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]…

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