Thursday, February 18, 2021

Jazz Stories VII: Benny Goodman

Most musicians love doing one thing—playing music. They’ll do whatever it takes to have the opportunities to play music and if they get famous enough, they’re not happy because they’re famous— they’re happy because their fame opens up opportunities to play more music. And get paid for it!


So when the clarinetist Benny Goodman started playing the music called jazz, he knew he owed his life to the black creators of this lively, fun and deeply difficult art form. But like all of us, he also lived in his time, a time when racism made it a struggle for jazz to be accepted by the public. From the beginning with ragtime and the blues, some white folks were attracted to this music and by the time Benny’s band was formed in 1935, many would go up to the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem as guests of the black community to dance the Lindy Hop to the great swing bands of Chick Webb, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and others. 


But the white music establishment, the newspapers, the music critics, felt threatened by the popularity of music made by black folks who had been assigned an inferior position in the doctrine of White Supremacy. So when they heard a swingin’ jazz band of white musicians, it suddenly gave them permission to properly praise this music and its musicians and they started calling Benny Goodman “The King of Swing.”


The black community knew better. So in 1937, they invited the Benny Goodman band to a “Battle of the Bands” with the Chick Webb band. The dancers themselves would be the judge. 4,000 people stood in line and another 5,000 were turned away. This was a big deal! Both Goodman and Webb had the same person arrange their music, a black musician named Fletcher Henderson. So when both bands played the same arrangement, you could hear the difference. Not only was Chick Webb’s tempo faster and a better match for the Lindy Hop moves, but there was that undefinable sense of uplift called “swing” and that edge of blues expression. Benny’s band had a smoother sound, but it was just a bit too tame for the dancers. So Chick was declared the winner, outswinging the “King of Swing!" You can judge for yourself below.


LISTENING SUGGESTION: Here is the link re-telling that story with musical examples:   Then go ahead and listen to a song that Goodman and Webb (and others) are credited as having co-written: Stompin’ at the Savoy. 


POSTSCRIPT: It wasn’t Benny’s fault that the press dubbed him with that King of Swing title. It simply was the way white privileged worked (and still works). But to Benny’s credit, he used his growing “rock-star” popularity to break through barriers of race and formed the first integrated jazz trio with black pianist Teddy Wilson and white drummer Gene Krupa. (Benny was Jewish and faced his own form of discrimination, so one might say the trio was integrated in three ways.) He later added black vibraphonist Lionel Hampton to form a quartet and included black guitarist Charlie Christian in a later sextet. In the midst of his rising popularity, this was a big risk to his career and he showed courage in taking that step. He loved played with these superb musicians and defied society’s dictum that this wasn’t acceptable.


When he became the first jazz musician to play at Carnegie Hall in 1938, another big step in making the music “legitimate,”, he invited black musicians from the Count Basie and Duke Ellington band to play with him on some numbers. This historic concert broke through two barriers— jazz in a music venue previously used only for European classical music and furthering integrated bands as the new norm. As a result, many black musicians eventually played in Carnegie Hall. (Later that same year, Louis Armstrong played there, followed by many of the great jazz artists). 



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