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" Final Resting Place of Benny Goodman"
30th May 1909 - 13th June 1986
Long Ridge Cemetery, Stamford, Connecticut
Childhood and early years
Goodman was born in Chicago, the son of poor Jewish immigrants from Hungary who lived in the Maxwell Street neighborhood. He learned to play clarinet in a Hull House-run band. He became a strong player at an early age and began professionally in bands while still a child.
His early influences were New Orleans jazz clarinetists in Chicago, notably Johnny Dodds, Leon Roppolo, and Jimmy Noone.
At the age of 16, Goodman joined one of Chicago's top bands, the Ben Pollack Orchestra, with which he made his first recordings in 1926. He made his first record under his own name two years later.
Goodman's father, David, was a working-class immigrant about whom Benny said (interview, 'Downbeat', Feb 8, 1956); "...Pop worked in the stockyards, shovelling lard in its unrefined state. He had those boots, and he'd come home at the end of the day exhausted, stinking to high heaven, and when he walked in it made me sick. I couldn't stand it. I couldn't stand the idea of Pop every day standing in that stuff, shoveling it around".
David Goodman was killed in a traffic accident shortly after Benny joined the Pollack band and had urged his father to retire, now that he (Benny) and his brother (Harry) were doing well as professional musicians. According to James Lincoln Collier ("Benny Goodman and the Swing Era", Oxford University Press 1989): "Pop looked Benny in the eye and said, 'Benny, you take care of yourself, I'll take care of myself.' "
Collier continued: "It was an unhappy choice. Not long afterwards, as he was stepping down from a street car — according to one story — he was struck by a car. He never regained consciousness and died in the hospital the next day. It was a bitter blow to the family, and it haunted Benny to the end that his beloved father had not lived to see the enormous success he, and through him some of the others, made of themselves. It is, truly, a sad story. The years that the immigrant David Goodman had sweated in the stockyards and the garment lofts had paid off in a way he could never have possibly imagined, and he never got that reward."
Goodman left for New York City and became a successful session musician during the late 1920s and early 1930s. He made a reputation as a solid player who was prepared and reliable. He played with the nationally known bands of Red Nichols, Isham Jones, and Ted Lewis before forming his own band in 1932. In 1934 he auditioned for the NBC "Let's Dance" radio program. Since he needed new charts every week for the show, his agent John Hammond suggested that he purchase some Jazz charts from Fletcher Henderson, who had New York's most popular African-American band in the 1920s and early 1930s.
The combination of the Henderson charts, his solid clarinet playing, and his well rehearsed band made him a rising star in the mid-1930s. In early 1935, Goodman and his band were one of three bands featured on "Let's Dance", a well regarded radio show that featured various styles of dance music. His radio broadcasts from New York had been too late to attract a large audience on the East Coast, but had an avid following in California, and a wildly enthusiastic crowd for the first time greeted Goodman. He and his band were to remain on the show until May of that year when a strike forced the cancellation of the radio show. With nothing else to do, the band set out on a tour of America. However, at a number of engagements the band received a hostile reception, as many in the audiences expected smoother, sweeter jazz as opposed to the "hot" style that Goodman's band was accustomed to playing. By August of 1935, Goodman found himself with a band that was nearly broke, disillusioned and ready to quit. It was at this moment that everything for the band and jazz changed.
Palomar Ballroom engagement
The last scheduled stop of the tour came on August 21, 1935 at the Palomar Ballroom. Goodman and his band were scheduled for a three week engagement. The Palomar provided the ideal environment, as there was a huge dance floor with a capacity of 4,000 couples. On hand for the engagement were famed musicians Gene Krupa, Dick Clark, Bunny Berigan and Helen Ward.
The first night, Goodman and his band started cautiously playing some recently purchased stock arrangements. The reaction was, at best, tepid. Seeing the reaction, Krupa said "If we're gonna die, Benny, let's die playing our own thing". At the start of the next set, Goodman called his band to play the Henderson charts and those of other swing writers working for the band. The pivotal moments came when trumpeter Berigan went into solos from Henderson's Sometimes I'm Happy and King Porter Stomp. The audience reaction was stunning, cheering wildly and pressing up to the stage.
Over the nights of the engagement, a new dance labeled variously as the "Jitterbug" captured the dancers on the floor, and a new craze had begun. Onlookers gathered around the edges of the ballroom floor. Within days of the opening, newspapers around the country were headlining stories about the new phenomena that had started at the Palomar. Goodman was finally a nationally known star, and the Swing Era began. Following this the big band era exploded.
Carnegie Hall concert
In late 1937, Goodman's publicist Wynn Nathanson attempted a publicity stunt in the form of suggesting Goodman and his band should play Carnegie Hall in New York City. The notion of a "hot" band playing in such rarefied environs was, for the time, absurd. Regulars of Carnegie Hall were the upper crust of society, and looked down upon the Swing dance craze spreading across the nation. Goodman was initially hesitant to the idea, fearing the worst. However, following the release of his movie Hollywood Hotel and its reception of strong reviews, he warmed to it. Goodman threw himself into the project with a passion, canceling a number of dates, and insisting that rehearsals be held in Carnegie Hall itself to familiarize the band with the lively acoustics of the hall.
The concert was scheduled for January 16, 1938. It sold out weeks before, with the capacity 2,760 seats going for the top price of US$2.75 a seat, for the time a very high price. Once again, initial crowd reaction, though polite, was tepid. Some of the earlier sets, including a jam session featuring members of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands as guests, did not go as well as hoped. As the concert went on, things livened up. Some of the later trio and quartet numbers were well-received, and a vocal on Loch Lomond by Martha Tilton, though nothing special, provoked five curtain calls and cries for an encore (forcing Goodman to make his only audience announcement for the night, stating that they had no encore prepared but that Martha would return shortly with another number.) By the time the band got to the climactic piece "Sing Sing Sing," success of the night was assured. Bettering the commercial 12-inch record, this wild live performance featured passionate playing by tenor saxophonist Babe Russin (who plays a cool, more modern solo than Vido Musso did on the studio record in 1937), a rip-roaring Harry James, and then a strangely pensive Goodman, backed by Krupa in a (for him) sedate accompaniment. But the really unforgettable moment came when Goodman finished his solo and unexpectedly tossed the ball to pianist Jess Stacy. Stacy later said he was totally not expecting the move, and that if he had been anticipating it he probably would have messed it up from being so nervous. Instead Stacy played four magnificent choruses in a very quiet "church-like" style. It should not have fit with all the hullabaloo that had preceded it, but somehow it did, and the solo has become one of the most famous ever played.
This concert has been regarded by some as the most significant in jazz history. After years of work by musicians from all over the country, jazz had finally been accepted by mainstream audiences. While the big band era would not last for much longer, it was from this point forward that the ground work for multiple other genres of popular music was laid.
Recordings were made of this concert, but even by the technology of the day the equipment used was not of the finest quality. Acetate recordings of the concert were made, and aluminum studio masters were also cut. However, the aluminum masters were lost for decades. In 1950, an LP release of the concert based on the acetates (found in Goodman's closet by one of his daughters!) was made and became one of the first LPs to sell more than a million copies. In early 1998, the aluminum masters were rediscovered and a new CD set of the concert was released based on these masters.
On January 16, 1998 a recreation of the concert was performed at Carnegie Hall by the New Columbia Swing Band.
Goodman continued his meteoric rise throughout the late 1930s with his big band, his trio and quartet, and a sextet. By the mid-1940s, big bands lost a lot of their popularity. Reasons include: talented musicians were entering the service, or getting better paid factory jobs; gasoline and rubber rationing during WWII; two long musician recording strikes; the rise of popular singers such as Frank Sinatra; the restriction of agents' commissions to 15%, which made promoting small groups more profitable for them. He reluctantly embraced bebop in the late 1940s and early 1950s with less commercial success, although the recordings he made in that style for Capitol Records were very highly praised by jazz critics. He finally broke up his big band in 1952.
Additionally, Goodman held an interest in the classical music works written for clarinet, and frequently met with top classical clarinetists of the day as well. He twice recorded the Clarinet Quintet of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, once in the late 1930s with the Budapest String Quartet and once in the middle 1950s with the Boston Symphony Orchestra String Quartet; he also recorded the clarinet concertos of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Carl Maria von Weber, and Carl Nielsen.
More importantly, Goodman commissioned and premiered works by leading composers for clarinet and symphony orchestra that are now part of the standard repertoire, namely Contrasts by Béla Bartók, Ebony Concerto by Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland's Clarinet Concerto. While Leonard Bernstein's Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs was commissioned for Woody Herman's big band, it was instead premiered by Goodman.
Many suggest that Goodman achieved the same success with jazz and swing that Elvis Presley did for rock and roll. Both helped bring black music to a young, white audience. It is true that many of Goodman's arrangements had been played for years before by Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra. While Goodman publicly acknowledged his debt to Henderson, many young white swing fans had never heard Henderson's band. While some consider Goodman a jazz innovator, others maintain his main strength was his perfectionism and drive. Goodman was a virtuosi clarinetist and arguably the most technically proficient jazz clarinetist of all time. However Goodman was one of the most important musicians of the Twentieth Century in that he was the major catalyst for the big band era. Without Goodman, there would never have been a Swing, Big Band Era.
Goodman is also responsible for a significant step in racial integration in America. In the early 1930s, black and white jazz musicians could not play together in most clubs or concerts. In the Southern states, racial segregation was enforced by the Jim Crow laws. Benny Goodman broke with tradition by hiring Teddy Wilson to play with him and drummer Gene Krupa in the Benny Goodman Trio. In 1936, he added Lionel Hampton on vibes to form the Benny Goodman Quartet; in 1940 he added pioneering jazz guitarist Charlie Christian to his band and small ensembles, who played with him until his untimely death from tuberculosis less than two years later. Goodman's fame was great enough that his band had no financial need to tour in the southern states, where his lineup would have been subject to arrest. The integration of popular music happened 10 years before Jackie Robinson entered Major League Baseball.
Benny met Alice Hammond Duckworth, the sister of his friend John H. Hammond. After dating for about three months they got married on March 14, 1942. They had two daughters: Benjie and Rachel. Both studied music to some degree, though neither became the musical prodigies Goodman was.
Depending on who you talk to, Goodman was a demanding taskmaster, or an arrogant martinet. Many musicians spoke of "The Ray", Goodman's trademark glare that he bestowed on a musician who failed to perform to his demanding standards. Musicians also told stories of Goodman's notorious cheapness, continuing to pinch pennies as he had in his poverty stricken youth long after he had attained fame and fortune. He reportedly would skip out on the bill in restaurants, and was stingy with sidemen when re-forming one of his bands for a revival tour, forcing him often to employ inferior players in later years compared to what might have been available to him if he had opened his wallet a little more. At the same time, there are reports that he privately funded several college educations and was sometimes very generous, though always secretly. When a friend asked him why one time, he reportedly said, "If word got out what I did, everyone would come to me with their hand out."
Goodman continued to play on records and in small groups. Aside from a collaboration with George Benson in the 1980s, he was content to play in the swing style he was most known for. He did however practice and perform classical music clarinet pieces and also commissioned some pieces for the clarinet. Periodically he would organize a new band and play a Jazz festival or go on an international tour. He continued to play the clarinet until his death in New York City in 1986 at the age of 77.
Benny Goodman is interred in the Long Ridge Cemetery, Stamford, Connecticut.