The Jazz.com Blog
June 01, 2009 · 2 comments
Don't be fooled by the lower case name. Everything else about arnold jay smith deserves to be in all caps and boldface. Our correspondent normally covers the OctoJAZZarian beat at jazz.com, an exclusive club which requires eight decades of service from a jazzista before membership is granted. But smith remembers the birthdays even when the artist has departed. Below he looks back at Benny Goodman, and some recent tributes to the clarinetist, on the occasion of the King of Swing's hundredth birthday. T.G.
He was an icon of his age. He made the clarinet the sound of the era he helped create. He may have brought the instrument back from New Orleans obscurity. Benny Goodman made Swing the soundtrack of lives at home and abroad during WWII, perhaps beyond if you count the background loudspeakers on M.A.S.H., which took place during the Korean conflict (sic.)
Goodman and the others hired singers who encouraged bobbysoxers to scream, who spurred Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, et al, on to solo careers. Goodman promulgated the dance craze called the lindyhop, began the small groups which foretold bebop, could sing a chorus or three, played the blues and he was at home in all forms of music from New Orleans—he played with Louis Armstrong—to Broadway—he was in the pits with Ben Pollack. Goodman even tried his hand at bebop and cool recording with Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Mel Powell, Andre Previn and Shelly Manne; won polls and played with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
He had that perfect embouchure which most clarinetists search for. Said chops made him a natural for European and American classical and contemporary music. Donning the guise of Maestro Benjamin David Goodman he played the music of Weber, Mozart, Copland and Bernstein at home, on recordings and in concerts. The Goodman Archives, under former curate saxophonist/pianist Loren Schoenberg, reside at Yale University. Some of the homegrown chamber works have been released on MusicMaster.
Speaking of a home game it was Goodman’s daughter Rachel who found the acetates of the now-legendary 1938 Carnegie Hall concert in a closet—which were subsequently commercially release in 1950. And sell to this day.
Along with the genius of John Hammond, the entrepreneur, manager, promoter, and finally brother-in-law to Benny, jazz, perhaps all music, Carnegie, bands, orchestras became racially integrated with the hiring of Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson. On one memorable day Hammond produced the last session of Bessie Smith and the first of Holiday, on both of which Goodman played.
There are scores of “war stories” of Goodman on the bus, in the studio, of the so-called “ray,” that withering stare that was interpreted to connote displeasure from the leader, or his penuriousness, the irascibility, which preceded and followed him. But here we are celebrating the centenary of his birth and the celebrants are making light of fealty as well we should and reveling in his many accomplishments.
Columbia University’s radio station, WKCR, had been on a marathon through May concluding into early June playing nothing but BG 24/7. Yes, there are repeats as each student deejay brings his or her faves not necessarily consulting the others. Truth be told Goodman re-recorded many of his popular items over and over again. Each time he changed recording companies he repeated those same titles.
Newark’s NPR outlet, WBGO, has been sending out a series of broad- and webcasts on the subject, including a masterful interview of Schoenberg by Josh Jackson, another of Paquito D’Rivera, who credits the Goodman sound for his own clarinet artistry, by Gary Walker, and a live in-studio concert by D’Rivera and an all-star band of BG alums: John Bunch, piano, James Chirillo, guitar, Bill Crow, bass, Dave Samuels, vibes and Ron Vincent, drums. At the outset D’Rivera quipped that they all were in one form, or other, “Benny Goodman survivors.” Prior to their selection choice each gave a Goodman vignette. In the end there was great respect shone to this groundbreaking musician.
Although there were many tributes to the Chicago-born clarinetist, lighting the most candles was the Jazz at Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in a diverse program emphasizing the brilliant musicality of the man born into poverty who rose to become King of Swing.
Under the direction of Bob Wilber, the JALCJO performed Goodman-associated music for three nights, May 28-30 (BG’s actual birth date). These crack musicians read the charts down, but often some things were missing. Perhaps that Harry James and Ziggy Elman weren’t driving the trumpet section. Perhaps that Dan Nimmer was more Erroll Garner than Teddy Wilson. While Ali Jackson’s rhythm was more in-time, the raw exuberance of, say, Gene Krupa was sorely missed. The history as read by vocalist Joanne “Pug” Horton (Mrs. Wilber) brought it all back to us: the fateful last stop at the Palomar Ballroom of a failing tour when Benny sensing disaster said, “The hell with it; let’s play ‘King Porter’” thus beginning the Swing Era, and this concert. Benny said that the roar of the teens crowding the stage was the sweetest sound he had ever heard.
About Ms. Horton’s vocals, simply put, she did not do justice to the truly historic thrushes that traveled and recorded with the Goodman bands. The range and imagination were absent.
And this Porter Stomp didn’t swing as hard either. Another Fletcher Henderson chart, “Down South Camp Meetin’,” was better. In direct contrast. the penultimate of the first half big band instrumentals, Fats Waller’s “Stealin’ Apples,” swung like mad. These cats can read the proverbial fly shit and it just ignited. They seemed to want to play extra hard for the King this night.
At 81 Wilber showed his lic stick chops to be in good working order on the first of the small groups. The Trio, originally Goodman, Wilson and Krupa, was Wilber, Nimmer and Jackson here. The tempo was the same 4/4 but Krupa’s had more bite. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that these should be faithful reproductions; God knows any high school band can do that. It’s just that the spirit seemed to drag a bit more than the other recreations I have heard over the years.
Wilber’s chalumeau style contrasted with Buddy DeFranco’s more strident attack. DeFranco (86), who brought the difficult-to-get-around instrument to bop, led a BG Sextet-style group. With the added support of Chirillo they got more of a feeling of the lightness and blues-y attitude Charlie Christian brought to Goodman. One night, Hammond hid Christian in the back of the band. When Benny, who didn’t want any electric instruments in his bands, heard Christian he never looked back (no pun intended).
“Sing, Sing, Sing,” although done to death, remains a finale piece, not a first half closer. It seemed perfunctorily read through here saved by the solos of trumpeters Marcus Printup and Sean Jones, and Vincent Gardner on trombone. The drama of Jess Stacy’s impromptu piano solo was nowhere to be heard.
The second half was so artistically creative that it appeared to be another concert entirely. Wilber brought out his re-arrangements of some Sex(p)tet things for four clarinets, adding Ken Peplowski, Ted Nash and Victor Goines to the mix. Alas, the tunes remained unchallenging considering what was available to them including classical reworkings; and think of those Christian-led jams with Count Basie, Cootie Williams and Georgie Auld. The bright moments were when the clarinets in tandem played Goodman’s solos on “Rachel’s Dream.” The highlight of all the small groups was vibraharpist Warren Wolf whose facility and musical knowledge shone through at every turn. Watch for him to challenge leadership in the polls.
More challenging were the band’s reading of the difficult Eddie Sauter and Dr. Mel Powell charts for a later Goodman band. Pulitzer winner (classical) Powell played the piano for Goodman sounding very much like his predecessor, Wilson. Of particular interest was Peplowski’s nailing Sauter’s “Clarinet A La King.” Powell’s “Mission To Moscow” is even more fun if you know the backstory of the turmoil that accompanied that tour. Check out the Phil Woods version, if you can find it (Colpix).
For me the contrasting clarinet styles were the highlight. All three—Wilber, DeFranco and Peplowski—have led, or lead, Goodman ensembles. Wilber comes from Bechet, having been his student; DeFranco from bebop, although he led a Glenn Miller Band; and Peps remains solidly in the Swing tradition. I wandered backstage afterwards and asked Wilber and DeFranco how they felt about that. Wilber was all praise for the JALCJO. DeFranco was right on point. “Benny Goodman was my hero,” he said. “Why shouldn’t I want to play a tribute to him?”
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