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Miles Davis circa 1955; Duke Ellington; Louis Armstrong; Cover of Sheet Music by Fats Waller
BiographiesSelected Artist Biography
Biographies, Life and times of the great ones Billie Holiday in Performance 1948; Benny Goodman 1936; Art Blakey at the Open Door in NYC; Awning of Village Vanguard 1960's
Benny Goodman

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Goodman, Benjamin David (1909-1986) Clarinetist, composer, and bandleader

Audio Feature Benny Rides Again
Recorded November 13, 1940
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)


Benny Goodman
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection
Benny Goodman received rudimentary musical training in 1919 at the Kehelah Jacob Synagogue and the next year joined the boys club band at Jane Addams's Hull House, where he received lessons from the director James Sylvester. Also important during this period were his two years of instruction from the classically trained clarinetist Franz Schoepp.

Goodman made his professional debut in 1921 at the Central Park Theater in Chicago with an imitation of Ted Lewis. After entering Harrison High School in 1922, he played occasionally with the so-called Austin High School Gang (Bud Freeman, Jimmy McPartland, Frank Teschemacher, Dave Tough, and others), who modeled their music after the New Orleans Rhythm Kings; the clarinetist with the Rhythm Kings, Leon Roppolo, was an early influence on Goodman. During these formative years, he also absorbed the music of New Orleans musicians such as King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, and especially the clarinetists Johnny Dodds, Jimmie Noone, Buster Bailey, Albert Nicholas, and Barney Bigard.

Audio Feature James Maher, writer
Reflections on Benny Goodman
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)


In 1923, Goodman joined the musicians' union and played regularly with Murph Podalasky and Jules Herbevaux. That summer, on a lake excursion boat, he met Bix Beiderbecke for the first time. Beiderbecke's influence may be heard in Goodman's on-the-beat attacks, careful choice of notes, and across-the-bar phrasing on his recordings in 1928 of A Jazz Holiday and Blue. The latter especially shows these techniques in which Goodman played solos on both alto and baritone saxophone.

In August 1925, Goodman left for Los Angeles to join Ben Pollack. In January 1926, Pollack returned to Chicago, where Goodman recorded his first solo, He's The Last Word, on December 17, 1926. Early in 1928, Pollack's band went to New York, which subsequently became Goodman's base. Goodman stayed with Pollack until September 1929, but also performed with Sam Lanin, Nat Shilkret, and Meyer Davis, and from 1929 to 1934 was a leading freelance musician. He worked for radio and in recording studios for Red Nichols, Ben Selvin, Ted Lewis, Johnny Green, and Paul Whiteman, and on Broadway in George Gershwin's Strike Up The Band and Girl Crazy (both in 1930), and Richard Whiting's Free For All in 1931. His important associations with John Hammond and Teddy Wilson began during this period.

NPR Audio Feature The NPR 100: "Sing, Sing, Sing"
Many say that swing music arrived on January 16, 1938, when Benny Goodman performed his "killer diller," at New York's Carnegie Hall. The song is a selection from National Public Radio's list of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th Century.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


In spring 1934, Goodman organized his first big band, a 12-piece group (three saxophones, three trumpets, two trombones, and four rhythm instruments), auditioned successfully for Billy Rose's new Music Hall, and started recording for Columbia Records. His small repertory included a few distinctive arrangements by Deane Kincaide, Will Hudson, and especially Benny Carter. Carter's composition and arrangement of Take My Word, requiring four saxophones (Goodman played tenor) to play four-note chords in parallel motion in the style of improvised solos, set the standard for the treatment of saxophone sections during the swing period.

In November 1934, Goodman auditioned successfully for Let's Dance, an NBC radio series. Since the program's budget included funds for new arrangements, with Hammond's encouragement, he engaged Fletcher Henderson to write for him. Henderson's arrangements of traditional jazz instrumental numbers, for example, Jelly Roll Morton's King Porter Stomp and such popular songs as Sometimes I'm Happy, established the band's musical character. Under Goodman's exacting direction, the members' playing was a model of ensemble discipline. With his own impeccable musicianship, he set a high standard for his sidemen, from whom he demanded accurate intonation, matched vibrato, phrasing, and a careful balancing of parts — performance standards rare in the bands of that time. It was during these broadcasts that Gene Krupa joined Goodman.

In July 1935, after playing together in a jam session, Goodman asked Teddy Wilson to record with Krupa and himself. that summer, as the Benny Goodman Trio, they recorded four classic sides of jazz chamber music. Goodman's solo on After You've Gone from that session is an example of his mature style — his flawless playing utilizes almost the complete range of the instrument, and his disciplined explorations of the harmony and fondness for the blue thirds reveals the technical mastery and controlled expression that formed the essence of his art.

After the conclusion of the Let's Dance series in May 1935 and a disappointing reception at an engagement at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York, Goodman's band embarked on its first tour under the auspices of Willard Alexander and the Music Corporation of America. The trip culminated in the now historic performance on August 21 before a capacity crowd at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, which was broadcast nationwide to great critical and popular acclaim, and is often cited as the beginning of the swing era. Later that year, while appearing at the Congress Hotel in Chicago, Goodman began a series of important early jazz concerts in America. For the last of these, Easter Sunday 1936, he brought in Wilson from New York.

In August 1936, the Benny Goodman Trio became a quartet with the addition of Lionel Hampton. The group made its first recording, Moonglow, on August 21. In 1936-9, Goodman's band reached the peak of its success. It began with a series of CBS broadcasts, The Camel Caravan, which continued for more than three years. They made their first films, The Big Broadcast of 1937 and Hollywood Hotel, and on March 3, 1937 began a three-week engagement at the Paramount Theater in New York.

The success of these performances, attended by a large, predominantly teenage audience, and the resultant publicity clearly demonstrated that Goodman was the "King of Swing" and a popular idol. On January 16, 1938, Goodman brought a new level of recognition to jazz with a concert in Carnegie Hall, presenting Harry James, Ziggy Elman, Jess Stacy, Hampton, Krupa, and Wilson from his own entourage, as well as guest soloists from the bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

In the same period, Goodman became the first famous jazz musician to achieve success performing classical repertory. His early training with Schoepp had prepared him for this dual career by laying the foundation for a "legitimate" clarinet technique, which he continued to improve in later study with Reginald Kell. In 1935, he performed Mozart's Clarinet Quintet before an invited audience in the home of John Hammond, and three years later he recorded the work with the Budapest String Quartet. He appeared in his first public recital at Town Hall in New York in November 1938. That year he also commissioned the work Contrasts from Bartok and gave its premiere at Carnegie Hall in January 1939. He later commissioned clarinet concertos from Copland and Hindemith in 1947. Goodman appeared with all the leading American orchestras, performing and recording works by Leonard Bernstein, Debussy, Morton Gould, Darius Milhaud, Carl Nielsen, Poulenc, Stravinsky, and Carl Maria von Weber.

In July 1940, illness forced Goodman to disband his group, and when he reformed it in October, changes in personnel gave the new band a different sound. Krupa, James, Wilson, and Stacy had already moved on, and during the hiatus of 1940 Hampton and Elman also left. New members who joined Goodman the previous year included Artie Bernstein, Fletcher Henderson, Johnny Guarnieri, Charlie Christian, and Eddie Sauter. Among the new soloists was Christian, with his long melodic lines influenced by Lester Young, who contributed most to the band, but it was the compositions and arrangements of Sauter, who had been trained at the Juilliard School, that established the band's musical character. During World War II, the recording ban by the musicians' union from August 1942 to November 1944 prevented Goodman from recording for Columbia, but he continued to make V-discs and transcriptions for the Armed Forces Radio Service.

In 1947, Goodman assembled his last and most controversial traveling band (his later groups were recruited for specific engagements) to play and record arrangements in the new bop style for Capitol Records. Although he had been critical of bop, he genuinely admired the playing of Wardell Gray, Fats Navarro, and Doug Mettome, whom he featured in the band and in his new sextet. As a soloist Goodman was more comfortable with the small group than the big band, but even there, however, few of the harmonic or rhythmic novelties of bop penetrated his style. The recording Stealin' Apples in 1948 is characteristic of this period — all the solos are in the new style except those of Goodman, who retained his classic manner. In October 1949, Goodman disbanded the group on completion of his recording contract with Capitol.

In the 1950s, Goodman continued to record and tour occasionally with ad hoc small groups and big bands, visiting Europe (1950) and, under the auspices of the US Department of State, the Far Fast (1956-7). At the conclusion of another European tour in 1958 he made a triumphant appearance in the American Pavilion at the Brussels World's Fair. The original Benny Goodman Trio was reunited for a benefit recording for Fletcher Henderson (1951) and a television appearance on NBC (1953), and also appeared in a film based on Goodman's life, The Benny Goodman Story (1956).

In the 1960s, Goodman expanded his role as jazz ambassador with tours of South America (1961), the USSR (1962), and Japan (1964). During the 1960s and 1970s, he toured about half of each year, dividing his time between appearances with small groups and increasingly frequent commitments to performing classical works. The 40th anniversary of his concert in Carnegie Hall was celebrated there on January 17, 1978. Although he put together a big band for the occasion, he made no attempt to recreate the original program. A recording (released in 1982) with George Benson clearly demonstrated that Goodman had lost none of his creative energy or technical facility. He was one of the five recipients of the fifth annual Kennedy Center Honors awards in1982. Many of his recordings have been newly issued by Sunbeam, a label devoted largely to aspects of his work. His collection of scores, recordings, and other materials was bequeathed to Yale University.

As a jazz clarinetist, Goodman had no peer. His flawless solo improvisations set standards of excellence for jazz performance. He founded and directed the most important musical organization of the swing era and helped to open a new epoch in American popular music. He was the first white bandleader to adopt and popularize an uncompromising jazz style. He was also among the first to feature black jazz players, an action that might have compromised his own career at a time when racial integration was not a popular concept. His concerts brought a new audience and a new level of recognition to jazz.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For personal, non-commercial use only. Copying or other reproduction is prohibited.
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