The King of Swing

Jazz clarinetist, composer, and bandleader Benny Goodman was wildly popular in the late 1930s for the swing music he played. His flawless solo improvizations and dazzling technique, as well as the rigorous standards he held his bands to, set the bar for jazz performance during his lifetime. Goodman was the most important musician of the swing era and the first white bandleader to popularize an uncompromising jazz style. A Jew, he knew discrimination firsthand, which may explain why he was one of the first white bandleaders to play with black musicians on vinyl and stage.

Born in 1909 to a large and impoverished immigrant family in Chicago, Benjamin Goodman rose to fame and riches by the time he was 30. He received his first musical training as a boy at his local synagogue, after which he joined the local boy's club band, receiving lessons from the band's director. He also studied for two years with the classically trained clarinetist Franz Schoepp. As a teenager he made his professional debut; it was 1921, the Central Park Theater in Chicago, and the act was an impersonation of Ted Lewis. He continued to play: with his high school's "Austin High School Gang"; through the musicians' union, which he joined in 1923; and with Ben Pollock's band, of which Goodman was a member from 1925 to 1929. After leaving Pollock, he was a leading freelance musician in New York, playing on radio, in the studio, and on Broadway (in George Gershwin's Strike Up The Band and Girl Crazy in 1930 and Richard Whiting's Free For All in 1931).

In 1934 Goodman organized his first big band, a 12-piece group of wind and rhythm instruments; they had a regular gig at the Music Hall and also recorded. Through John Hammond's radio show, "Let's Dance", Goodman had funds to commission arrangements, and retained Fletcher Henderson, who wrote arrangements for jazz standards which established the musical character of the group. At the same time, Goodman was laying the foundation for clarinet solos in the swing era; influenced by the great Bix Beiderbecke, whom he had met in 1923, Goodman's characteristic stylings included on-the-beat attacks, careful choice of notes, and across-the-bar phrasing; on recordings Goodman sometimes played two or three wind instruments (clarinet and saxophone) in this style. He was an exacting bandleader, demanding an impeccable precision from his players to match his own; though he changed band personnel often, he maintained a level of performance rare among bands at that time.

In 1935 Goodman recorded with a trio (the Benny Goodman Trio) consisting of himself, Gene Krupa, and Teddy Wilson; the classic recordings set the standard for jazz chamber music and displayed Goodman's virtuosic mastery of his instrument. (Happily, the fact that the ensemble was racially mixed excited little comment, even when they played live.) Later the group transformed into a quartet with the addition of Lionel Hampton, and would go through many incarnations as a sextet and septet in the decades that followed.

During this period Goodman toured America with his big band, and though in places they bombed, the tour culminated in a famous recording from the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles which is often cited as the beginning the swing era. Over the next few years the band played in front of ecstatically dancing teenage audiences, confirming Goodman as the "King of Swing" and a popular idol. Indeed, the late 30s were the peak of Goodman's career and popularity.

Goodman also began playing classical music; he recorded some classical pieces and appeared with many leading orchestras playing works by Mozart and others.

Over the next decades the jazz world moved on, to bop and bebop and beyond. Goodman was critical of these changes, and though he later formed a bop band, his own style remained as it had been, virtuosic and brilliant, but uninfluenced by the new sounds and rhythms. He continued to record jazz and classical music and to travel with big bands and small; he toured Europe in 1950 and 1958; the Far East (under the auspices of the US Department of State) in 1956-7 - he jammed with Thai saxophonist (and king) Bhumibol Adulyadej in Thailand; South America in 1961; the USSR in 1962; and Japan in 1964. Benny Goodman died in 1986; his collection of scores, recordings, and other materials was bequeathed to Yale University.

Goodman married Alice Duckworth in 1942 and had two children, Rachel (who plays piano) and Benjie (who plays cello). A film based on his life, "The Benny Goodman Story" (with Steve Allen as Goodman) was released in 1956; Goodman himself wrote the soundtrack and appears in the film. PBS's "American Masters" has a good biography of Goodman, "Adventures in the Kingdom of Swing". And Swing, Swing, Swing: the Life and Times of Benny Goodman by Ross Firestone is the textual source to look for.

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