Where to begin?
Unlike many other jazz musicians, pretty much anyone Googling “Benny Goodman” already knows something about him. Even if they’ve never seen images of the tuxedo-clad bandleader and his big band playing to screaming fans, we all know the music:
Goodman’s blockbuster commercial success, his groundbreaking synthesis of jazz, pop music and dance chart, his unparalleled technical prowess on the clarinet and draconian standards for his sidemen have made him an icon of American pop and a controversial jazz artist. Amiri Baraka refers to him in passing as “a rich Jewish clarinetist” who shanghaied the music of African American artists, and Gunther Schuller’s chapter on Goodman in his landmark The Swing Era carries a cautious tone, as though Schuller is careful not to give Goodman too much credit.
Since it’s Memorial Day and there is already enough combat in the world, rather than debating the pros and cons of Goodman’s jazz credentials, I’ll let the music of Benny Goodman the jazz clarinetist (rather than Goodman the bandleader or pop artist) speak for itself.
Here’s the twenty year old Goodman, already a seasoned professional, twisting “Indiana” around his flying fingers with Red Nichols’ band. Listen to the way he leans into those blue notes:
That same year Goodman recorded a swirling solo on “Railroad Man” (check out Dan Block copying the solo with Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks here). Goodman’s fluid sound and hair-trigger technique were a revelation, integrating classical pedagogy with the blue notes, rhythm and vocal inflections of American jazz. Yet even Goodman’s more overtly classical allusions never come across as pretentious or strained. Here’s Eddie Sauter’s concerto for Goodman, “Clarinet a la King”:
Goodman is a symbol of the big band era, yet his influential small groups were reminder of the joys of small group jazz (at a time when bands were getting bigger and more arranged), as well as groundbreaking “mixed” recording sessions. Lionel Hampton’s vibraphone and Teddy Wilson’s piano make a powerful argument for musical integration, and the sheer energy and assurance of Benny’s clarinet alongside them reinforces how great music is colorblind:
As “Moonglow” from later on in Goodman’s career demonstrates, viewing Goodman strictly as a commercial success, martinet and technical wizard might speak to one man’s flaws, but his artistry deserves more objectivity:
Benny’s spare paraphrases of the melody, the slightly sandy color he brings to his tone (reference to his early influences such as Jimmie Noone and Frank Teschemacher?), they reveal a playful, thoughtful artistic voice. Chances are if the bandleading bug never bit Goodman, we’d have much less quantity but just as much quality left behind on record. Happy birthday to an incredible musician.