Personalities | Benny Goodman | Thirties | Jazz & Blues

Benny Goodman was the first of the great bandleader virtuosos of the 1930s to achieve global success. Through a combination of personal connections, nerve, enormous talent and sheer luck, he parlayed a sequence of opportunities in 1934–35 into a payoff that changed American music.

After forming his first band in New York in 1934, he won a coveted place on NBC’s weekly Let’s Dance radio show late that year, and then a record contract with RCA Victor. In 1935 a national tour took him to the Palomar Ballroom in California, where his music finally caught the ear of America and the world.

Benjamin David Goodman was born on 30 May 1909 in Chicago, Illinois and took up the clarinet when he was 10. His progress was so swift that by the age of 13 he had a union card and was soon earning $58 a week playing in the Jules Herbeveaux Orchestra. Goodman’s first recordings, made with Ben Pollack’s orchestra in December 1926, find him self-assured with a smooth, powerful attack and sparkling sound. Although he was part of the Chicago jazz scene and influenced by its heat, his prodigious technique gave him professional choices that many of his jazz contemporaries lacked. He could rip into raw, hard-driving solos influenced by Johnny Dodds and Frank Teschemacher but also, when the job required, play polite solo interludes with restraint.

New York Beckons

Moving to New York in 1928, Goodman prospered in radio, theatre and recording work. He was making such a good living by the early 1930s that he had little incentive to fight a growing public indifference to jazz. If Goodman was not committed to ‘the cause’, however, a young critic and producer named John Hammond was. He approached Goodman in 1933 and provided him with moral support, frequent jazz recording dates and a sense of renewed confidence to pursue the jazz route.

Swing’s The Thing

Throughout 1934–35 Benny Goodman became the first white bandleader to bring the swinging spirit of the great black orchestras – Chick Webb, Benny Carter, Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson – to a mass audience. He used the Henderson model, bought many of Henderson’s arrangements and sharpened the intonation and attack without suffocating any of the rhythmic energy. To this he added his own brilliant clarinet solos. Suddenly jazz music sounded fresh and new to millions of young dancers, who started to listen. By the time Goodman reached Chicago in December, the whole country was talking about ‘swing’.

The arrival of swing awakened a sustained consciousness about jazz and, indirectly, about race. The Goodman tide lifted all boats, black and white, and also became a wedge of direct social progress. More than a decade before Jackie Robinson broke the colour line in baseball, Goodman integrated music by bringing Teddy Wilson (1935), Lionel Hampton (1936) and Charlie Christian (1939) into his small groups. Before the end of the decade Fletcher Henderson joined the full Goodman band on piano, becoming the...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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