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Swing King

Charlie Christian

Masters of Jazz/Média 7, 8 CDs, $16.99 each

The Complete Capitol Small Group Recordings of Benny Goodman, 1944-1955

Mosaic, 4 CDs (out of print)

In 1935, the clarinettist and bandleader Benny Goodman, aged just twenty-six, left New York with his fourteen-piece “swing” band and, traveling in a rag-tag group of cars, headed for the huge Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. It was not an easy trip. There were half a dozen dismal, sparsely attended one-nighters and three weeks at a dance hall in Denver, where the band was forced to play waltzes, tangos, and novelty numbers. On the opening night at the Palomar, the band played ballad numbers in the first set, and there was little response from the dancers. Then one of the musicians said, if they were going to bomb again they might as well do it in style. So Goodman called for his hot, often up-tempo arrangements, many of them by the ingenious black bandleader and arranger Fletcher Henderson, and the kids stopped dancing, clustered around the bandstand, and began roaring. Before the weeks at the Palomar were over, it was clear that Goodman had suddenly made jazz—still a suspect and largely subliminal American folk music, despite the brilliant inventions during the previous decade of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Duke Ellington—into a popular music.

Goodman’s seismic ways continued. In 1936, he shook up the white entertainment establishment by hiring two black musicians—the elegant, filigreed pianist Teddy Wilson and the plunging vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. (To be sure, Wilson and Hampton did not play in the band; instead, they appeared with Goodman and the drummer Gene Krupa during intermissions. But it was a public mixed group, and a color line had been breached.) A year later, when the band went into the Paramount Theater in New York for three weeks, legions of kids appeared, and a screaming, dancing riot nearly took place. It was the first great American show-biz frenzy, and it prepared the way for the Sinatra frenzy of 1947 (also at the Paramount), for the Elvis and Beatles frenzies, and for all the endemic, mindless rock-borne frenzies of the Seventies and Eighties.

Then, on the night of January 16, 1938, Goodman, challenging the longhairs, took his band into a sold-out Carnegie Hall. The big band played a dozen numbers, the trio two numbers, and the quartet five numbers, and there was a certain amount of window-dressing in the form of recreations of earlier jazz and a long, stiff “jam session.” Despite the ensuing rumblings from Olin Downes, the Times‘s two-ton classical music critic (“The playing last night, if noise, speed and syncopation, all old devices, are heat, was ‘hot’ as it could be, but nothing came of it all, and in the long run it was decidedly monotonous”), Goodman’s concert moved jazz even further up the American popular register.

But Goodman, the seeming revolutionary, was at heart a conservative. Indeed, most of these events would never have happened if he hadn’t been pushed into them. Here is Jess Stacy, Goodman’s funny, lyrical pianist, talking about their transcontinental trek:

Goodman began saying [after their Denver fiasco] he was going to quit this nonsense and go back into radio in New York. I said, “Benny, get over the mountains first and see what happens.” I didn’t tell him “I told you so,” …when we got down to the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles [and] everybody went crazy.

Goodman had made his first trio records with Wilson and Krupa not long before going west, and when the band took a long engagement at the Congress Hotel in Chicago on its way back from the coast, Helen Oakley (Dance), a young, ardent, well-connected Chicago jazz fan, sug-gested to Goodman that he bring Wilson from New York to play at the hotel with him and Krupa. Goodman, not surprisingly, demurred. Ross Firestone quotes Helen Dance in the late 1980s in Swing, Swing, Swing, his tonic, evenhanded biography of Goodman:

He just couldn’t envision what might be and was only interested in cold, hard facts, and was afraid that if he and Teddy played together in public, it might not be found acceptable. “The hotel will never allow it,” he told me. I said, “What if I can get [the manager] to agree to it, and we bring Teddy out here?” Benny’s answer was, “All right, then we’ll talk.” I didn’t have a straight yes from him, but neither did I have a straight no, and that gave me enough to go on.

Wilson was an intermission pianist at the Famous Door on Fifty-Second Street in New York, and Helen Oakley sent him the train fare, and he came.

The Carnegie Hall concert came about in the same push-me pull-you way. When a New York press agent named Wynn Nathanson told Goodman in 1937 that he should give a concert in Carnegie Hall, Goodman replied, “You must be out of your mind!” Nathanson persisted, and was backed by Irving Kolodin, then the classical music critic of the New York Sun. On the night of the concert, the band was nervous, and just before the first number Harry James, Goodman’s flashy twenty-one-year-old trumpeter, told another musician: “I feel like a whore in church.”

Goodman’s success brought into existence hundreds of big bands, most of which went under during the Second World War, the victims of the draft, gas rationing, and a disastrous 30 percent entertainment tax. By the mid-Forties, jazz, superseded by popular singers like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald, had begun turning permanently into a kind of art music, a non-danceable concert music, almost a cult music.

Goodman was born in the Maxwell Street ghetto in Chicago, the ninth of twelve children. His father, David, had emigrated from Poland and his mother, Dora Rezinsky, from Lithuania. They had met and married in Baltimore. David Goodman worked as a tailor and in the abysmal Chicago stockyards, but sometimes there was nothing to eat. Benny began playing the clarinet as a charity child when he was ten, and it was almost immediately clear that he had been born to it. At sixteen, he was hired by the bandleader Ben Pollack, and his career began.

The clarinet became his passport, his work, his passion. He listened to all the Chicago clarinettists—the smooth Jimmie Noone, Buster Bailey, Leon Roppolo, Volly De Faut, and the wild original Frank Teschemacher—but developed his own modern, immensely fluid attack. He became, with Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins and Sidney Bechet, one of the first jazz soloists; he also became a virtuoso on an exceedingly difficult instrument. The superb, post-bebop clarinettist Buddy De Franco once described the instrument this way:

The oboe, the flute, the saxophone are all octave instruments, but the clarinet’s three registers—chalumeau, middle, and altissimo—are built in twelfths. If you press the octave key on a saxophone, you go up or down an octave, but on a clarinet you go twelve tones, from, say, low F to middle C. Saxophones have pads over the air holes. When you press a key, the pad closes the hole and you get a note. Clarinets have seven tone holes and no pads, and you have to close them with the ends of your fingers. So you have to have absolute finger control. If any air escapes, you get a terrible squeak or no note at all. Going from the middle register of the clarinet to the altissimo is very awkward because the fingering changes completely. That’s the reason so many clarinettists seem to lose control when they go into the top register, why they tend to shriek…. Heat and cold affect the wood [clarinets are made of] to an astonishing degree. A night club’s heating up during a set will make your instrument sharp, and air-conditioning will do the reverse.

If style among jazz improvisers has to do with degrees of idiosyncrasy (too much results in eccentricity, too little in transparency), then virtuosos, who are governed chiefly by technique (Buddy Rich, Art Tatum, Sarah Vaughan), have no style. Goodman, though, had two modes. At slow tempos, he affectionately embellished the melody, sometimes playing a tremolo in his chalumeau register, then subtracting a note here, and adding a triplet there, all the while making the listener feel that he, Goodman, was actually inventing the melody instead of merely decorating it. The other Goodman lived for up-tempos (“I Know That You Know,” “After You’ve Gone,” “Margie”) that were so fast you couldn’t tap your foot to them. Then he would fashion a nonstop melodic line made up of a dizzying succession of descending and ascending runs, chattering sixteenth notes, lightning turnarounds, and rocketing arpeggios. These solos had such flash and body they seemed visible; you watched them swallow by.

This Goodman knocked everybody out, but there were grumblers who said there were better jazz clarinet-tists in the wings, clarinettists with half his technique and velocity and three times his emotional content and impact. These clarinettists included Lester Young, the insuperable tenor saxophonist, who, in his insouciant way, gave up the clarinet when his was stolen; the spacious, ivory-toned Benny Carter, who also gave up the instrument because he was consumed by the alto saxophone and the trumpet; Edmond Hall, who had an elbowy, New Orleans sound, and a direct, unplaned way of swinging; certainly Artie Shaw, a sometimes genius melodist; Irving Fazola, who had a rich, brocaded tone; and the extraordinary Pee Wee Russell.

Goodman used to laugh at Russell because he was a primitive, instinctual player. But Russell was a surpassing original. When he played a slow blues, he’d move down into his low register, his melodic line leaning and weaving through a mass of intense splayed notes, whispers, broken trills, and shadow sounds. You felt he was telling you something deep but fleeting, and that you had to listen to every inflection. Then he would gradually rise, finally reaching daylight in his middle register, and release his hold on you.

To my knowledge, the only time the recorded Goodman works this magic is on “Pick-a-Rib, Part 2” (number fourteen on disc three of the recent reissue Benny Goodman: The Complete RCA Victor Small Group Recordings). It’s a medium-tempo blues, and is played by a quintet—Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, the bassist John Kirby, and the drummer Buddy Schutz. Midway through the third chorus, with Wilson playing uneasy boogie-woogie and Hampton rolling blues riffs, Goodman, sailing along in his chalumeau register, delivers an aching sotto voce blue note and an even more wracking one several seconds later in the fourth chorus. The pianist Joe Bushkin, who worked for Goodman from time to time, once said: “There was this wonderful, jazz, free-swingin’ wild man buried inside of Benny that he just could never get out.” This time he did.

Goodman’s perfectionism on the clarinet enveloped his Thirties band. He rehearsed the band endlessly, turning it into an unsurpassed music (and money) machine. But for all its smoothness and precision, it rarely swung in the loose, lissome way of such black bands as those of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Andy Kirk, Cab Calloway, and Fletcher Henderson. The band bullied and roared, yet it never rocked you. Forever distracted by his own playing, Goodman tended to hire musicians who were second-rate, thus ironically provoking his celebrated ire when they missed notes or botched a solo. The few first-rate players he hired—Bunny Berigan, Teddy Wilson, Dave Tough, Cootie Williams, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian, Sid Catlett—never seemed to last long; they left to form their own bands, or they drank too much, or they were unaccountably fired, or they died.

Being a big-band sideman—to say nothing of being a leader—was often sheer drudgery. During its sensational three weeks at the Paramount Theater in 1937, the band played five shows at the theater every day and at least five more every night in the Madhattan Room of the Pennsylvania Hotel; then it might rehearse until three or four in the morning. Worst of all was the endless repetition of material—ten “Bugle Call Rag”s, “Stompin’ at the Savoy”s, and “Sing, Sing, Sing”s a day, stretching forever into the future. (Jazz improvisers are thought never to repeat their solos. The truth is they often work out master solos on certain tunes, using them again and again, slightly embellished. Moreover, whenever Tommy Dorsey had a hit record, and he performed the number in public, he made his soloist repeat the solo he had played on the record note for note.) But Goodman got his restorative kicks with his small groups—the trios, quartets, sextets, and septets. He went back to his early jamming-in-Chicago days with them, and he invariably played with great verve and fluency.

This is clear on the Victor reissue, which includes all of the famous small-band sides he made for the label between 1935 and 1938. Teddy Wilson was himself easing away from his masters Earl Hines and Art Tatum on the Victor recordings, but Hampton, Krupa, and Goodman were fully formed. Goodman once told me without a flicker of embarrassment, “It’s always been one of my enigmas—drummers.” Between 1934 and 1944, he hired and usually fired more than twenty drummers, among them two masters—Dave Tough and Sidney Catlett. But he never fired Krupa, who completely dominates the trio and quartet numbers he appears on. (Goodman, of course, needed Krupa, who was a consummate showman and crowd-pleaser. The two finally parted mutually and acrimoniously not long after the Carnegie Hall concert.) To swing is to be loose and visionary, but Krupa was a tight, pinioned drummer. His brushwork with the small groups is heavy and unimaginative, his bass drum booms, and his occasional stickwork rings and obtrudes. Goodman, though, soars away, while Hampton, who has yet to live an unswinging day, very nearly counteracts Krupa and the sometimes prim Wilson.

How different the nine numbers are that Tough recorded with the trio and quartet after Krupa’s departure! They swing, they dance. He was a deeply mysterious drummer. He had little technique; and yet he could carry any sized group in the palm of his hand and never reveal how he did it. It was clear, though, that he could infinitesimally move around inside the beat, pushing a group by playing at the front of the beat, or reining it in by moving to the back of the beat. But he had a sad, broken career, for he was a hopeless alcoholic who died in 1948 at the age of forty-one.

Goodman left Victor in 1939 and signed with Columbia, and marvelous things began to happen. He hired the brilliant, revolutionary twenty-three-year-old guitarist Charlie Christian, who arrived from Oklahoma in yellow shoes, a green suit, and a purple shirt. Then he hired Duke Ellington’s great plunger-mute trumpeter Cootie Williams, and he began making his still-peerless sextet and septet records. Count Basie and Jo Jones sit in on several of them, but the central heating is provided by the astonishing Christian. A precursor of bebop, Christian tirelessly invented long, loping melodic lines, full of parenthetical pauses, a tricky behind-the-beat languor, an almost rinky-dink electrical sound (he was a pioneer electrical guitarist), and a masked, southwestern fervor. Listen to the ease and swing he imparts to “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” to the undulating “As Long as I Live,” to “Royal Garden Blues” and “I Found a New Baby,” and to “Wholly Cats.” A curious thing about most of these recordings: although Goodman solos frequently, as always, he is really just a sideman on them. Christian and Williams dominate, and are closely shadowed by Basie and Jones.

But the brilliance ended in 1941. Williams left Goodman to form his own band, Basie and Jones went back to Basie’s house, and Christian was hospitalized for tuberculosis, dying early in 1942 at the age of twenty-five.

A Mosaic reissue, The Complete Capitol Small Group Recordings of Benny Goodman, 1944- 1955, picks up Goodman after the end of the troublesome union-induced recording ban of 1942-1944, when only noninstrumental music could be recorded, and takes him safely into his middle age. These are Benny-having-fun sides. He works with small groups of every size, and the big-band Goodman, the transfixed virtuoso-leader, has been replaced by a champion noodler who surrounds himself with such peers as Mel Powell, Red Norvo, Charlie Shavers, and Jimmy Rowles, as well as with such old grads as Jess Stacy, Teddy Wilson, and Lionel Hampton. The recording quality is wonderfully clear, and Goodman plays with unprecedented ease and lyricism.

Goodman was, in many ways, impenetrable. He was not articulate and his face—with its roundness, Cheshire Cat smile, and bland glasses—was a mask. He could be rude and cruel to his musicians—as he reportedly was late in 1962, when he took a stellar big band to Russia for the State Department—and he never learned how to compliment a musician who pleased him. (The trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell told Ross Firestone that “Benny was like a chicken that sees another chicken bleeding and will peck it to death. If he saw he had you down, he’d really go for the jugular. I asked him once, ‘Why do you do those things?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. I just can’t help it. I see a guy who’s strong and stands up and says “I’m the best,” and I respect that.”’) He became a rich man, married a Vanderbilt, and had two daughters and three different places to live in. A recurrent back problem plagued him much of his adult life, but he rarely gave in to it. He was notoriously cheap (and sometimes secretly generous). One winter, he was rehearsing a group at his house in Connecticut, and when a musician complained about how cold it was in the rehearsal room, Goodman nodded, disappeared, and returned wearing a heavy sweater. The room temperature never changed.

The manifold writer, editor, and musicologist James T. Maher knew Goodman well. He considers him one of the half-dozen best woodwind players in this century, although he feels that in his sporadic classical playing Goodman, who was the first jazz musician to cross over, never reached the level of the English clarinet master Reginald Kell. He also says that Goodman, obsessed by the clarinet, was the most preoccupied man he ever met. “I had a lunch appointment with Benny late in his life,” Maher said recently. “I met him at his apartment on East Sixty-sixth Street, and we were about to leave when Benny said, Wait, he’d forgotten his hat. He went into a room off the foyer and closed the door and I heard this diddly, diddly, diddly on the clarinet. It went on for a minute or two, and Benny came out and said, ‘Damn, my hat,’ and went back into the room and closed the door again and the diddly, diddly went on for another minute or so. Then he came out, hat in hand, and we had our lunch. He’d simply been working out a clarinet problem.”

Goodman—just as obsessive and just as famous as he’d been for fifty years—died of a heart attack in June of 1986, two weeks after his seventy-seventh birthday. To all intents and purposes, the jazz clarinet died with him.

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