The King of Swing, Benny Goodman, was one of the most successful band leaders during the American swing era and the best jazz clarinettist of his time. Goodman’s talent was not limited to jazz, however, as he also appeared with prominent American orchestras in works by Copland, Gershwin and Mozart.
Benjamin David Goodman was born in Chicago, Illinois on 30 May 1909 to immigrant parents David and Dora Grisinsky Goodman. The Jewish couple had fled Russia and anti-Semitism to begin a new life in America. The family was quite poor; Benny’s mother never learnt to speak English and his father worked for a tailor in an attempt to support the large family, which consisted of 12 children, of which Benny was the 9th.
At the age of 10, Benny went to the Kehelah Jacob Synagogue in Chicago, at the insistence of his father, to learn the clarinet, while two of his brothers learnt tuba and trumpet. While there, Benny studied with Franz Schoepp of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. His talent was immediately apparent, leading him to perform with local bands, including the band at Jane Addam’s Hull-House. He also made his first appearance with a pit orchestra at the age of 11 and became a member of the American Federation of Musicians at the age of 14. It was at this time that he also dropped out of school to pursue a full time career in music. During these formative years, he had the opportunity to play with other musicians who would become famous, including Frank Teschemacher and Dave Tough. Following the death of his father the next year, 15 year-old Benny felt it was his responsibility to support his family using the money he earned.
At the age of 16, Benny Goodman was hired by the Ben Pollack Band and moved to Los Angeles. He performed with the band for four years, during which time he became a featured soloist. In 1929, after the band’s return to Chicago in 1926 and then to New York in 1928, Goodman quit to focus on a freelance career on the radio and in the recording studio with Red Nichols and Paul Whiteman. He also performed in George Gershwin’s Broadway shows Strike up the Band and Girl Crazy, which were both conducted by Nichols between 1930 and 1931. He also played in Richard Whiting’s Free for all (1931).
During the early 1930s, Goodman’s associations with John Hammond and Teddy Wilson were established. Hammond was an especially important figure and would not only help Goodman launch his recording career, but also Billie Holiday and Count Basie. The first recording took place in 1933 together with drummer Gene Krupa and trombones Jack Teagarden and was an instant success. Goodman and Hammond’s relationship also turned personal as Goodman married Hammond’s sister, Alice Hammond Duckworth in 1942. They would have two children, Rachel who became a concert pianist and Benji who became a cellist.
Goodman formed his first band in 1934 and played for a few months at Billy Rose’s Music Hall. The band played many arrangements by Fletcher Henderson and also by Bunny Berigan, Gene Krupa and Jess Stacy. Their repertoire was firmly based in the styles of ragtime and Dixieland, though the structure was arranged, making the music more accessible to a wider audience. After the band began its weekly performances on NBC’s radio show Let’s Dance, their popularity soared. Unique at the time was Goodman’s insistence on matching vibrato and phrasing in addition to immaculate intonation and balance between his band members.
The Benny Goodman Trio made their first recordings in July 1935. The group, which consisted of Goodman’s sidemen Wilson and Gene Krupa, recorded four classic sides of jazz chamber music.
Benny Goodman was named the King of Swing after his band performed at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles on 21 August 1935. The majority of the public consisted of teenagers and college students and they began inventing new dance steps to go with the new music. This concert, which was broadcast nationally, is often cited as the beginning of the swing era.
The next year, the trio expanded to a quartet with the addition of Lionel Hampton. Their first recording Moonglow took place on 21 August 1936. This same year, his band had reached its peak. They landed a recurring gig with the CBS programme The Camel Caravan, which lasted three years. They also made the films The Big Broadcast (1937) and Hollywood Hotel and were featured for three weeks at the Paramount Theatre in New York. In 1938, Goodman had the opportunity to perform in Carnegie Hall with Harry James, Ziggy Elman, Jess Stacy, Hampton, Krupa and Wilson, and also some guest soloists from the bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
While at the height of his career as a bandleader, Goodman also wanted to play classical music and went to Reginald Kell to improve his technique. Shortly thereafter, he performed Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet at John Hammond’s home before recording it three years later with the Budapest String Quartet. At the end of 1938, Goodman gave his first public recital. He commissioned a number of classical works during his lifetime, includingContrasts (1938) by Bartók and concertos byAaron Copland (1947) and Paul Hindemith (1947). He also performed and recorded works by Bernstein, Debussy, Morton Gould, Milhaud, Nielsen, Poulenc, Stravinsky and Weber.
The outbreak of World War II marked the end of the swing era and while the new bop movement was forming, Goodman continued to play in his own style. Eventually he experimented in the bop style, but never gave up his swing. With the introduction of rock-and-roll in the 1950s and 60s, Benny began playing more and more classical solos.
Goodman also travelled around the world, performing his music throughout Europe and Asia. After a concert in the USSR, one critic wrote that ‘the swimming music that had once set the jitterbugs dancing in the Paramount aisles almost blew down the Iron Curtain’.
Goodman and his quartet reunited on several occasions during the late 1960s and 1970s while his band reappeared at Carnegie Hall in 1978, where they had given the venue’s first jazz concert 30 years earlier.
Goodman left behind a legacy of virtuosic swing music and was one of the first bandleaders to include African-American players in his band, including pianist Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. He once explained, ‘If a guy’s got it, let him give it. I’m selling music, not prejudice’. He was honoured in 1982 by the Kennedy Center for his lifetime achievement in swing music. In 1986, he received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement and an honorary doctorate degree from Columbia University.
Benny Goodman died in New York on 13 June 1986 as a result of a heart attack.