Monday, 21 February 2011

Benny Goodman

And so onto Benny Goodman, whom Time magazine saw fit to call "The King of Swing" in 1937. As as per usual with my posts I had better get my preconceptions and ignorance out of the way first!

I had long associated Benny Goodman with the music of Glenn Miller and the kind of style associated with the massive hit "In The Mood". However it has long been debated that Miller's style of music was too commercial and overly practiced to be considered part of the hot jazz/improvisational lineage. Here's a quote from a Time magazine article written in 1942 entitled "Jive for Epicures" -

"U.S jive epicures consider the jazz played by such famous name bands as Tommy Dorsey's or Glenn Miller's a low, commercial product. Their heroes are unsung swingsters who improvise nightly for a favored few in hotspots like Chicago's College Inn, Manhattan Nick's. Their treasured classics are discs made in the '20s by such Chicago immortals as the late Leon ("Bix") Beiderbecke and King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band."

(As an aside it's also interesting to note from the article that the jazz afficionados in 1942 sat rapt in their seats as they considered it "sacrilege" to dance. This is a clear demonstration that jazz had reached a fundamental turning point at this time - from a musical form that encouraged dancing to the more, perhaps snobbish point of view that it was an art form that required serious listening. The definition of jazz even at this stage was becoming extremely blurred)

Goodman's popularity came about at a time when improvisational jazz was out of favour. He had been around the scene since the mid 20's as a session musician alongside his contemporaries Tommy Dorsey and the aforementioned Glenn Miller. His band demoed for a national radio show, NBC's "Let's Dance", a show that showcased a variety of musical styles.

As the Let's Dance show was weekly, Goodman was persuaded by his agent John Hammond to buy a load of "hot" jazz arrangements from Fletcher Henderson. The Goodman Orchestra's style developed and could be compared with the jazz sounds coming out of Kansas City at the time - big band swing with room for musical improvisation. Due to his time-slot on the show of 12.30am eastern, not many people on the East Coast heard Goodman's orchestra. However, the time difference meant that a lot of ears were tuning in in California and this was to prove instrumental in his career.

Let's Dance was cancelled midway through 1935 and Goodman was forced to take the band on the road. Their kind of music was not going down successfully with many audiences as they bused across the country. As the tour bombed they became progressively more broke and very dispirited as they reached California by mid summer. They had landed a three week gig at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Probably to ensure that they were able to see out the three weeks they began their first engagement by playing cautiously - stock pop tunes which to their surprise met with a very lukewarm response from the audience. As they were the ones tuning in to the Let's Dance show they were expecting the same music. It's widely regarded that it was Gene Krupa, Goodman's extraordinary drummer, who said to him - "if we're gonna die, let's die playing our own thing". The result caused mass hysteria and so it was that the events at the Palomar have been described as the moment when the Swing Era really took off.

Goodman's career spanned the next five decades. Many have remarked on his personality and temperament - mainly in a negative sense. To me this is perhaps not surprising given the times he was living in trying to maintain a large and expensive orchestra. He is widely regarded as being colour blind in terms of the musicians he chose. His trio and quartet work with Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson were the first examples of a fully open and integrated band. He was probably very demanding of his musicians but this appears to be the trait required of a successful big band leader.

To my ear his music can come across in a wide spectrum - from dated swing era tunes to absolutely extraordinary stuff. His clarinet style is very precise but soulful (though he doesn't push the envelope like Bechet). He had a plethora of hits from 1935 to the beginning of World War II and I have chosen one of my favourites to demonstrate his sound. This is "Bugle Call Rag"( originally recorded by The New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1922). Goodman's orchestra takes a New Orleans style standard and records it with sleek big band precision.