Jazz At Carnegie Hall ► Monday Musical Appreciation

Benny Goodman Carnagie Hall Jazz ConcertOn this day in 1938: Jazz officially entered the mainstream. That’s when The Benny Goodman Orchestra played for the swells at Carnegie Hall, one of the most prestigious venues in the entire country.

Goodman was a relatively young man at 29 when the famed Carnegie Hall concert took place. However, he was already a music veteran. At 11 he was playing clarinet in Chacago pit bands and when he was 14 Goodman quit school and joined the American Federation of Musicians for a lifetime in music. Just a few years later he was hired to play his licorice stick for Ben Pollack, moving to Los Angeles for the next four years. He left Pollack’s band to move across the country to New York, then considered the hub of entertainment with radio shows and recording studios.

Benny GoodmanHis official biography picks up the story:

Then, in 1933, Benny began to work with John Hammond, a jazz promoter who would later help to launch the recording careers of Billie Holiday and Count Basie, among many others. Hammond wanted Benny to record with drummer Gene Krupa and trombonist Jack Teagarden, and the result of this recording session was the onset of Benny’s national popularity. Later, in 1942, Benny would marry Alice Hammond Duckworth, John Hammond’s sister, and have two daughters: Rachel, who became a concert pianist, and Benji, who became a cellist.

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.

One of the most famous Benny Goodman numbers,
with a great arrangement by Fletcher Henderson

The Jazz Age, the name given to the era in which Swing became popular, was another of the generation gaps that seems to always pit the young versus the old over the issue of music. Adults were still shaking off the Victorian Era, while Jazz was shaking society from the foundation to the rafters.

Benny Goodman - Palomar BallroomJazz was considered a just a teenage fad until one fateful day

The new swing music had the kids dancing when, on August 21, 1935, Benny’s band played the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. The gig was sensational and marked the beginning of the years that Benny would reign as King: the Swing Era.

Teenagers and college students invented new dance steps to accompany the new music sensation. Benny’s band, along with many others, became hugely successful among listeners from many different backgrounds all over the country.

During this period Benny also became famous for being colorblind when it came to racial segregation and prejudice. Pianist Teddy Wilson, an African-American, first appeared in the Benny Goodman Trio at the Congress Hotel in 1935. Benny added Lionel Hampton, who would later form his own band, to his Benny Goodman Quartet the next year. While these groups were not the first bands to feature both white and black musicians, Benny’s national popularity helped to make racially mixed groups more accepted in the mainstream. Benny once said, “If a guy’s got it, let him give it. I’m selling music, not prejudice.”

By the time Benny Goodman played Carnegie Hall, he’d already been crowned The King of Swing by TIME Magazine.  There’s a lot more to Goodman’s story (and many good online sources). However, let’s just listen to the music from the day Jazz went mainstream at Carnegie Hall:

[APOLOGY: Sound quality varies]

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.