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Benny Goodman’s Big Day

Celebrating the King of Swing

Adam Chandler
May 30, 2013

Benny Goodman, the Chicago-born ambassador of jazz, was born on this day just over a century ago. The ninth of twelve children, Goodman’s father was a tailor from Warsaw, who enrolled him in music classes at the local synagogue. Successful as he was, the rest wasn’t history until 1938, when he brought swing to the masses.

Mr. Goodman heard it again in January 1938, when, looking stiff and uncomfortable in white tie and tails, he led his orchestra in the first jazz concert ever given in Carnegie Hall to an audience that showed its enthusiasm by beating out the band’s rhythm with pounding feet that rocked the old hall’s balconies.

There had been big bands that played swinging dance music before Mr. Goodman organized his orchestra. Fletcher Henderson led a groundbreaking black jazz band in the mid-20’s, and in his wake came Duke Ellington, Earl Hines and Jimmie Lunceford, all black. There had also been big, jazz-oriented white bands – Jean Goldkette’s Orchestra, the Casa Loma Orchestra and the band in which Mr. Goodman began playing when he was 16 years old, Ben Pollack’s Orchestra.

But Mr. Goodman’s band arrived at a moment when the public’s ear had been attuned by these earlier bands. Mr. Goodman provided a blend of jazz and contemporary popular music that filled this demand so successfully that, for a brief period, jazz and popular music were one and the same. His band also represented a blend of the freedom of jazz improvisation and the discipline that Mr. Goodman demanded from his musicians and, even more, from himself. He practiced his clarinet, his trumpeter Harry James once said, ”15 times more than the whole band combined.”

The song below “Sing, Sing, Sing” performed at the Carnegie Hall concert found its way in the hands of fellow clarinetist Woody Allen, who added to the song to three of his films, New York Stories, Manhattan Murder Mystery, and Deconstructing Harry.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.