Our Spring magazine is finally here! Click here to view and read our new articles!

Benny Goodman: The King of Swing Who Came From a Slum

Picture Credits

On the 21st August 1935, swing music filled the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Benny Goodman, armed with his clarinet and backed by his orchestra, played to a wildly appreciative crowd whilst a microphone fed the music live across the radio waves. Although the concert poster had proclaimed Goodman and his orchestra to be ‘stars of N.B.C’s three hour ‘Let’s Dance’ programme’, the group’s claim to stardom had been hitherto relatively fragile, and the rocky start to their tour had served as a bitter testament to this. Yet, that evening, though just another interlude between sunset and sunrise in Los Angeles, proved to be of striking importance. Not only was the success of Goodman and his orchestra launched in a proverbial skyrocket, but so too was the popularity of swing music. Indeed, many have even credited the event for the birth of the swing movement itself.

Benny Goodman was later crowned the ‘King of Swing’, yet his induction into musical royalty was preceded by both hardship and hard work. On the 30th May 1909, Goodman was born to join eight other children in a family which would one day become twelve. His parents, David Goodman and Dora Grisinsky Goodman, were Russian-Jewish immigrants who had stumbled their way America whilst fleeing from Russia and its anti-Semitic exploits. Needless to say, life in the Goodman household was not one of prosperity, and the unsanitary slum which they called home gave the children a forlorn introduction to life. Fortunately, however, Benny Goodman was provided with a musical education by the Kehelah Jacob Synagogue in Chicago. Here, he studied classical clarinet under Franz Schoepp, whilst he learned the rudiments of jazz playing in a local band. By 1925, he had a place in the orchestra of Ben Pollack, prompting him to move from Chicago to Los Angeles. Eight years later, he made the professional acquaintance of John Hammond; a capable producer who began convincing the American population that Goodman’s was a name worth knowing. Then, in 1934, Goodman formed his now-infamous band and their talents found them a spot on N.B.C’s aforementioned ‘Let’s Dance’ programme. Emboldened by this, the group began the tour which would lead them the Palomar Ballroom.

Palomar seems to have whetted Goodman’s appetite for historically important concerts, for his Carnegie Hall concert on the 16th January 1938 was similarly momentous. Featuring Goodman alongside artists from Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s bands, the sheer brilliance of this star-studded cast was enough for tickets to sell out a week in advance. This meant that, for the first time, a jazz concert was a prestigious event on one of the world’s finest stages. The performance itself was almost a lesson in jazz history, beginning with some Dixieland numbers and growing progressively modern as it built up to the climax: ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. It was an incontrovertible success and records of the performance have been on sale ever since. The concert was significant socially as well as musically. Black artists appeared alongside white artists during a period when segregation was as much a part of life as blinking. Racial integration was not a foreign concept to Goodman, who had partaken in the first of such collaborations in 1935. However, it is an exaggeration to claim that Goodman was a social visionary. The black pianist in question, Teddy Wilson, was engaged on John Hammond’s initiative whilst Goodman was nervous about potential repercussions for the band’s success. Only after a successful first performance did Goodman feel confident to make further black recruitments.

Nonetheless, Goodman evidently did not distinguish between black and white unless referring to piano keys; it was music which enthused him. He could be short-tempered in his pursuit of perfection, reserving a particularly severe glare for musical blunderers; a glare so ferocious that it was nicknamed ‘the ray’. Jess Stacey, the pianist, stated that ‘Benny was a terrific leader, but if I’d had any spunk I’d probably have thrown the piano at him’. Fortunately, however, lack of spunk, and probably strength, resulted in Goodman preserving his good health throughout the swing era, an artistic movement to which he made remarkable contributions.

Yet, during the 1940s, whilst World War II accelerated towards its destructive finale, the popularity of swing music began to decline in America. Goodman suffered from ill health and he disbanded his band around the time of his spinal disk surgery in July 1940. For a while, he flirted with the new bebop style, but his loyalty to swing music never left his playing. Eventually, he dispensed with the new in favour of the old, and his swing recordings in the 1950s are now regarded as some of his best. Musical nostalgia seems to have also pushed him back towards the classical realm. In the late 1940s, he commissioned works by Aaron Copland, and Paul Hindemith, which joined Béla Bartók’s Contrasts on Goodman’s list of commissions. These new works, as well as Goodman’s performances of other classical compositions earn him as much credit in the classical realm as he achieved in his jazz playing.

Conversely, some have disputed Goodman’s right to the title, ‘the King of Swing’, asserting that his skin colour unduly promoted him whilst black artists, such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Chick Webb, and Jimmie Lunceford, were side-lined. Yet, Goodman’s exceptional musicality combined with his tolerant attitudes helped push the boundaries of swing music, rebrand jazz as high-class entertainment, and normalise the appearance of black musicians onstage. His nonchalance towards the divides between both classical and jazz, and white and black allowed him to concentrate solely on his music and how he played it. Call him what you like, he was undeniably great.