Happy Birthday, Benny Goodman!

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.

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3 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Benny Goodman!

  1. Stompy Jones says:

    It’s a shame that Goodman’s greatness as a jazz player must be defended from the likes of Amiri Baraka, whose opinions always seem driven by a racial agenda, rather than by music. And you’re right about Schuller: his enthusiasm for BG is well under control. First he writes, correctly, that “the extra-musical elements in Goodman’s career have frequently been used to obscure his real musical contributions. Extreme positions have been taken… arguments which evade the real complexities of arriving at a fair and true musical appraisal.” Yet a few pages later, he writes of BG’s “relatively good feel for jazz” and the “perplexing” question of the Goodman band’s popularity. Faint praise, indeed, which leaves me wondering whether perhaps Schuller’s own opinions have been colored by “extra-musical elements,” e.g. Goodman’s consummate technique and immense popularity. (God forbid a great jazz artist should be popular!) To me, Goodman’s clarinet is always instantly recognizable because of the driving, rhythmic quality of his phrasing, a sense of time — jazz time — almost without equal. And unlike some other prodigiously proficient players (Art Tatum, for one) Goodman never indulged in show-offy displays of technique, nor did he allow his technique to disturb the momentum of the music. A well-written and well-deserved birthday tribute. Thank you, Marine Park.

    • M. Figg says:

      Goodman was the reason I got into jazz and picked up the clarinet, and critical ambiguity towards him has always bugged me. And I agree that Goodman never displayed technique for the sake of itself; you always get the sense of a musician so thoroughly in touch with his craft, whose mind is moving so fast, yet brains never interferes with balls.

      And critics be damned, “Clarinet a la King” bowls me over every time I hear it.

      Thanks for reading, and I am so glad you enjoyed the post!

  2. dearieme says:

    Many of the objections to BG are racist, aren’t they? – just the mirror image of Nick La Rocca’s rubbish.

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