Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

November/December 2015: Grace Kelly

Benny Goodman (1909-86) The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert

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David Goodman, a Jewish immigrant from Hungary who worked in the Chicago stockyards, died in an accident when his son, Benny, was just sixteen. The trauma of losing his hardworking father only hardened Goodman’s resolve to make a success of himself, and today is he universally regarded as the epitome of clarinet players.

As a bandleader, Goodman’s insistence on perfection—and intolerance for anything less—was legendary. So was his lifelong reluctance to part with a dollar, even after he became a very rich man, especially when negotiating salaries with his musicians. The turnover in the band was high, but the departures were not always about money. Musicians who delivered rarely had trouble with him; it was those who didn’t deliver, who didn’t try hard enough, who found themselves on the receiving end of the famous “Goodman ray,” as it was called. It was an unnerving look that levelled anyone feeling the least guilty or uncertain. One big band reviewer noted that the “ray” was more of “a fish stare,” as Benny would not so much look at a person as look through him.

No one admitted more readily to being preoccupied with perfection than Goodman himself. In George T Simon’s book The Big Bands, Goodman is quoted as saying, “I’ll never be satisfied with any band. I guess I just expect too much from my musicians, and when they do things wrong, I get brought down.” Simon noted that, unlike bandleaders Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller, Goodman seldom blew his top at his musicians. “His method was more subtle. When a musician displeased him, Benny would usually just ignore him, a sort of negative method of informing the musician that he was in trouble. Frequently the situation would become so uncomfortable that the musician would quit.”

The most regrettable parting-of-the-ways between Benny Goodman and one of his sidemen had its beginnings in one of the greatest swing band triumphs in history—the band’s concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938. During the concert, drummer Gene Krupa suddenly broke out of a somewhat slow beat laid down by Benny Goodman and set a new groove for the band that continued without let-up until Krupa began the now-famous tom-tomming that kicked off “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Krupa led chorus after chorus, taking the whole band to a blazing climax, with Benny and he playing alone on clarinet and drums.

But it was a bittersweet achievement. Krupa and Goodman had been having disagreements over their approaches to music for some time, and Krupa had been getting his own share of national publicity, which likely didn’t sit well with Benny. Mere weeks after the concert, Krupa announced he was leaving the band.

The Carnegie Hall concert was a milestone, as it was the first time jazz was performed in the august venue of a major concert hall. But a craze for swing music had been spreading for a couple of years, giving birth to a new dance, the jitterbug, and the concert was sold out weeks in advance. As the album notes put it, “The tremendous popularity of ‘King of Swing’ Goodman…made him just the man to take ‘America’s indigenous art form’ into the rarefied setting of its concert hall Mecca. And after Goodman strode onto the stage, jazz would be accorded the respect its practitioners and fans knew it warranted.”

This exceptional double CD [Sony BMG Legacy #065143] brings it all back—Harry James, Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, Cootie Williams, Bobby Hackett, and many others—playing the unparalleled Goodman arrangements of Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump,” with sizzling solos by pianist Jess Stacy and trumpeter Harry James; the Fletcher Henderson gem “Sometimes I’m Happy,” missing from the first issue of the record; Duke Ellington’s “Blue Reverie,” featuring the remarkable soprano sax technique of Johnny Hodges; Goodman’s house specialty “Stompin at the Savoy”; and the band’s super-charged version of Louis Prima’s amazing “Sing, Sing, Sing,” brought home by Goodman on the clarinet hitting top A followed by a high C.

This expanded, third edition presents the concert in real time and with the finest possible sound quality, thanks to painstaking application of the most modern tools available. The audience’s thunderous reaction to rare and dazzling choruses, which were edited out of previous editions, are on this recording, and the glorious resonance of Carnegie Hall is evident throughout. This is an essential swing album to have.

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