Saturday, May 30, 2015

The King Of Swing: Benny Goodman Has A Birthday

In the shadow of bebop: Benny Goodman, 1946

Today we celebrate the birthday of the clarinetist and bandleader, Benny Goodman (1909 - 1986). You can read about him here in a biography prepared for the Jazz: A Film By Ken Burns PBS website. Mention "Palomar Ballroom" and "Carnegie Hall" in the same breath and any popular music historian will follow with "Benny Goodman." Both performances are landmarks in the history of swing and jazz.

In 1935, his orchestra performed regularly on an NBC Radio program entitled, "Let's Dance." It was broadcast live across the country. Young people in the East were fast asleep when his orchestra hit the airways, but it was perfect timing for the West Coast. A strike ended the broadcasts after a few months and the band decided on a coast to coast tour. In the interior states, the tour was a disaster because people didn't care for "upbeat" jazz arranged for orchestra. The band was looking forward to the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles as the last stop and an end to the pain. When they arrived, thousands of young fans who had heard them on the radio were waiting to hear them in person. What was to be a welcome end to a disaster turned into the beginning of the Swing Era.

Eighteen months later , the now famous Goodman Orchestra was invited to present a jazz review on 
January 16, 1938 in Carnegie Hall, a venue historically reserved for "high brow" music. Several members of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras and others joined on stage to perform a concert ranging from traditional to unconventional. No jazz bandleader had ever performed there. The concert was a sensation, reaffirming Goodman as the "King of Swing," and jazz as serious American music. In the eyes of many music critics and historians, this concert remains the single most important event in popular music history in the United States. Superlatives aside, the concert was a study in swing music history and jazz improvisation. 

After several curtain calls at the end of the concert, Goodman announced to the screaming fans that an encore would follow. Sing, Sing, Sing was the last song in that set. It already was a popular piece for the band, but this performance lifted it to holy status in the swing jazz genre. Featured players: Gene Kruppa on drums, Babe Russin on saxophone, Harry James on trumpet, Goodman on clarinet, and Jess Stacy in a masterpiece of improvisation on piano.

Music historians generally regard this legendary performance as the most important in the history of jazz. After January 16, 1938, jazz became mainstream American music. 
Recordings of the concert have remained in print as best sellers since 1950 when masters were found in Goodman's home. What more can be said?

Photo: Library of Congress, William Gottlieb Collection

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