Benny goes to Carnegie
Jazz has been called “America’s classical music,” This label both recognizes its American origins and makes a strong case that jazz is worthy of aesthetic consideration alongside music usually thought of as “classical.” In the current era, when programs of Duke Ellington and J.S. Bach often draw the same highbrow crowds, that argument hardly seems controversial. In the 1930s, however, the notion was almost laughable, which is what made Benny Goodman’s January 16, 1938, concert at New York City’s famed Carnegie Hall so revolutionary. Goodman and his supporting cast claimed a new place for jazz on the American cultural scene that night, in what has come to be seen as the most important jazz concert in history.
Benny Goodman was born on May 30, 1909 in Chicago, Illinois. He was the ninth child of immigrants David Goodman and Dora Grisinsky Goodman, who left Russia to escape antisemitism. When Benny was 10 years old, his father sent him to study music at Kehelah Jacob Synagogue in Chicago. There, Benny learned the clarinet under the tutelage of Chicago Symphony member Franz Schoepp.
Benny’s aptitude on the clarinet was immediately apparent. While he was still very young, he became a professional musician and played in several bands in Chicago. He played with his first pit band at the age of 11, and became a member of the American Federation of Musicians when he was 14, when he quit school to pursue his career in music.
Benny led his first band in 1934 and began a few-month stint at Billy Rose’s Music Hall, playing Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements along with band members Bunny Berigan, Gene Krupa and Jess Stacy. The music they played had its roots in the Southern jazz forms of ragtime and Dixieland, while its structure adhered more to arranged music than its more improvisational jazz counterparts. This gave it an accessibility that appealed to American audiences on a wide scale. America began to hear Benny’s band when he secured a weekly engagement for his band on NBC’s radio show “Let’s Dance,” which was taped with a live studio audience.
Although only 28, Benny Goodman was at the absolute height of his legendary career when his publicist first suggested they book Carnegie Hall. He was a star on radio, on stage and on film, and the label “King of Swing” was already attached permanently to his name. So outlandish was the suggestion that a jazz band might play inside the citadel of American high culture, however, that Goodman is said to have laughed the idea off at first. Though the more he thought about it, the more he warmed to the notion. Once he committed to the idea, he threw himself into the task with his characteristic passion. In addition to numbers from the regular repertoire of his own band—which included the legendary Harry James on trumpet, Lionel Hampton on vibraphone and Gene Krupa on drums—Goodman choreographed planned a program featuring a brand-new “Twenty Years of Jazz” piece and an extended jam session featuring stars of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras. The concert sold out weeks in advance, with the best seats fetching $2.75.
It would be another decade before anyone who was not in the audience or listening on the radio that night would hear the famed concert. All recordings of the show were presumed lost until Goodman’s sister-in-law came across a set of acetates in 1950. By then, the performance had already become the stuff of legend—particularly the stunning, unplanned piano solo by Jess Stacy on “Sing, Sing, Sing,” the evening’s final number. The album made from the recovered acetates became one of the first 33 1/3 LPs to sell over a million copies. The eventual discovery of the aluminum studio master recordings led to high-quality CD reissues in 1998, 2002 and 2006 of the legendary Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert.
In 1982, Benny was honored by the Kennedy Center for his lifetime achievements in swing music. In 1986, he received both an honorary doctorate degree in music from Columbia University and the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. He continued to play the music that defined his lifetime in occasional concert dates until his death in June 1986, of cardiac arrest. He was laid to rest after a short nonsectarian service with around 40 family members and friends in attendance on June 15, 1986 at Long Ridge Cemetery in Stamford, Connecticut. Through his amazing career, Benny Goodman did not change his style to conform to the latest trends, but retained the original sound that defined the Swing Era and made him the world renowned King of Swing.
With that I give you Deputy Dave’s Drink of the Day: Carnegie Sunrise
1 1/2 oz vodka
1 oz tequila
1 can orange juice
3 oz tomato juice
Combine all ingredients in a blender. Strain into a collins glass, and serve.0
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