Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Goodman, Benny (Benjamin David)

Clarinetist Benny Goodman's clear, ripe tone inspired a generation of dancers, and earned him the title of “The King of Swing” in an era thick with jazz royalty. The first white bandleader to openly integrate his band, he played with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and guitarist Charlie Christian and gave vocalist Billie Holiday her first exposure in the early 1930s.

Benjamin David Goodman was born on May 30th, 1909 in Chicago, Illinois. He was the ninth of twelve children born to Hungarian Jewish immigrants David Guttman and Dora Rezinski. At some point before his birth, his father changed the family name to Goodman.

Goodman grew up on Chicago’s West Side and his family was largely poverty stricken for much of his childhood. Goodman’s first musical training came in 1919 while he attended the Kehelah Jacob Synagogue with several of his siblings. He received valuable classical music training from clarinetist Franz Schoepp, and was one of the jazz-addled white teens who would sneak in to hear King Oliver's band play at the Grand Terrace Ballroom. In 1926, Goodman joined drummer Ben Pollack’s band. Pollack had a knack for spotting future talent, and was later called the “Father of Swing.”

Goodman made his recording debut with Pollack, and eventually played with the drummer until 1929. During his stint with Pollack, Goodman played with Jimmy McPartland although both of them left the group in the summer of 1929.

Later that year, Benny’s father David was struck and killed on a Chicago street, an event that steeled the clarinetist's resolve to strive for musical success. After his stint with Pollack, Goodman relocated to New York City, where he did session work with cornetist Red Nichols and others. Goodman was in the band for George Gershwin’s musicals Strike up the Band and Girl Crazy.

Starting in 1930, Goodman recorded frequently. He is featured on the Hoagy Carmichael recording with Bix Beiderbecke "Barnacle Bill the Sailor," and with Red Norvo on "In a Mist" and "Dance of the Octopus" and with Jack Teagarden on "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues."

                        Benny Goodman, photo by Herb Snitzer

One factor that contributed to Goodman's visibility and rise in popularity in the thirties was his relationship with Melody Maker columnist and Columbia Records producer John Hammond. Goodman eventually married Hammond’s sister, Alice.

At the insistence of Hammond, Goodman went and checked out a young eighteen year old singer in Harlem named Billie Holiday. Later that year in 1933, she recorded with Goodman’s orchestra on such songs as "Riffin’ the Scotch," and in 1935 with pianist Teddy Wilson featuring Goodman on the song "What a Little Moonlight Can Do."

Goodman formed his first big band in 1934, and hired Fletcher Henderson to do arrangements for the band. That same year, he landed the spot on NBC’s national radio program Let’s Dance, which brought Goodman's versions of the Henderson arrangements to a nationwide audience every Saturday night for a year. This, perhaps more than any other factor, contributed the most to Goodman's national profile, and being dubbed the “King of Swing.”

When Let's Dance was cancelled due to a worker’s strike, the Goodman band hit the road, after recording several Henderson arrangements, including "King Porter Stomp," which honored Goodman's old idol from Chicago. Also recorded at the same July 1935 session was the song “Sometimes I’m Happy.”

While on the road in the late summer of 1935, the Goodman band ended their tour with an engagement at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Their engagement there captured the attention of young dancers, and was extended for several weeks. Before long, the popular press took notice and the Swing Era was essentially underway.

Aside from his big band recordings, Goodman also made some very important quartet recordings. Beginning in 1936, Goodman entered the studio in Hollywood, California that summer with drummer Gene Krupa, pianist Teddy Wilson, and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. They recorded several songs which included "Moonglow." Before Hampton joined the group, the Benny Goodman Trio had recorded “After You’re Gone,” a staple song that showcased Goodman’s abilities as a soloist. The quartet went into the studio again in 1937 and recorded "Avalon."

In January of 1938, at the urging of John Hammond, he brought jazz to Carnegie Hall, along with soloists from the Ellington and Basie bands. This marked the first time jazz music had been played at Carnegie Hall, and more significantly for the era, by a racially integrated band.

In 1939, Goodman hired Oklahoma guitarist Charlie Christian, who was brought to his attention by Hammond and pianist Mary Lou Williams. In doing so, Goodman had unwittingly hired one of the first great modernists in jazz and a founding father of bebop. Christian recorded with Goodman from 1939 until his premature death from tuberculosis in 1942.

In November if 1939, he recorded the song "Seven Come Eleven" with Goodman, Hampton, and Fletcher Henderson on piano. Christian can also be heard with Goodman on the 1941 recording "Solo Flight" and the 1940 recording "Benny’s Bugle."

Goodman's popularity led to opportunities to perform classical music as well. In 1938, he gave his first public classical performance at Town Hall in New York, and the following year commissioned and performed Bela Bartok’s piece Contrasts at Carnegie Hall.

While Goodman appeared in several Hollywood movies during the 1940s, which included Sweet and Lowdown and A Song Is Born, the popularity of his and other dance-oriented big bands began to fade. In 1953, Goodman toured with trumpeter Louis Armstrong’s All Stars, but not for long, as Goodman was reportedly uncomfortable with being overshadowed by Armstrong onstage. In 1955, Goodman was played by Steve Allen in the movie The Benny Goodman Story, which also featured a cameo appearance by Teddy Wilson.

In the later years of his life, Goodman continued to tour and record. During the 1960s he traveled the world as a United States’ State Department ambassador for jazz. He recorded with jazz guitarist George Benson in the 1970s, and continued to appear at jazz festivals around the country. Benny Goodman died on June 13th, 1986 in New York City.

Select Discography

As Benny Goodman

A Jazz Holiday (Decca, 1928)

The Birth of Swing (Bluebird, 1935)

Stomping at the Savoy (Bluebird, 1935)

Carnegie Hall Concert 1938 (Columbia, 1938)

From Spirituals to Swing (Vanguard, 1938)

Featuring Charlie Christian(Columbia, 1939)

Sextet (Columbia, 1950)

Benny Goodman in Hi-fi (Capitol, 1954)

Contributor: Jared Pauley