|100 Candles for Benny|
|Written by Athan Maroulis|
My grandfather never owned a record. Being from Ithaca (the Ionian island, not the Upstate New York town), he would have been aghast at the idea of buying records, believing it to be frivolous “Americani” behavior. Instead, he devoted himself to the unchanged immigrant formula of sweat plus labor, which enabled him to open a tiny general store in Brooklyn. He lived and worked there, along with my grandmother and four children, until my father was drafted in ’53. Soon after, the entire block was leveled by Moses (the unscrupulous city planner, not the Bible figure played by scenery-eater Charlton Heston).
My father's record library was massive by comparison—he had 8. Mind you, this wasn’t because he disliked music—it just seems that many first-generation working-class American kids raised during the war got their music for free by listening to the radio, and occasionally dropping a coin in a jukebox when nobody was looking. The titles he did buy ranged from the wonderful easy schmaltz of saxophonist Sam “The Man” Taylor, to a few Greek records including Nick Gounaris (who looked like a cross between Jackie Gleason and Peter Lorre), to Erroll Garner’s Concert By the Sea (an album that every parent had in the early ‘60s), to the first record that Dad ever bought, a worn-out copy of the first 12” LP of Benny Goodman’s legendary Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert. As a child in the thankfully still-uncool part of Brooklyn, I studied these album covers, especially this Goodman record, memorizing each and every inch. I recall wondering if he was perhaps related to the folks that brought us Goodman’s Egg Noodles, a favorite of my mother’s to prepare for my sister and I.
Unbeknownst to me at the time was the fact that this important memory from my childhood came very close to not happening; you see, the original tapes from Goodman’s legendary January 16, 1938 Carnegie Hall concert were shelved, only to be rediscovered in 1950, and only then commercially released. This groundbreaking concert was the first to exclusively feature a program of jazz at the classical-music-oriented Carnegie Hall. The eventual success of Goodman’s Carnegie concert helped make jazz respectable and somewhat less feared as that “uptown music” that makes your kids wild. Goodman’s stellar band boasted names like the wild drummer from the Windy City Gene Krupa, fine girl singer Martha Tilton, and a flashy, skinny, 22-year-old trumpet player named Harry James, who later was the envy of every man with a pulse when he married pin-up bombshell Betty Grable. At Carnegie Hall, Goodman was joined on stage by the elite of jazz, including Duke Ellington saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, as well as iconic Count Basie sidemen Lester Young on tenor sax and Buck Clayton on trumpet. Goodman had already dared crossing the color line as early as ’35 with his small combo in Manhattan that featured Krupa along with the tender touch of pianist Teddy Wilson, and later expanded to include vibes master Lionel Hampton (who also took part in Carnegie show), yet with this Carnegie show he nearly erased the line completely. Goodman was certainly colorblind when choosing sidemen. Credit for this must also go to jazz impresario John Hammond, who often brought the finest sidemen directly to Benny, including the tragic yet brilliant guitarist Charlie Christian and the effervescent Billie Holiday. Rumors circulated at the time that Goodman and Holiday were actually an item, in fact it seems as if they were. Either way, Goodman simply filled vacant slots with the best musician, once stating, "If a guy's got it, let him give it. I'm selling music, not prejudice"—a rather progressive stance in those Depression years.
Before this year comes to a close it is important to acknowledge the centennial birthday of this man, born Benjamin David Goodman on May 30, 1909 in Chicago, one of 12 children of working poor Russian Jewish parents. Naturally exposed to the clarinet-friendly Jewish klezmer music, young Benny’s ears were filed with pure early jazz when, in 1917, the military boarded up the New Orleans red light district and prompted its best players like Jellyroll Morton and King Oliver to flee to Chicago. Soon the promising 11-year-old clarinetist was playing in a pit band; by 16 his remarkable improvisational skills helped him land a spot as a featured soloist with Ben Pollock’s band and he was off to Los Angeles. Leaving Pollock in 1929, Benny headed to New York just in time to see Wall Street’s finest financiers selling apples; yet where they failed, he excelled as a highly sought-after studio musician.
By the mid-1930s John Hammond was pushing Benny to start his own band, aligning him with the likes of Gene Krupa, trumpeter Bunny Berigan, pianist Jess Stacy, and bandleader Fletcher Henderson, who provided brilliant arrangements. Goodman’s break came in the form of an NBC radio program called Let’s Dance. Nationally syndicated, it showcased the band for an hour every Saturday night to the entire country. Despite this, in the summer of ’35 Benny Goodman and His Orchestra embarked on a national tour that was coming up flat as it limped into Los Angeles. On the night of August 21, 1935 Goodman and the band were set to perform at Hollywood’s Palomar Ballroom. At first the young crowd was simply polite, but they erupted when the band kicked out “King Porter Stomp.” Many cite this as the night the national Swing craze was born; Time magazine would soon dub Goodman "The King of Swing."
Goodman, who died in 1986, was the first white bandleader to fully embrace black jazz and went on to a long career even after Swing had faded in the postwar years. Benny would dabble in bebop, study classical and tour the world as a jazz ambassador of sorts, all while compiling a massive discography. So while the press seems to consistently report each time a tepid, bearded, indie-rock phenom passes gas, I find it rather ironic that the centennial birthday of this masterful musician and true rock star of his day has gone completely and sadly unnoticed. But like the simple and wonderful premise of the old torch song “A Hundred Years from Today,” in the end it doesn’t matter much—I suspect another century from now Benny Goodman’s seminal “Sing, Sing, Sing” will certainly be more remembered than anything created by faux Brooklyn, wacky hat, L-train types of the gas-passing Vampire Weekend or Grizzly Bear variety. And by the way, Dad, I still have your Goodman record.