Happy Birthday, Benny Goodman | WBEZ
Skip to main content

Eight Forty-Eight

Music Thursdays with Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele: Benny Goodman

Tony Sarabia: 

This week Richard Steele and I are taking a look at the artistry and influence of Chicagoan Benny Goodman.

Benjamin David “Benny” Goodman would have been 103 years old on May 30th and he remains for legions of fans perhaps one of Chicago’s most famous musical exports. I know my dad would be in that camp, having been a Goodman fan for more than a few decades.

For me it’s a different story. Although I recognize Goodman’s contributions to music, he was never one of my top three jazz clarinet players. I found his style of playing lacked the emotion that Barney Bigard possessed, the humor of Jimmie Noone in his playing, or the imagination of Tony Scott.

Yes this is subjective, as we all have differing musical tastes.

What cannot be argued though is Goodman’s extraordinary role in the acceptance of jazz as a mainstream music, his role in integrating the music on stage and his dedication to jazz and talent.

Goodman’s prowess on the clarinet was recognized at an early age. When he was just 16 years old, he was playing with one of the Chicago’s top bands: The Ben Pollack Orchestra.

From there it was a non-stop ride -- first New York City as a well-paid sideman and radio program performer and then to California where he hit it big and helped to usher in the swing era.

Along the way he provided a boost to an early swing music arranger, Fletcher Henderson, by buying the African American musician’s song arrangements. A few years down the road, Henderson became Goodman’s arranger.

But Goodman took it even a step further. In a move that no doubt was controversial back in the mid-1930s, Benny Goodman hired a couple of other black musicians to work for him on stage.

His Benny Goodman Trio featuring the great African American pianist Teddy Wilson played at Chicago’s Congress Hotel and was a hit. Later he rounded out the band to include another black artist: Lionel Hampton on vibes. His orchestra also employed featured at one time Ellington alum trumpeter Cootie Williams.

Goodman would dabble in be bop before dismissing it entirely. Later in his life he became more interested in classical music but of course never let his love of jazz diminish and he always gave credit to Fletcher Henderson, saying it was Henderson’s work in the 1920s that really inspired Goodman to play the music that would earn him the title (rightly or not) the King of Swing.

This is not the first recording of the famous Johnny Green hit nor is it the most talked about among jazz lovers; for that you’d have to choose Coleman Hawkins’ pivotal 1939 version. Here unlike Hawkins, Goodman plays it relatively safe on his 1935 rendition. He doesn’t veer too much away from the melody line and he leaves most of the soloing to pianist Teddy Wilson. Yet it gives a good idea of how relaxed Goodman could sound in a small band setting.

A year later, Goodman rounds out his trio with the addition of Lionel Hampton on vibes, where he kicks things off before a warm toned Goodman takes the melody. Once again, Teddy Wilson shines on his piano solo, and then Goodman wails a bit in the high register, which seems to have been his favorite area of the instrument. 

Legend has it that Goodman didn’t want guitarist Charlie Christian in the band; didn’t like the idea of an electric guitar or Christian’s flashy fashion sense. The idea was producer John Hammond’s and during a break in a Goodman show, Hammond put the guitarist on stage to the chagrin of Goodman. The bandleader thought he’d embarrass Christian by playing a song he didn’t think the young African American musician would know. Goodman was wrong and the crowd liked the addition of Christian so Goodman kept him for a couple of years. On this breezy number, the sextet includes Fletcher Henderson on piano instead of Teddy Wilson and nick Fatool replaces Gene Krupa on drums.

Goodman not only used arrangements by the African American swing and big band jazz music pioneer Fletcher Henderson, but he also employed Henderson later as an arranger for the band and used some of Henderson’s musicians to teach Goodman’s how to play some of those charts.

But for my ears, it didn’t always work. "Wrappin’ it Up" is a good example and it sort of reminds me of the tune "Sh-boom", first recorded by the African American doo wop group the Chords and the later version by the white singing group The Crew Cuts; soulful vs. bland.

Goodman’s take on Henderson’s "Wrappin’ It Up" was recorded in 1938, four years after Henderson’s more swinging and up-tempo version, and while it may be unfair to label it as bland, it doesn’t possess the same verve. 

The last pick is what I think about most when it comes to Goodman the musician. The music he’s most remembered for and what earned him the title of King of Swing was often a little too sweet for my ears and that could have something to do with his penchant for technical perfection.

Nonetheless, Goodman remains a giant in the music world and he certainly deserves the accolades he received in life and beyond. Happy Birthday to “The Professor.”

Richard Steele:     

This mid 1930s Goodman Classic is instantly recognizable by those old enough to remember the swing era. It was during this period that Benny Goodman was dubbed the King of Swing. “Let’s Dance” is the composition that came to be recognized as the theme for Goodman’s band. It also recognizes the link between Goodman and his other love, which was classical music.

“Let’s Dance” is taken from Carl Maria Von Weber’s classical piece called “Invitation To The Dance.” Goodman’s early music training was in classical music. He was well respected by the classical music community and made several recordings with symphony orchestra’s as a guest soloist. In addition to it being the band’s theme song, “Let’s Dance” was also the name of a dance band radio show on NBC that the Goodman band played on during the mid-1930s.    

This short, but unique piece was taken from a 1959 television show. This footage must be incredibly rare. I doubt if many people ever heard Benny Goodman sing. He actually does a few vocal lines of “The Glory Of Love.” His spectacular clarinet playing provides wonderful accompaniment for the two legendary vocalists, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee.

Right around 1947, Benny Goodman started experimenting with playing a little be-bop. He certainly had the technical facility and Goodman expressed admiration for the innovative musicians who played it. Basically, swing was his thing, but on this tune called “Benny’s Bop, he joined a sextet that included tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray. Mary Lou Williams, heard here on piano was another musician who experimented with different styles thru-out her career. This recording was done on a V-Disc, which were special phonograph records distributed during and after World War II to entertain the troops overseas.            

This commercial was pretty unusual for 1952. While you listened the Benny Goodman quartet playing the music, the announcer introduces each member of the quartet. The visuals are sketches of each man playing his instrument and then playing together as a unit. The script was definitely written to promote the idea of racial harmony. It mentions different races and religions coming together for a better America. We’re still working on that. But back then, Benny Goodman’s quartet was a good example of the point being made in the commercial. The band had two whites and two blacks.                         

Benny Goodman was in his early 70s when he performed this Broadway classic written by the Gershwin’s. This was a live appearance at the famous Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. The venue has a reputation for presenting some of the finest jazz artists in the world. In this stellar performance, Goodman shows why he was still, arguably, the best clarinet player to ever pick up the instrument and play modern music.

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.