Full name, Benjamin David Goodman; born May 30, 1909, in Chicago, Il. Son of David (a tailor) and Dora (Grisinsky) Goodman; married Alice Hammond Duckworth, March, 1942; children: Rachel, Benjie (daughters); died of cardiac arrest, June 13, 1986, in New York, N.Y.
When clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman died in 1986, he was eulogized by Bill Barol in Newsweek magazine as "arguably the only white jazz player to be the best on his instrument." Known to critics and fans alike as "the King of Swing," Goodman--with the help of his arranger Fletcher Henderson--was largely responsible for the popularity of swing-style jazz during the late 1930s. As John McDonough writing in down beat put it, Goodman's "sharp, clean, legato clarinet solos performed against the smooth, unbroken, ensemble curves of his band were the perfect musical equivalent to an optimistic era marked by speed, sophistication, and streamlining." But though Goodman made famous such swing and jazz classics such as "Sing, Sing, Sing," "Let's Dance," and "The King Porter Stomp," he was also a brilliant classical musician and commissioned works for the clarinet from such composers as Bela Bartok and Aaron Copland.
Born May 30, 1909, in Chicago, Illinois, Benjamin David Goodman was the eighth child of eleven. His father was a tailor, and the family was poor, but the Goodmans believed in education of all kinds. When his father learned that the local synagogue gave music lessons and rented instruments at extremely low rates, he sent young Benny and two of his older brothers over. The biggest boy came home with a tuba, the middle with a trumpet, and Benny--as the youngest and smallest, came home with a clarinet. He took lessons first at the synagogue and later studied at philanthropist Jane Addams's Hull House, where he was taught by a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. By the time Goodman was thirteen, he was playing professionally and had received his first union card. He performed on the excursion boats that skimmed Lake Michigan, and in 1923 was a steady player at a local dance hall called Guyon's Paradise.
When Goodman was sixteen years old, he traveled to Los Angeles, California, to play with the Ben Pollack Band. While he was with them he took part in the band's recording sessions; in addition to clarinet solos that showed the influence of players such as Jimmie Noone and Leo Rappolo, he also dabbled with the saxophone. After approximately four years, however, Goodman left Pollack and made his living as a freelance side man, working in recording and in radio. Though he was fairly successful, he was affected by the Great Depression, and did not turn down the opportunity to play college dances with bands that he had formed because, by this time, he was supporting his widowed mother.
The young clarinet player's fortune was forever altered in late 1933, when he made the acquaintance of jazz enthusiast John Henry Hammond. Hammond encouraged Goodman to form a jazz group, and though Goodman's intent was to use the band in a recording session for English audiences, the resulting cuts were also released by Columbia in the United States, generating a cult following. By 1934 Goodman and his band had performed in famed promoter Billy Rose's Music Hall, and were featured on the National Broadcasting Corporation's radio program, "Let's Dance." Though a subsequent winter tour was discouraging to Goodman and his musicians, they were suddenly introduced to enormous popularity when they hit the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. As Barol explained: "The kids went nuts, jitterbugging wildly.... The swing era was born."
From that point on, Goodman was a musical celebrity. He went on to play successful band concerts at places such as Carnegie Hall and, in one of his most memorable sessions, the Paramount Theatre in 1937. The strains of such swing songs as "One O'Clock Jump," "Stompin' at the Savoy," "Air Mail Special," and "Don't Be That Way," dominated the United States' radio waves. The clarinetist and his band also appeared in a few motion pictures. Along the way, however, Goodman made social history by becoming the first white bandleader to make a black musician part of his group when he hired pianist Teddy Wilson in 1936. With Wilson, Goodman's core bandmembers were Gene Krupa on drums and after 1937, Lionel Hampton, another black jazz artist, on the vibraphones. According to Maclean's magazine, Goodman refused to play concert dates in the southern states, where audiences were segregated by race.
After World War II, the combination of a decline in the popularity of the big band sound and Goodman's health concerns prompted the clarinetist to break up his band. But as early as 1938 Goodman had begun to pursue his interest in classical clarinet; he performed works such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Concerto in A Major for Clarinet, and asked Bartok to compose an original work for the clarinet for him. After recording the result, Contrasts, on Columbia Records in 1940, he commissioned concertos from Copland and Paul Hindemith. Goodman, however, was dissatisfied with his own skills, and in 1949 began to study with famed classical clarinetist Reginald Kell. Kell taught him a completely new approach to the instrument, but critics concluded that Goodman's own unique style of playing had only been improved by these changes. As Maclean's put it: "For ... classical music, Goodman used the pure, literate tone that Mozart required. But when digging into ... pop hits ... he produced a gritty and guttural sound that would earn an F from any conservatory professor." Actually, Goodman also spent some time as a conservatory professor himself, occasionally teaching at the Juilliard School of Music.
After 1955, the year when the story of Goodman's life was made into a feature film starring Steve Allen by Universal-International, renewed interest in his music stirred by the movie induced the clarinetist to form another jazz band. By 1956, he was performing again. In addition to prestigious dates in New York and other U.S. cities, Goodman took his music to the rest of the world. He toured the Far East from 1956 to 1957, and Europe in 1959. As part of a cultural exchange program, he became the first man to tour the Soviet Union with a jazz band--he was extremely well-received by Soviet audiences. Goodman continued to perform and record for the rest of his life and accumulated many honors, including recognition by the Kennedy Center, a Grammy award for life achievement, and--a month before his death from cardiac arrest on June 13, 1986--an honorary doctorate of music from Columbia University.
by Elizabeth Thomas
Benny Goodman's Career
Began playing clarinet professionally while still in his teens; played with the Ben Pollack band, c. 1925-29; freelance sideman, 1929-34; leader of his own swing band, 1934-40; studied classical clarinet with Reginald Kell, 1949; appeared with his swing band, 1955-86. Appeared in films, including Sweet and Lowdown, The Big Broadcast of 1937, A Song is Born, Powers Girl, Hollywood Hotel, and Stagedoor Canteem. Appeared on radio shows, including Let's Dance and Camel Caravan. Had own television show, 1958-59, Swing Into Spring. Taught at the Julliard School of Music.
Benny Goodman's Awards
Elected to the down beat Hall of Fame, 1957; two Grammy Hall of Fame awards; honored by the Kennedy Center, 1982; Grammy Award for life achievement, 1985; honorary doctor of music, Columbia University, 1986.
- "Bugle Call Rag," Columbia, 1934.
- "Let's Dance," 1935.
- "Good-bye," MCA, Inc., 1935.
- "King Porter Stomp," Victor, 1936.
- "Stompin' at the Savoy," Victor, 1936.
- "Down South Camp Meetin',"Victor, 1935.
- "Moonglow," Victor, 1936.
- "Sing, Sing, Sing," Victor, 1937.
- "Avalon," Victor, 1937.
- "Don't Be That Way," Victor, 1938.
- "And the Angels Sing" Victor, 1939.
- "Dizzy Fingers," Victor, 1947.
- "Stealin' Apples," Victor, 1948.
- "These Foolish Things Remind Me of You."
- "One O'Clock Jump."
- This Is Benny Goodman (two-album set; includes singles reissued from the 1930s and 1940s), RCA, 1971.
- Benny Goodman: Trio and Quartet--Live Columbia, 1976.
- Benny Goodman Sextet Columbia, 1986.
- Benny Goodman: Clarinet a la King Columbia, 1987.
- Benny Goodman Sextet: Slipped Disc, 1945-46 Columbia, 1988.
- Benny Goodman: Best of the Big Bands Columbia, 1990.
- Goodman, Benny, and Irving Kolodin, The Kingdom of Swing, Stackpole Sons, 1939.
- down beat, September, 1986.
- Maclean's, June 23, 1986.
- Newsweek, June 23, 1986.
- New Yorker, December 1, 1986.
- People, June 30, 1986.