Getting High on Benny's

You can't keep a Goodman down, not even with allegations of tyranny and racism.

To those born within the past 30 years or so it must come as a stunning shock to learn that rock did not always rule the land, much less demand consideration as a viable force in the world of entertainment. But once this white-dominated exploitation of black R&B did take hold, it convinced generations of kids all over the world of one thing: Neither musical training nor talent were necessary qualifications for a successful career as a rock performer. Virtually overnight the balance shifted as amateurs wrested the popular music industry from the hands of the professionals.

How different it was during the Swing Era, when the majority of the top ranking big bands and combos were composed of and led by men who were, first and foremost, highly skilled musicians and readily identifiable stylists, and only secondarily, businessmen in a competitive market. Without question the greatest of these bands - judged by originality, overall musicianship, contemporaneous popularity, and lasting interest - were those led by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman. And only a notch below them in terms of the same priorities were the bands of Jimmie Lunceford, Artie Shaw, Bob Crosby, Chick Webb, and, a little later, Woody Herman. However, bands such as Ellington's, Basie's, Lunceford's, and Webb's, despite their almost heroic stature within the black community, were rarely afforded the prestigious work opportunities that even second-rate white bands enjoyed as a matter of course.

The bigotry that continues to divide our nation in almost every other sphere of activity has always been noticeably absent among jazz musicians themselves. As a case in point, even at the onset of his uncertain career as a bandleader during the most precarious years of the Great Depression, Benny Goodman, the Chicago-born son of Russian Jewish immigrants, became the first white leader to employ musicians on the basis of their ability alone. Thus it was that in 1935 he hired black pianist Teddy Wilson to become an integral factor, along with white drummer Gene Krupa, in the formation of the Benny Goodman Trio, the archetype of all subsequent bands-within-bands, and the first racially mixed public performance jazz group in history. Shortly thereafter Goodman added other blacks - vibist Lionel Hampton, trumpeter Cootie Williams, pianist/arranger Fletcher Henderson, drummer Sid Catlett, and guitarist Charlie Christian - to his ground-breaking fold, all to the increasing musical value of his band, to be sure, but also to the wider-ranging benefit of society in general.

Although his big band turned out scores of hit records for Victor and Columbia during the height of the Swing Era (the most enduring being those based on the arrangements of Henderson, Edgar Sampson, and other black writers), Goodman the jazz clarinetist received his greatest kicks from playing with his smaller groups. With his trio, and then with the addition of Hampton, his quartet, Goodman literally recharted the direction of improvised jazz. Although his roots were in the hot, free-wheeling, Chicago-style jazz of his youth, this son of the ghetto, now a virtuoso instrumentalist of the highest order, sought his creative fulfillment in matching wits with musicians whose technical accomplishments were on a par with his own.

Goodman was under no pressure to alter the structure and concept of his trio and quartet, but when he did, it was always because he had come across another musician he himself wanted to jam with. He enlarged his combo to a sextet in 1939 because of Charlie Christian, the young black Oklahoman guitarist whose genius of swing improvisation so inspired Goodman that he recast his combo entirely to spotlight the newcomer.

Jazz historians, however much in dispute they may be on other issues, have never disagreed on the pivotal role that Christian played in laying the groundwork for bebop. It was not only his seemingly unstoppable imagination, which enabled him to play for unprecedented lengths of time without repeating himself, it was also his "horn-like" articulation on the then newly developed amplified guitar, his ingenious blues-based riffs, and his unique approach to phrasing that captivated Goodman, as well as virtually every other open-minded jazzman who heard him. Unfortunately, Christian was to play with Goodman for only a short time. Forced to leave the band in 1941, the brilliant guitarist died of tuberculosis a few months later at the age of 25.

Goodman, of course, went on for many more years, always striving for perfection in both his own playing and in that of his various bands. Styles came and went in the ensuing decades, but Benny, except for a brief, ill-advised detour into bop during the late Forties, remained true to the swing style that he helped develop and popularize, and with which he always felt most comfortable. As an instrumentalist, he left his mark on almost every other clarinet player who has since attempted to master this most difficult of horns. Single-handedly he raised the standards of technical accomplishment and tone production to a level comparable with that sought by classical virtuosi, and, miraculously, he did this without sacrificing any of the aesthetic values associated with pure jazz. From the beginning he was an improvisor of the first magnitude; his tone was liquid clear, and yet capable of expressing the entire range of human emotions, from gully-low bluesiness to bursting-at-the-seams volcanic excitement, from the lyrical expressiveness of a ballad to the take-no-prisoners charge of an all-out jam.

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