Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing,” ushered in the big band era and delighted a generation of fans. Known for lilting tempos and high ensemble standards, he improvised seamlessly, constantly exploring harmonic and instrumental possibilities. By hiring both black and white musicians for public performances, Goodman also broke existing color barriers.
Goodman was born one of 12 children in Chicago, Illinois on May 30, 1909. His parents, Dora and David Goodman, came from eastern Europe, and his father supported the family by working in the stockyards or at a tailoring shop. At the arrangement of his father, Goodman and two of his brothers received musical training at a local synagogue. Goodman moved on to Jane Addams’s Hull House, where he studied clarinet with band director James Sylvester. Franz Schoepp, a classically trained clarinetist, taught Goodman for two years. A superior teacher, Schoepp gave Goodman an excellent technical foundation and a serious attitude toward musicianship.
In 1921, Goodman’s imitation of Ted Lewis, a vaudeville clarinetist, at the Central Park Theater in Chicago launched his career. The next year, while a student at Harrison High School, he played with the Austin High School Gang, a group including Jimmy McPartland, Bud Freeman, Frank Teschemacher, and Dave Tough, who had attended the same Chicago high school and were inspired by older New Orleans jazz musicians. Meanwhile, Goodman listened to King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and clarinetists like Jimmie Noone.
In 1923, Goodman joined the musicians’ union; the same year, he met cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. Beiderbecke’s lyricism and quiet understatement helped shape Goodman’s style. In 1925, Goodman joined Ben Pollack’s band in Los Angeles and returned with the group to Chicago in 1926, the year he recorded his first solo, “He’s the Last Word.” In 1928, the band went to Manhattan. Goodman remained with Pollack until 1929, when he decided to settle in New York City. He established himself as a session musician, working for radio and recording studios and on Broadway. He played in orchestras for Strike Up the Band and Girl Crazy, two George Gershwin shows, and he met John Hammond and pianist Teddy Wilson, both central to his later success. In 1941, Goodman married Hammond’s sister, Alice.
In 1934, with Hammond’s encouragement, Goodman formed his first big band. He was booked at Billy Rose’s new Music Hall and later that year was featured on the NBC radio series “Let’s Dance.” Drummer Gene Krupa joined the band, and at the urging of Hammond, Goodman hired Fletcher Henderson as arranger. High performance standards, unusual for the time, were evident in the broadcasts.
A 1935 jam session led Goodman to invite Wilson to record with Krupa and himself. As the Benny Goodman Trio, they recorded four songs. Goodman’s solo on “After You’ve Gone” displays both his dazzling technique and his always disciplined presentation. After a discouraging tour sponsored by MCA, Goodman played in what he thought would be his final band performance on August 21, 1935, at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. The huge crowd, however, electrified by the music, roared its approval. The performance excited the public and the critics and ushered in the swing era. Goodman was toasted as the “King of Swing,” and from 1936 until the early 1940s, the popular Goodman band dominated the market.
At the time of Goodman’s big band triumphs, he experimented with smaller ensembles. A trio or quartet was featured in big band performances and pioneered the public appearance of racially mixed band members. The quartet—Goodman, Krupa, Wilson, and Lionel Hampton (who played vibraphone)—made musical history.
In the late 1930s, Goodman explored classical music, initially at Hammond’s instigation. Hammond, who played viola, put together a string group and with Goodman played Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. Goodman’s interest grew, and he began study with Reginald Kell, the reigning classical clarinetist. Goodman went on to appear with major American orchestras and to record works by Leonard Bernstein, Claude Debussy, and Igor Stravinsky. He contributed to the repertory by commissioning pieces for clarinet from Bela Bartok in 1938, Aaron Copland in 1947, and Paul Hindemith also in 1947.
Goodman’s illness in the early 1940s forced the band to dissolve. Later the same year, however, he re-formed it and began to play more modern arrangements. Eventually, Goodman hired bebop musicians like Fats Navarro and Charlie Christian, but he never really embraced the new style.
For 30 years, Goodman toured the world, appeared in films like A Song Is Born (1948), recorded, and even held a repeat Carnegie Hall concert in 1978 to mark the 30th anniversary of his first concert there in 1948. A film biography, The Benny Goodman Story, appeared in 1955, and Goodman received a Kennedy Center Honors award in 1982. Goodman died in New York City on June 13, 1986.
He joined Ben Pollack (1925–29) and recorded as a leader and with Red Nichols (1929–31) and Joe Venuti and...
The leader of the greatest swing band of the thirties, Goodman was also a virtuoso clarinettist and a persuasive...
James A. Kaser is a professor and archivist at The College of Staten Island/CUNY, whose most recent books are The Washington, D.C. of Fiction: A Res