Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Benny Goodman

May 30th this year marks the 100th birthday of Benny Goodman, who was the most popular jazz musician in America during the 1930s and 1940s, when jazz was the most popular music in America. I mention this a few weeks early because WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station is in the early stages of a two-week plus marathon of Goodman’s recordings, playing them all in chronological order. They are up to his recordings from 1933, and there’s a lot of music to be played until they get to Goodman’s final recordings, in the year of his death, 1986. I urge anyone interested at all in American music to listen to at least part of the Goodman marathon.

Benny Goodman has received a lot of bad press over the years. He doesn’t seem to have been a very nice person, or at least was a difficult and demanding colleague; stories of his glare of disapproval, the infamous “ray” are legion. And many have political objections to Goodman, in particular to his appropriation of the sobriquet “the king of swing” in effect dethroning the sundry Dukes, Counts, and Earls who might be thought to be better candidates for the title. And his whiteness had led to other accusations, that he was simply blander than the black bandleaders he imitated, transforming the hard, tough charts of Fletcher Henderson and C hick Webb into a softer and more palatable mush.

Without getting into a long dissertation on this, let me just say, as any listen would amply demonstrate, Benny Goodman was just a superb jazz musician, certainly the best jazz clarinetist of his time, black or white, whose crackling sense of swing and overall musical intelligence and creativity can be heard in almost every solo in his long career. And he was also a pop musician, who recorded the schlock and dross of his age, with indifferent band singers. But it was as a pop musician, and a pop idol to rival a Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley, that he was able to raise the somewhat hermetic status of jazz to the status of a genuinely popular music (to where it would return in be-bop and later jazz movements.) And Goodman was so much more else as well. He was a classical musician of the highest order, who made wonderful recordings of Mozart’s clarinet works, commissioned works from Bartok and Stravinsky. He also in his various trios, quartets, and sextets, largely created a new genre of chamber jazz.

And beyond his musical talents, there is Benny Goodman also deserves some mention for his sociology. That jazz, a music created by blacks in New Orleans, had a color line was of course ridiculous, but then again what can one have expected from a music born in the South c. 1900. Goodman, by hiring Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian and others, did more than anyone else to break the color barrier. And Benny Goodman, from a poor Jewish family from Chicago, as much as anyone else in America in the 1930s, incarnated the belief in democratic possibility that defined the best of American aspirations of the times, that Americans could create a new democratic culture, closed to no one, drawing on the talents and abilities of everyone, that would without pomposity or pretension be dedicated to pursuit of liveliness, exhilaration, and excellence. Long may his music live, and once again, catch some of the Benny Goodman festival on WKCR.

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