February 16, 2023
On January 16, 1938, clarinetist Benny Goodman, known as the King of Swing, and his band performed in a sold-out Carnegie Hall. They opened the concert with “Don’t Be that Way”, “Sometimes I’m Happy”, and “One O’Clock Jump”, and ended it with “Sing, Sing, Sing (with a Swing)”. The event was regarded as the most significant in jazz history. Jazz had finally been accepted by mainstream audiences
A few months later on November 5, 1938, at New York City’s Town Hall, Benny Goodman performed once again. This time it was without his band, but with the Budapest String Quartet in Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, K. 581. Here, Goodman had no need to prove classical music’s validity. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had already been around for quite a while.
I was unaware of either concert, having turned one year old between them. And growing up in the 1940’s, I had no idea that Goodman and his band had touched off the Swing Era, also known as the Big Band Era, with a groundbreaking performance that took place on August 21, 1935, at the Palomar Ballroom in my own hometown of Los Angeles. Nor did I have any idea that the wildly popular era for listening and dancing was finally coming to a close. I was a violin student in those years and my attention and my dreams were focused on the world of classical music. Still, as a teenager, it became quite impossible to avoid knowing about and hearing Benny Goodman. He was in the movies, on records, and on the radio, and his playing not only was brilliant but also possessed an irresistible, yes, swing to it.
Only later as a student at the Curtis Institute of Music did I learn of Goodman’s other musical life. Alexander “Sasha” Schneider, my mentor, friend, and the second violinist of the Budapest String Quartet, told me about their Town Hall performance and recording of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet with Goodman, and how this brash young American, whose socks kept falling down, amused and impressed the four seasoned, Russian-born musicians.
Long afterwards, I went on a Marlboro Music tour performing Béla Bartók’s Contrasts with pianist Peter Serkin and clarinetist Harold Wright. There, at the top of the music page, appeared the names of violinist Joseph Szigeti and Benny Goodman, who had commissioned this great chamber music work. I soon learned that Goodman had commissioned and premiered not only the Bartók Contrasts, but also many other compositions, such as the Sonata for Clarinet and Piano by Francis Poulenc, and the Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland.
Goodman, the ninth of twelve children born (in 1909) to poor Jewish emigrants from the Russian Empire, grew up in the overcrowded slums of Chicago. His father, David Goodman, who loved music and felt his children should have an appreciation of it, enrolled Benny, age 10, and his two older brothers in music lessons at a nearby synagogue. Benny was given a clarinet because of his small size, and he took to it immediately. Two years of clarinet lessons followed from a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and at thirteen Benny got his first union card.
Everything I knew about Goodman’s spectacular rise from poverty to enormous artistic success simply took my breath away, although I did not know the man personally. But that changed during the late 1970s when I received a call from my old friend, pianist Peter Serkin. “How would you like to play a concert with me and Benny Goodman?” he asked. My response was something like, “Wow. Would I!”
The rehearsals and concert took place in Stamford, Connecticut, where Goodman lived. Peter and Goodman played a Brahms Sonata, followed by Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio, K. 498, and ended with Stravinsky’s trio transcription of his L’Histoire du Soldat. As the three of us sat down to rehearse, I looked across from me at the man holding a clarinet, and couldn’t get out of my mind that he was the King of Swing. Shouldn’t I be playIng the sax, the trumpet, the drums, or anything other than viola in the Mozart or violin in the Stravinsky? And shouldn’t we be about to rehearse such numbers as “Don’t Be That Way”, “Somebody Stole My Gal”, or “Jersey Bounce”? But to my surprise, the rehearsals were surprisingly unremarkable. Goodman had turned like magic into a chamber music colleague. He was cordial, offered comments only occasionally, and accepted ours with grace. The Stravinsky’s tricky rhythms were the only thing that presented a challenge for Goodman, and he patiently worked through them. The performance went well and was a totally pleasurable experience.
Fortunately, I was not aware until some time after the concert of Goodman’s reputation as a demanding taskmaster and worse with his band. He could be arrogant, tactless, and self-serving. But if that were the case, why was he such a pussycat with Peter and me? Perhaps Goodman realized that he was no longer the boss of his band, but only a musician among equals. Or did he merely value his fine jazz performers, but regard classical musicians as some kind of exalted creatures?
It’s easy to badmouth Goodman for his treatment of fellow jazz musicians, but his history is more complicated. Black and White musicians could not play together in the 1930s. Racial segregation was enforced by Jim Crow laws in the southern states. Goodman did not care a whit about those laws. He wanted the best musicians whatever their color. And so, he hired pianist Teddy Wilson for his trio, and later vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, both African Americans. Ten years before Jackie Robinson broke the baseball major league color line, Goodman helped racial integration in America.
I figured that the Stamford concert was the last time I’d ever meet Benny Goodman, but a year or so later in London, where our Guarneri String Quartet was to perform, something statistically improbable happened: I bumped into Goodman and his daughter Rachel on the street. We stopped to chat, and before long he asked me whether I’d like to go club-hopping with them that evening. I wasn’t even sure what club-hopping meant, but I soon found out. In every one of the jazz clubs we entered, the musicians immediately recognized the King of Swing, stopped playing, and along with their entire audience gave him a standing ovation. I treasure the memories of that evening, which had all the aspects of a fanciful and unforgettable dream.
On June 12, 1986, Benny Goodman died of a heart attack. When he was discovered, struck down but still alive, he was holding his clarinet, with Mozart on the music stand.
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