Getting High on Benny's
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.
As a tribute to both Goodman and Christian, as well as the many other exemplary combos that Benny led both before and after the Christian period, local guitarist Simon Salz has put together his own concert sextet. A formidable musician himself, whose primary and ongoing inspirations have long been Christian and the legendary Belgian gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, Salz had no trouble finding seasoned South Florida players capable of undertaking this challenging project. To portray the role of Goodman, it was not necessary to look any further than clarinetist Eric Allison, whose instrumental skill and working familiarity with all styles of jazz make him eminently suitable for this exacting labor of love.
Similarly, the sounds, texture, and swing of Lionel Hampton's vibes will be recaptured by the equally well-informed Tom Toyama, while the stylistically appropriate rhythmic underpinnings fall to pianist Jack Keller, bassist Lew Berryman, and drummer Steve Bagby, all of high repute. Among the Goodman combo classics the Salz Sextet will play are "Gone with What Wind," "Air Mail Special," "Flying Home," "Seven Come Eleven," and "Avalon." Former Goodman vocalist Maria Marshall will sing "You Took Advantage of Me," "St. Louis Blues," "Mean to Me," and "Bei mir bist du schoen." The (expected) encore will no doubt be "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home?" - a long-time favorite of Marshall fans.
Countless words have been written about Benny Goodman's artistry as a clarinetist, his many indispensable contributions to the development of jazz, and even his role as a catalytic agent in the shaping of other musicians' careers. However, of late there has been a flurry of published diatribe against Goodman the man. Militant black journalists delight in accusing Goodman of being a usurper, a pretender to the throne, when in fact it was not he, but some now-forgotten publicist or radio announcer who first dubbed him "The King of Swing."
Beyond any question Goodman, of all white jazzmen in a position to do so, was the only one to open the doors of the Establishment, such as they were at the time, to players of any stripe, including qualified black musicians. He always hired the best players he could get, regardless of race, and, far from exploiting them, as these writers would have us believe, he actually helped to enhance their subsequent careers by featuring them in solo spots whenever possible. Just as some of his white sidemen, such as Gene Krupa, Harry James, and Georgie Auld, had gone on to form their own bands after leaving Goodman, so had Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, and Cootie Williams. Not one of the scores of black jazzmen who had come through his ranks has ever indicated in any way that Goodman exploited them.
That type of writing is not only scurrilous and inciting but also irresponsible. None of these so-called journalists had even bothered to interview the black musicians in question. From the other side of the aisle there have been countless attacks on Goodman for his alleged high-handedness in his treatment of all of his "employees," white or black, his seeming insensitivity to their feelings, his total self-absorption, his notoriously poor memory for promises made, and his stinginess in negotiating salaries.
I also recall hearing the same accusations made against the famed symphony conductor Arturo Toscanini, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, and Charlie Parker. But now, once again, the tables have turned. Now it's open season on Jewish guys who've made a lot of money. It's politically okay to word-bash the "Hymies." Guess who's coming up next: Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg, and Bette Midler. Sound familiar?
A TRIBUTE TO BENNY GOODMAN takes place Thursday at 8:00 p.m. at the Riverside Hotel, 620 E Las Olas Blvd, Ft Lauderdale, 524-3513. Tickets cost $10. (Note: Tonight's performance is sold out.)
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.