Benjamin David Goodman, better known as 'Benny Goodman', was a leading jazz clarinet player and an outstanding bandleader of the Swing Era (1935-1945). He was famously nicknamed as the 'King of Swing' by his band mates. Not only his music was unique and sensational, but it also reflected his relentless pursuit of perfection. His concert at Carnegie Hall, New York City, on January 16, 1938, is widely regarded as the most important concert in the history of America. Not only Goodman led one of the most popular musical groups in the country, but careers of many major jazz artists were launched by his bands. He is deeply remembered for giving America a new kind of music and also remembered for giving jazz music a completely new and different identity. In addition he was the first white bandleader to play such an important role in popularizing jazz music. He is also remembered for taking significant steps in racial integration. Early in the 1930s, when white and black musicians could not play together in concerts, he broke the tradition by hiring two black musicians to play with him. Goodman is also remembered by clarinet players all over the world for having solely commissioned many major works of 20th century chamber music for clarinet and small ensembles.
Childhood & Early Life
Benny Goodman was born in Chicago on May 30, 1909, to David Goodman and Dora Grisinsky, both poor Jewish immigrants from the Russian empire. He was the ninth of their twelve children.
With little income but a large family, they lived in an overcrowded slum populated by other immigrants of Irish, German, Scandinavian, Polish, Italian and Jewish origins. The conditions of the slums were horrible, with dirty streets, insufficient schools and improper sanitation. Money was also a constant problem in the family as his father could not earn more than 20 dollars per week.
Benny Goodman was only ten when he picked up a clarinet for the first time. He first experienced live professional performances in Douglas Park, where his father used to take him with his siblings to see free band concerts. Soon his father enrolled him and two of his brothers at the Kehelah Jacob Synagogue, which was not only inexpensive, but also helped Benny gain his first basic lessons.
Later, he started taking lessons from James Sylvester, and joined a band soon. He also received training from the clarinetist Franz Schoepp. He was influenced by other clarinetists like Johny Dodds and Jimmie Noone as well. Being a quick learner, he became a good player at an early age, and began playing professionally for several bands.
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At the age of 14, Benny Goodman became a member of the American Federation of Musicians. But in order to pursue his ambitions in the musical world, he had to abandon his studies.
He eventually joined the musical band of Ben Pollack in Los Angeles, and stayed with them until he became a leading soloist. His first album ‘A Jazz Holiday’ was released in 1928, after which he moved to New York. There he also worked on several radio shows, with several famous jazz artists of that time like Fats Waller, Ted Lewis and Bessie Smith.
He started his career as a bandleader in 1934 for a group which became known as ‘The Benny Goodman Orchestra’. They performed a program regularly on the NBC radio show which was known as ‘Let’s Dance’. His composed an instrumental piece ‘Moonglow’ which became a big hit. The band later started taking tours across the country. They received much popularity for introducing a new kind of music.
On 21 August 1935, the band made history owing to their incredible performance at the Palomar Ballroom, in Los Angeles. This event can be seen as the beginning of the Swing Era. Goodman also received appreciation for fighting racism by being one of the first white persons to form integrated bands.
Benny Goodman had received widespread fame and success by the time he was just 28. His compositions were featured and broadcast by the radio show ‘The Camel Caravan’. The show ran till from 1936 to 1939.
In 1936, he appeared as himself in the film ‘The Big Broadcast of 1937’. After its success, he made several films himself like ‘The Hollywood Hotel’, ‘Syncopation’ and ‘Sweet and Low-Down’.
In 1938, he was invited by Sol Hurok to perform at the Carnegie Hall in New York City. This was another one of the important events that shaped his career as his orchestra became the first one to perform jazz at the Carnegie hall.
Benny Goodman used to be very strict as a bandleader, and was a very demanding boss who sought perfection from his performers. This led many of his players to leave and start their own groups. He was described by many as an ‘unfriendly employer’. Around this time, Goodman also faced competition from other popular bandleaders like Artie Shaw and Glen Miller.
After the end of World War II in 1945, his popularity seemed to fade, which made Goodman break up with his band. He still continued to perform with small groups. He starred in the movie ‘A Song Is Born’ in 1948.
In the film about his own life, ‘The Benny Goodman Story’ (1955) he recorded the soundtrack himself. Goodman was played by comedian Steve Allen, and many of his real-life colleagues also appeared in the film.
He spent most of his time abroad during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1971 he produced another music album which was named ‘Benny Goodman Today’. Despite his falling health, he continued to perform till his death in 1986.
His ‘Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert’, a two-disc LP of Swing music first issued in 1950 is considered to be the "the single most important jazz or popular music concert in history: jazz's "coming out" party to the world of "respectable" music.” The first ever double album to be issues, it was also one of the first to sell over a million copies.
Awards & Achievements
Shortly before Benny Goodman’s death, he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. He received several awards posthumously as well, like a Grammy Award in 1987.
He had also received honorary degrees from Brandeis University as well as Bard College. For his magnificent contribution to jazz, he was featured on a postage stamp in 1996, as part of the Legends of American Music series.
Personal Life & Legacy
Benny Goodman married Alice Hammond Duckworth in 1942, with whom he had two children, Rachel Goodman Edelson and Benjie Goodman Lasseau. His wife died in 1978.
He suffered a heart attack and died on June 13, 1986. He was buried in Long Ridge Cemetery in Stamford, Connecticut.