Benny Goodman, who was known as the King of Swing

Portrait Of Benny Goodman, 400 Restaurant, New York, N.y., Ca. July 1946

Benjamin “Benny” David Goodman (May 30, 1909 – June 13, 1986) was one of the most important clarinetists and bandleaders of jazz and swing music and became known as the “Rajah of Rhythm” and the”King of Swing.” Born into a poor Jewish immigrant family from Russia, Benny became a household name as the “King of Swing.” Benny refined a new genre of music that still is popular today. He broke down walls of prejudice and racial stereotypes and his music forever changed our American culture. 

  • Trailblazer for integrated bands 
  • His music defined the Era of Swing
  • Led the first jazz band to play Carnegie Hall
  • Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
  • Lifetime Achievement Award from Howard University
  • Elected into the All-Time Jazz Hall of Fame
  • Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences
  • Received honorary doctorates: Harvard, University of Illinois, Union College, Columbia University, Bard College, and Yale
  • Bestowed with a Kennedy Center Award
  • Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award

The King Of Swing Mastered The Clarinet Early

Benny Goodman 1942

Benny was born the ninth child out of twelve in a family of impoverished emigrants. His father, David Goodman, enrolled his son for music lessons at the Kehelah Jacob Synagogue when Benjamin was ten years old. Benny learned the disciplines of a musician and practiced hours a day. He would later in life comment, “Too many young musicians today want to win polls before they learn their instruments.” This constant practicing became his reputation, not just as he was learning but throughout his life—always trying to improve. And as anyone who has played the clarinet knows, if you are a perfectionist, the clarinet will be a constant challenge. At the young age of 11, Benny made his professional debut with his first pit band.

Benny was honing his clarinet mastery in an environment steeped in the imported New Orleans Jazz scene that had found a home in Chicago. He was heavily influenced by the earlier jazz clarinetists Johnny Dodds and the incomparable Jimmie Noone. Teenaged Benny would wear shorts (so rebellious in the day) and would sneak off to the Apex Club to hear Jimmie Noone play. He absorbed in his own playing the beautiful tone and sparkling flow of Jimmie Noone.” -John S. Wilson (New York Times music critic)

Young Benny was saturated in jazz and began to participate in jam sessions with Frank Teschemacher, Jimmy McPartland, and Bud Freeman. By the time Benny was 14, he was astounding all who heard him with beautiful intonation, his attack, and skilled improvisation. Benny was quickly building a reputation as a clarinetist, and dropped out of school and began focusing everything on his music career. The following year, Benny’s dad passed away and with the increased need to make money and help support his family, at 16 he joined the Ben Pollack Orchestra, arguably Chicago’s most famous jazz orchestra. “I feel that after you’ve done all the work and prepared as much as you can, what the hell, you might as well go out and have a good time.” -Benny Goodman (Seattle Times, 1979)

The Ben Pollack Band moved to the City of Angels in California where he stayed for the next four years. During these early Los Angeles years he became a skilled soloist. Mel Powell, the composer and pianist knew, “Goodman was one of the most incredible players the field has ever known. It wasn’t just that his own improvisation was marvelous, the spirit, the verve, the vitality, even humor he played with, but the sheer technical mastery. He played that thing like it was a yo-yo. The only thing comparable from a technical point of view would be (Art) Tatum.”

By 1928, Benny found himself in the recording studio among other jazz icons like his childhood hero Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Joe Venuti.

in 1933, Benny began working with jazz promoter John Hammond. Hammond (whose sister, Alice, married Benny in 1942) would be instrumental in launching the careers of Count Basie and Billie Holiday. With Hammond’s direction, Benny recorded with trombonist Jack Teagarden and drummer Gene Krupa, and the ensuing sound was the real beginning of Bennys rise to national prominence. “From his earliest small group recordings through his big bands of the swing era – of which he surely was a king – and on until the end of his days, Benny Goodman was a master of the clarinet and a bandleader admired by musicians and non-musicians alike, across all musical categories and across the globe. His quicksilver tone, his insistent drive to swing the music, his ability to execute cleanly the most dramatic filigrees of passages – all these qualities made him one of the most imitated instrumentalists in the world. Equally important to his legacy is his courage in proclaiming that music is a universal language transcending race and nation. Both as musical units and as experiments in democracy, his integrated bands comprised magnificent gestures toward perfection in our time.” –Robert J. O’Meally (Director of Jazz Studies, Columbia University, NYC)

In 1934 Benny became the leader of his first band. They played music that, though its roots were in the improvisational jazz of dixieland and ragtime, was much more structured and predictable and, therefore, appealing to a wider audience in America. The whole nation began to listen to Benny and his band when they were booked on a weekly radio show for NBC’s Let’s Dance (‘This show was taped before a live studio audience”). Let’s Dance was a three-hour-long, weekly broadcast devoting an hour to each band slated, consisting of different types and styles of music. Benny Goodman’s band was the finale “headliner.”

Making Jazz the Music of America

Portrait Of Benny Goodman, 400 Restaurant, New York, N.y., Ca. July 1946

The late ’20s and ’30s was a period of experimentation and shift in jazz. a fascinating and unique season in music history where the clean lines of genre were being blended and blurred and new arenas invented. Benny was on the edge of discovery in the mid-1930’s with a new form of jazz that would become known as swing

In 1935, thinking their radio appearances on Let’s Dance would assure success, Benny Goodman and his band launched a national tour. It did not go well. They were not as of yet as popular as they would become, and promoters and show producers were not all that keen on jazz.  Benny almost walked away from the tour several times before the night of  August 21, 1935, in Los Angeles at the Palomar Ballroom.

This event is thought of as the start of the swing era. With nothing to lose, Benny and his band just “let it all out.” The jam-packed crowd of fans from the Let’s Dance radio show went crazy, some describing it as “near riotous.” The night at the Palomar Ballroom was being broadcast on national radio, and it made headlines everywhere, and excitement that modern music was changing filled country. For three weeks, Benny and his orchestra/band played nightly at the Palomar Ballroom.

Overnight Benny became a huge celebrity, and his music of big-band style jazz, at last, had an eager national audience. This one sensational night was the turning point and beginning of an era where Benny reigned as the King: the Swing Era.

This new music sensation called swing had everyone dancing in the summer of ’35 and would dominate the music world for the next decade. College students and High schoolers were inventing new dance steps to pair with this powerful music. its appeal jumped over racial, educational and economic lines to unite listeners from diverse backgrounds all across the USA. By 1937, Time magazine called Benny Goodman the “King of Swing.”

King of Swing’s Revolution in Carnegie Hall

Benny Goodman

There was always a faint notion in American culture that popular music was not as refined or educated as the music of the “elites.” All this was about to be upended by Benny Goodman. On January 16, 1938, Benny and his orchestra introduced jazz and swing to the august members of Carnegie Hall and the world was changed.

The Benny Goodman Orchestra performed the same music that was making the kids go wild with guest artists from the bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington. “We gave the first swing concert that was ever heard in Carnegie, and I can tell you, it was a real thrill for me,” -Benny Goodman.

The event was overwhelming to those in attendance and they walked out of the hall embracing this new form of music. Bruce Eder called it “the single most important jazz or popular music concert in history: jazz’s ‘coming out’ party to the world of ‘respectable’ music.” To this day, the recording of that night is considered one of the greatest live jazz albums. “Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall in 1938 takes a stand that jazz, however folk-rooted, can be high art and can make it just as a listening concern,” –Phil Schaap (jazz historian)

Benny’s Carnegie Hall performance is regarded as the key turning point for jazz music with the popular and elite opinion of the whole nation surprisingly in agreement. Because of this concert, Benny is correctly credited with launching jazz/swing music into the center of pop culture in America. “Goodman’s recital at Carnegie Hall gave the world permission to take jazz, its past and its future, seriously.” –John McDonough

Essential Benny Goodman Albums

Big Band and Swing

Swing is from a “swing-feel,” where the stress is on the music’s offbeat weaker rhythm. As a verb, “to swing,” it can be used to praise strong driving or powerful groove playing. If you have heard swing you recognize it as distinct from other forms of jazz. The term “big band” is often interchangeable with the term “swing.” This is largely due to the reality that large bands of instrumentalists (usually 12-16) were used to create the explosive sound of swing.

In these big bands, traditional jazz instruments, like the banjo and sousaphone, were replaced. Count Basie began replacing the traditional ragtime influenced 2/2 time and adjusting to 4/4 with the emphasis on the second and fourth beat. This shift in instruments and time signatures created a less choppy feel and a smoother, more melodic flow that is part of the swing style. The choppier swing is called “hot swing” and the more melodic is “sweet swing.”

This big band reality led to the need for a more predictable arrangement of jazz. The music had to be written down and scored much like classical music, as you would then have the ability to bring new musicians on to replace those who had left or were ill. In swing, the music arrangement was more important than all the individual musicians. This is often one of the most derided elements of swing; the lack in spontaneity and improvisation afforded to the music was to a purist a dilution of jazz. 

Simultaneously, this was also the impetus for swing’s ascent to popularity. Instead of being a very complex language that is unintelligible, as much jazz seems to be to those who were not already somewhat versed in its intricacies and complexity, swing opened up jazz ideas to a larger audience suddenly allowing housewives in rural America to enjoy the core elements of jazz, that up until the late ‘30s had been an urban secret or music that was associated with African-Americans. 

What is the Difference between Swing and Jazz?

Despite the ongoing debate of its contribution to jazz, swing was the first commercially successful form of jazz in America. This swing era removed jazz from the perceived confines of prohibition speakeasies and New Orleans brothels and into living rooms and dance halls all over America. It became the soundtrack of American soldiers fighting in World War II and became the launchpad for rock and roll’s domination of the world.

In the 1920s, African-American pianist Fletcher Henderson led the way for the musical ideas that became the swing music of the ‘30s and ’40s. Their arrangements were used widely for decades. As the bands became bigger they were organized into groups (rhythm, reeds and brass). These sections (groups of instruments) were then worked in successions of counterbalancing each other in a dialogue of sorts in a call-response interaction. This back and forth nature was underscored with a constant rhythmic “riff” played over and over in the background by the not-leading sections of the band. This trade-off between sections, yet constant presence of the repeated musical phrase (riff) led to a hypnotic powerful layering of redundancy that went beyond the listener’s deduction straight to sensation.

There were, of course, those who didn’t appreciate the popularity of swing. They didn’t like improvisational soloists, like Benny Goodman, or the tempo, or the often risqué lyrics that led to all the “wild, immoral dancing.” At its core swing was received as the music of rebellion and was too rambunctious for many. 

Oddly enough in Germany, swing was the music of Nazi opposition. Not really a surprise considering that most of swing’s leaders were of Jewish or African heritage.

Who else was Known as the King of Swing?

There are many contenders to the title. Many could wear the crown and have had the name applied to them at one time or another. Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, or Duke Ellington all are deserving of the title, King of Swing, if it is simply a matter of skill and innovation. As unfair as we see it to be from our vantage point in history, the truth is that Benny has the title because he was white. To be successful on a national level meant a band and its leader needed to be white. Commercially it was harder to obtain support for African-American bands. This is why although there were African-American band leaders big band was dominated by white leaders such as Glenn Miller. So even as much as the title is deserved by Ellington, he was not able to receive a fair shake at it, due to the racism and systemic prejudice of the day. 

That being said, a case could be made easily that no one deserved it more than Benny Goodman. It is easy to say Benny’s band was truer and braver than any other white led band. Even his critics had to acknowledge that he was possibly the best jazz clarinetist in the world without regard to race. Combine his clarinet skill with his professionalism, popularity, work ethic, consistency, and the outstanding collection of musicians that he gathered around him, and it would be hard to dethrone him as King of Swing.

Racism and The King of Swing

Because America and the entertainment world were so segregated, it would be easy to be dismissive of the era. However, without the important groundbreaking work that Benny Goodman was doing to shatter the walls of racism, we would not have the better world (a lot more work to do!) we live in now. 

In 1941, W. C. Handy complained that “prominent white orchestra leaders, concert singers and others are making commercial use of Negro music in its various phases. That’s why they introduced “swing” which is not a musical form.” Of course, there were bands led by African-Americans such as my favorite, Duke Ellington, not to exclude Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson, and Count Basie to name a few. It seems that a charge of cultural appropriation of a sort could be levied against the whites who played jazz and especially those who “hijacked” swing. 

My opinion is that had the intent been to take the music away from African-Americans, then yes. But as is the history of jazz itself, it is a blending of traditions and ideas that give life to the art. Benny brought his Jewish immigrant culture and blended it with African-American jazz culture. Far from trying to take it away so as to profit from it, he worked tirelessly to bring his talented friends of color into the forefront. Benny Goodman was engaged in the human struggle for equality for all.

On his biggest night at Carnegie Hall, Benny was making history of a different sort. The night that jazz ascended to its proper place in America high culture, Benny made sure that the hallmark of the event was one of the earliest racially-integrated bands to ever perform in Carnegie Hall.

Benny Goodman was not just famed for being a clarinetist or band leader. He is remembered fondly for his attempts to bring equality to the performance stage. Because he was musically successful, he had greater freedom to break down racial segregation. Great African-American vibraphonist, Lionel Hampton, remembers that Benny in the ’30’s was the first big musical figure to integrate musicians on stage. ”The most important thing that Benny Goodman did,” he said, ”was to put Teddy Wilson and me in the quartet. It was instant integration. Black people didn’t mix with whites then. Benny introduced us as Mr. Lionel Hampton and Mr. Teddy Wilson. He opened the door for Jackie Robinson. He gave music character and style.” Ten years before Jackie Robinson played professional baseball, Benny hired Teddy Wilson. Lionel Hampton went on to say, “As far as I’m concerned, what he (Benny Goodman) did in those days—and they were hard days, in 1937 -made it possible for Negroes to have their chance in baseball and other fields.” While Benny’s band was not the first to have integration on the stage, Goodman’s national prominence and popularity helped make racially integrated bands more accepted by mainstream America.

While in the south, Jim Crow laws made it impossible for African-American’s and Whites to perform together, culturally it was still taboo in most concert halls and clubs even in the north. Because of Jim Crow Laws, Benny refused to tour in the south as both a protest and also to protect his integrated band. When questioned as to why he “played with that nigger” (meaning Teddy Wilson), Benny replied, “I’ll knock you out if you use that word around me again.”

King of Swing Introduces the Electric Guitar

The electric guitar is common and dominant in music today, however, in the ’30s it was considered a novel gimmick. When Benny Goodman introduced his jazz sextet with pioneer jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, it changed the world. Not only was Charlie African-American, he was using an amplified guitar. 

Charlie had a beautiful technique, and to this day jazz musicians copy him. He started on a ukulele as a child in Oklahoma City before picking up the guitar. After sitting at the feet of saxophonist Lester Young, Charles began to emulate Young’s slingshot rhythms. Charlie would lag slightly behind and then jump ahead of the beat. Simultaneously, he heard white bands in Oklahoma using the slide on guitars with amplifiers and understood the power hidden in electric guitars. When he joined Benny, Charlie would crank it up. Though Benny loved him, he begged Charlie to turn it down. Christian’s explanation: “I like to hear myself.”

During Benny Goodman’s triumphant career-defining night at Carnegie Hall in 1939, Charlie Christian was unveiled on stage. The music world was never the same.

What Clarinet did Benny goodman play?

Benny Goodman started on a Penzel-Mueller, used at least 4 different clarinets at different times in his career. He used a Selmer CT (Centered Tone), a Selmer BT (Balanced Tone), a Boosey and Hawkes 1010 (after he studied with Kell), and of course a Buffet Crampon. The Buffet Crampon is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s musical instrument collection.

The King of Swing was a Difficult Man

Benny was a normal human with good days and bad, good habits and bad. His personality was not neutral; either you loved him or hated him. As any complex personality, often his wholehearted striving for perfection often left a human toll in its wake. His sharp personality often made it tense with members of his band. “Benny was a terrific leader, but if I’d had any spunk I’d probably have thrown the piano at him.” Jess Stacy (pianist). Helen Forrest called Benny “the rudest man I have ever met. The twenty or so months I spent with Benny felt like twenty years. When I look back, they seem like a life sentence.”

What they were experiencing was the unstoppable determination of a person with a vision and the drive to accomplish it. Benny’s piercing gaze, aptly named “the ray,” would command even the most uncooperative band member back in line. Jimmy Maxwell, who was lead trumpet player understood. “He (Benny Goodman) was totally in command of everything. He was always a heavy practicer. Practiced all the time. He had ideas on how everything should be done in the band – bass, everything. Nobody argued with him, everybody had great respect for him.”

As a tireless perfectionist who was in the habit of demanding high standards of everyone else, one is bound to have conflict. At the same time, it is the reaching for perfection that really differentiated the band from others and was a key factor in their success. Band tenor sax player, Georgie Auld knew, “Working for Benny was like being in a school of music. His discipline, knowledge and ability were great determining factors in my musical life.” He expected great effort, he worked hard for great perfection, pushed others for great music, and he was awarded with great success.

For some, Benny Goodman was a harsh taskmaster. He seemed an egotistical and unconventional drill instructor. To others he provided the arena where their talents could take off. Many of Benny goodman’s band members went on to have stellar careers. For Sid Weiss, the bassist, he concluded, “To me, some of the best moments of my life were playing with Benny.”

Swing Era Draws to a Close

Even at the height of popularity, the seeds for its demise were being sown. As World War II captured the energy of the nation, its young men and the musicians who would play in big bands were drafted and sent to fight. Up to this time, big band was significantly dependent on touring, however with war-time gas rationing, touring was off the table. As swing began to decline other forms were already emerging from the rubble. Soon “bop” or ‘bebop” would open the door to rock and roll. 

He had, however, pioneered the direction of jazz that continues to our day. At the dawn of the big band era, Benny was seeing into the future. When Benny Goodman entered a New York recording studio on July 13, 1935, only pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Gene Krupa went in with him. Small-group jazz, or chamber jazz, was born, the course of jazz history altered forever.

True, smaller ensembles had been tried before—Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Jimmie Noone‘s Apex Club band, to name two, prospered in the 1920s playing traditional New Orleans-style fare. But until Goodman’s foray, the small band had been limited to blues, dixieland, and the group improvisations of the New Orleans style. Goodman expanded on the small-group concept, applying it to the steady 4/4 rhythm and the repertoire (mostly standards) of swing. Instead of dance music, this small-group swing showcased the individual talents of the musicians involved. Ironically, a mere ten years later, small-group jazz would become the norm, almost to the point of extinction of big bands.

With the dawning of bop and early rock, Benny Goodman never really seemed to embrace the shift in musical style and changed directions to try his hand at classical music. He even went back to school, and under the instruction of clarinetist Reginald Kell changed much of his technique. To me, this is the most telling element of his character. Though he had been playing nearly flawlessly since he was a teenager, he was not too arrogant as to not receive correction. “A poor yet wise lad is better than an old and foolish king (of swing) who no longer knows how to receive instruction.” -Ecclesiastes 4:13 With renewed energy and an even more impressive command of the clarinet, Benny performed with major orchestras, doing solos and touring the world.

In 1955 a film, The Benny Goodman Story, which was a loose adaptation of his life, was released. Regardless of the storyline’s facts, it was truly Benny’s own clarinet in the sound-track. Suddenly a new and young audience was exposed to Benny’s music. This opened up opportunities to tour the world. He brought swing and a mix of classical interpretations to Europe, South America, and Asia, going as far as the Soviet Union. One writer noted that “the swing music that had once set the jitterbugs dancing in the Paramount aisles almost blew down the Iron Curtain.” His trip into Russia was so well received President John F. Kennedy said, “Benny Goodman is our ´International Ambassador With Clarinet.”

He continued playing occasional concerts up to his death in 1986.  As the fads of music came and went over the course of his life, he continued to retain the defining sound that made Benny Goodman so distinct. One of Benny Goodman’s last recordings was a duet with George Benson the guitarist. It is clear to hear that his technical control and imaginative improvisation had not diminished with age. Benny was practicing on Johannes Brahms’ sonata on the day he passed.

Great Books for more about Benny goodman


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