant we had to do our numbers and then get those people out of there, because we didn’t have any comparable new material.

It went off fine. But toward the end of the set, I went over to the agency people and said, “Well, you know, nothing really happens after this.” I have to laugh now—they were probably going home anyway. Anyway, to jump a little, when I got the call telling me we’d gotten the job, I didn’t believe it. All I could think was, “Well, this is the moment. Take advantage of it, because you’re not gonna get too many chances like this.”

As I remember, the show ran from 10:30 P.M. till 1:30 A.M. every Saturday night, sponsored by the National Biscuit Company. Your band was on last, after KeI Murray and Xavier Cugat, which meant that audiences on the West Coast heard you at ten in the evening, prime radiolistening time. And on the strength of it, you made your first extended tour outside New York, a tour that would ultimately take you to the West Coast. Did you think history was about to be made?

History? I remember thinking, “Gosh, you sure have a lot of chutzpah. Lead a band, go on the radio. …” And yet, if you have convictions, and a point of view, and all that energy, why not? If I have something I want to do, I make a business of doing it.

The tour had its share of disappointments—for example, a four-week run at Elitch’s Gardens, in Denver, where the crowds wanted waltzes and the management demanded MCA withdraw the band at once.

You know, I remember thinking after Denver, “Oh well, that’s the end of this goddamn thing.” Meaning the whole business of leading a band. I was really down. Then we got to the Coast and were supposed to play at a ballroom in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco. I remember walking in with Helen Ward, our singer, and seeing crowds of people, and saying to her, “Christ, Helen, we must be in the wrong place. What are all these people doing here?” Mind you, the place didn’t hold all that many people—maybe fourteen or fifteen hundred tops—it was an intimate kind of place, really. But all the same, given my state of mind, I thought,“What’s this? Is Benny Goodman really playing here?” But we went in and played, and my goodness, they really reacted. Went crazy. I suppose it prepared us for the Palomar Ballroom, outside Los Angeles.

What stays in my mind about the Palomar is just that we started quietly. Didn’t know what to expect, and in any case I was trying not to take the whole business too seriously. Things went on kind of so-so for an hour, nothing much happening. All of a sudden I thought to myself, “Screw this—let’s play. If we’re gonna flop again let’s at least do it our own way. ” I’d had enough by then. So we started playing Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements of “King Porter Stomp” and “When Buddha Smiles”—some of those. Half the crowd just stopped dancing and gathered round the bandstand. I knew things would be all right from then on.

Bunny Berigan, the trumpet player, was a potent force in the band at that point, wasn’t he?

Absolutely. You know, he drank—not so much then, or at least it wasn’t getting to him yet. But—well, you put up with certain things in certain people because of what they are. People today who follow jazz seem to have forgotten about Bunny, about just how marvelous he was. His tone, his beautiful sound and range, everything. Most of all, he had this ability to stimulate a whole band: he’d take a solo, and wow! He was so inventive that he’d just lift the whole thing.

We were supposed to be at the Palomar only a month, but the engagement was extended, and we were doing radio broadcasts at night. They came and asked me, “What time do you want to be on the radio? Do you want an eleven-thirty slot, or twelve-thirty?” I told them I thought eleven-thirty would be good. The earlier the better—largely because if it were any later Bunny would usually be wiped out.


Did the Palomar success make the going any easier for you when you finally headed back east?

I wouldn’t say so. In those days, success was sort of local. You had to go out and make a hit, satisfy the patrons and the people, then do it all over again the next time. All bands started out that way—at first they’d always lose money.

Success followed success, and for the next several years, you were the hottest thing in the music business. How did the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert come about? Were you nervous?

A publicity man dreamed it up, and my first reaction was, “You must be out of your mind.” Looking back on it, I sometimes think that the thing that really made that concert important was the album that came out. I don’t know what would have happened if the concert hadn’t been recorded. People would have remembered it, sure—but not like this.

Tell you one thing: Playing a job at a place like the Madhattan Room of the Pennsylvania Hotel, where we were then, or most anyplace, we’d usually start kind of quietly. Play dinner music, so to speak. Warm up a little bit. It wouldn’t be until later that the band really got rocking. But in a concert you had to hit right from the top, bang! Then, too, in Carnegie Hall the acoustics are special. The Madhattan Room, for instance, was very dead. You’d just blow like hell in there all the time. Carnegie, as you know, is very live, so I insisted we go in about two or three days in advance to rehearse there, just to get used to it. By the time I gave the downbeat on “Don’t Be That Way,” we were pretty confident. Mind you, I’d had my doubts: I had even tried to get Bea Lillie, for Pete’s sake, to come on first and warm up the audience by telling jokes. Obviously, if I’d felt cocksure that we were going to be a big hit I wouldn’t have thought up something as dumb as that. Stupidest thing I could have done—and she was smart enough to say no.

Why, at the height of your success as a jazz musician did you begin to involve yourself heavily in playing classical music on the clarinet?

Well, it had actually started earlier. Somebody arranged for me to record the Mozart Quintet with a string quartet. I was playing somewhere in Wisconsin and drove to Chicago to do the recording. I got to the hotel about two or three in the morning, and to the recording studio at about nine. There were these four Frenchmen or Belgians who hardly spoke a word of English; well, we started to record the Mozart, and after playing for maybe five minutes, I started saying to myself, “What the hell am I doing here? This is nuts. I don’t know this piece.” I just wasn’t prepared. So I excused myself, saying, “I’m sorry, gentleman. Thank you, but this was my mistake. I hope I didn’t inconvenience you—but some other time, perhaps.”

You didn’t give up, though: there were soon concerts and records with prominent classical musicians—Igor Stravinsky, Bêla Bartok, the Budapest String Quartet, and original works were written for you by Bartok, Paul Hindemith, Aaron Copland, Malcolm Arnold, and others. This is not a common course for a jazz musician to steer. Can you account for it?

Well, sometimes I was just kind of overwhelmed with the greatness of some of that music. I’d ask myself, “How the hell can you improvise any better than that?” I mean, I’ve played all the choruses on “Lady Be Good” ninety million times. I’ll always be able to play ‘em, I think. I wanted something else to do, to give myself a challenge. It’s a sense of—well, growing up, I guess. If I hadn’t done it, I probably would always have regretted it, felt there was something I should have done. I mean, here we are on a stage and where is jazz? And what is jazz? What are you going to do, go out and play “Lady Be Good” again, forever and ever? How many times? Is somebody going to write the great jazz composition? I don’t think so—and I never believed in that third-stream stuff. Either you play one thing or you play the other.

Is this a point of view you developed gradually, or did it happen all at once?

Hard to say. I was so brash in those days—I did things a more cautious head would never have done. One time, for instance, I decided, “Well, now I think I’ll play with the New York Philharmonic.” I wanted to do both the Mozart Concerto and the Debussy Rhapsody. And I prepared, worked very hard. When the time came, I was ready—played the Debussy then probably better than I do now. Sir John Barbirolli was conducting then, and the orchestra was giving him a hard time. They were a bunch of tough bastards, and Barbirolli had the misfortune of following Toscanini, so they really gave it to him. Well, we ran one of the works down, the Mozart I think. And at the end, you know how they go—tap-tap-tap with the bows, “very good,” and all. All I said was, “All right, once more from the top. ” And we finished it, and the same business, “tap-tap-tap.” And once again I said, “All right, now once again from the top.” You know, thinking of it in retrospect, I think Barbirolli got a kind of vicarious kick out of it. He couldn’t handle them that way at that point.

Did you ever entertain the possibility that you could have fallen on your face?

No, no. Not at all. Later you get wiser.

That’s in keeping with the way you’ve always approached things professionally. No doubts or hesitations. You’ve never, in a figurative or real sense, thought poor?

No, never. I always wanted to do things with style. Don’t care if it was clothes, or eating, or women. Or making music. Especially that. If you’re going to do it, do it right. Don’t take second class. You know—I’d rather have one or two good suits than a bunch of crappy ones. One of the things I think is wrong with a lot of what you see today is that it doesn’t have that sense of style, of elegance. I don’t know where it’s gone.

For instance?

In the days we’ve been talking about, a band had to be dressed correctly: shoes polished, suits clean and pressed. Even your horn shining. You don’t want to look like a bunch of ragamuffins. Even to this day, I don’t like people walking on stage not looking good. You have to look good. If you feel special about yourself, then you’re going to play special. We used to wear tails at the Pennsylvania Hotel on Saturday nights — it was no problem to put’em on. I can’t stand, have always abhorred, seeing a musician walk in for a job wearing some damn Taj Mahal jacket or whatever they call them. Look, what I mean is this: If an individual allows his own personal standard to be eroded, something of what he does is going to be compromised. It’s a matter of detail, sometimes. When you start losing detail, whether it’s in music or in life—something as small as not sending a thank-you note, or failing to be polite to someone—you start to lose substance.

What about the newer developments in jazz? Do you listen to any of it—and do you like what you hear?


I’ve tried. It’s hard to generalize, but it seems to me that a lot of the avant-garde music nowadays—maybe not the innovators, but certainly the copiers —is really kind of rough to listen to. I think one problem is very basic: they don’t tune up. I don’t see how you can play if you’re out of tune. Awhile ago, someone I know who’s very knowledgeable told me to listen to this girl flute player. Sure enough, when she started to play she was a quarter tone out—she just wasn’t a musician. And tone—let’s face it, the old-timers, like Louis, Bunny, Bix, Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds—they had lovely sounds. Individual, but beautiful. It seems to come with their talent for improvising, their overall musicianship.

What about having today’s younger musicians play the sort of music you’re most closely associated with- Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements, for example? Would it sound right?

I wish I knew. It takes a lot of work: we used to rehearse one arrangement, just one, for three or four hours. Nobody does that now. Then we’d play it on the job for a week or so before using it on the radio, just to make sure it was really tight. And even if you find guys who are willing to do that, they have such diverse backgrounds. I mean, try finding and putting together four saxophone players who have at least similar vibratos.

Were things of that sort really priorities in those days?

Sure. How can you have a real ensemble otherwise? I mean, how can a string quartet play together if they don’t have some similarity of tone and concept?

Those are pretty demanding standards. Are they responsible, I wonder, for some of the friction that has existed over the years between you and various musicians who have worked for you?

I think Gene Krupa expresed it as well as anybody. He always said about me — and I don’t think he was being kind, ut really rather critical— “Well, you know, Benny expects a hell of a lot out of himself, and just naturally expects it out of everyone else, too. To do the best they can.” Then they let me down, I get irritated- although I know that it doesn’t do any good. Might as well just go along with it. Also, it all depends how I feel: if I’m not playing well myself, I might blame anybody. If I’m playing extraordinarily well, I think everybody else is wonderful, too—until daylight hits. Then I say, “Well, this guy really wasn’t much good.”

What do you think of today’s popular music?

I don’t really stay that much in touch with it. All I’ll say is that I can’t imagine someone forty years from now reminiscing fondly about having heard Blondie, or even the Rolling Stones, or—what was the name of that group the other day—Clash. What could they say about it? “Remember the volume, the flickering lights? Remember when we got high?” I kind of doubt it.

And a final word in self-evaluation. Where do you think you fit?

I think I’ve done a lot in this business, whether through screwball methods or not I don’t know, that has helped other bands. I made a kind of road for them, you might say. If I raised my price, they found out about it and raised theirs. But somebody had to start it, to make the first move. You have to have the courage and confidence in your own ability. You have to know what the hell and who the hell you are in this business. Music may change, but I don’t think that ever will.

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