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Goodman, Benny [Benjamin] (David)locked

  • Richard Wang

(b Chicago, May 30, 1909; d New York, June 13, 1986). American clarinettist, composer and bandleader.

1. Early career.

Goodman received rudimentary musical training from 1919 at Chicago’s Kehelah Jacob Synagogue and, more importantly, two years of instruction from the classically trained clarinettist Franz Schoepp. He made his professional début in 1921. During his formative years he absorbed the music of the New Orleans musicians; he was particularly influenced by Leon Roppolo, the clarinettist with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. In summer 1923 he met Bix Beiderbecke whose influence may be heard in Goodman’s on-the-beat attacks, careful choice of notes and across-the-bar phrasing on A Jazz Holiday (1928, Voc.) and Blue (1928, Bruns.) – especially on the latter, where Goodman played solos on both alto and baritone saxophone. In August 1925 Goodman left for Los Angeles to join Ben Pollack. Pollack’s band returned to Chicago in January 1926 and early in 1928 went to New York, which subsequently became Goodman’s base. Goodman stayed with Pollack until September 1929, then worked freelance for radio and in recording studios for Red Nichols and Paul Whiteman, and on Broadway in George Gershwin’s Strike up the Band and Girl Crazy (both under Nichols in 1930–31) and Richard Whiting’s Free for all (1931). His important associations with John Hammond and Teddy Wilson began during this period.

In spring 1934 Goodman organized his first big band and started recording for Columbia. Benny Carter’s composition and arrangement of Take my word (1934), requiring four saxophones (Goodman played tenor) to play four-note chords in parallel motion in the style of improvised solos, set the standard for the treatment of saxophone sections during the swing period. In 1934 Goodman began employing Fletcher Henderson to write for him; Henderson’s arrangements of traditional jazz instrumental numbers, for example Jelly Roll Morton’s King Porter Stomp, and such popular songs as Sometimes I’m Happy (both 1935, Vic.), established the band’s musical character. Goodman’s impeccable musicianship and discipline set a high standard for his sidemen, from whom he demanded accurate intonation, matched vibrato, uniform phrasing and a careful balancing of parts – performance standards rare in the bands of that time.

In July 1935 with sidemen Wilson and Gene Krupa they recorded four classic sides of jazz chamber music as the Benny Goodman Trio. Goodman’s solo on After you’ve gone (1935, Vic.;ex.1) is an example of his mature style: his flawless playing utilizes almost the complete range of the instrument, and his disciplined explorations of the harmony (bars 13–14, 20) and fondness for the blue 3rd (bars 9, 17, 19 – enharmonically B♭) reveal the technical mastery and controlled expression that formed the essence of his art.

During the summer Goodman’s band embarked on its first tour, culminating in the now historic performance on 21 August at the Palomar Ballroom, Los Angeles, which was broadcast nationwide to great critical and popular acclaim, and is often cited as the beginning of the swing era. Later that year, while appearing at the Congress Hotel, Chicago, Goodman began a series of important early jazz concerts in the USA; for the last of these he brought in Wilson from New York. In August 1936 the Benny Goodman Trio became a quartet with the addition of Lionel Hampton; the group made its first recording, Moonglow, on 21 August (Vic.).

In 1936–9 Goodman’s band reached the peak of its success, beginning with a series of CBS broadcasts (‘The Camel Caravan’) that continued for more than three years. It made its first films (The Big Broadcast of 1937 and Hollywood Hotel) and in March 1937 embarked on a three-week engagement at the Paramount Theater, New York. The success of these performances, attended by a large, predominantly teenage audience, and the resultant publicity clearly demonstrated that Goodman was the ‘King of Swing’ and a popular idol. In January 1938 he brought a new level of recognition to jazz with a concert in Carnegie Hall, presenting Harry James, Ziggy Elman, Jess Stacy, Hampton, Krupa and Wilson from his own entourage as well as guest soloists from the bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

In the same period Goodman became the first famous jazz musician to achieve success performing the classical repertory. His early training with Schoepp had prepared him for this dual career by laying the foundation for a ‘legitimate’ clarinet technique, which he continued to improve in later study with Reginald Kell. In 1935 he performed Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet before an invited audience in the home of John Hammond, and three years later recorded the work with the Budapest String Quartet; he appeared in his first public recital at Town Hall, New York, in November 1938. That year he commissioned the work Contrasts from Bartók, and gave its première at Carnegie Hall in January 1939. He later commissioned clarinet concertos from Copland (1947) and Hindemith (1947). Goodman appeared with all the leading American orchestras, performing and recording works by Bernstein, Debussy, Morton Gould, Milhaud, Nielsen, Poulenc, Stravinsky and Weber.

2. Later years.

Among Goodman’s new soloists in 1939 it was the guitarist Charlie Christian, with his long melodic lines influenced by Lester Young, who contributed most to the band, but in July 1940 illness forced Goodman to disband his ensemble. He re-formed it in October, from which time the compositions and arrangements of Eddie Sauter established the group’s musical character.

In 1947 Goodman assembled his last and most controversial travelling band (his later groups were recruited for specific engagements) to play and record arrangements in the new bop style for Capitol Records. Although he had been critical of bop, he genuinely admired the playing of the tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray and the trumpeters Fats Navarro and Doug Mettome, whom he featured in the band and in his new sextet. However, few of the harmonic or rhythmic novelties of bop penetrated Goodman’s style and he retained his classic manner, as can be heard on Stealin’ Apples (1948). In October 1949 Goodman disbanded the group on completion of his recording contract with Capitol.

In the 1950s Goodman continued to record and tour occasionally with ad hoc small groups and big bands, visiting Europe twice (1950 and 1958) and, under the auspices of the US Department of State, East Asia (1956–7). The original Benny Goodman Trio was reunited for a benefit recording for Fletcher Henderson (1951) and a television appearance on NBC (1953), and also appeared in a film based on Goodman’s life, The Benny Goodman Story (1956). In the 1960s Goodman expanded his role as jazz ambassador with tours of South America (1961), the USSR (1962) and Japan (1964). During the 1960s and 1970s he toured about half of each year, dividing his time between appearances with small groups and increasingly frequent commitments to performing classical works. He was one of the five recipients of the fifth annual Kennedy Center Honors awards (1982).

As a jazz clarinettist Goodman had no peer; his flawless solo improvisations set standards of excellence for jazz performance. He founded and directed the most important musical organization of the swing era and helped to open a new epoch in American popular music. He was the first white bandleader to adopt and popularize an uncompromising jazz style. He was also among the first to feature black jazz players, an action that might have compromised his own career at a time when racial integration was not a popular concept. Goodman’s concerts brought a new audience and a new level of recognition to jazz.


Jazz charts

Shirt Tail Stomp, 1928

Georgia Jubilee, 1934, collab. A. Scutt; House Hop, 1936, collab. J. Mundy; Swingtime at the Rockies, 1936, collab. Mundy; If Dreams Come True, 1937, collab. I. Mills and E. Sampson; Life goes to a party, 1937, collab. H. James; Dizzy Spells, 1938, collab. L. Hampton and T. Wilson; Opus 1/2, 1938, collab. Hampton, D. Tough and Wilson; Smoke House, 1938, collab. F. Norman; Flying Home, 1939, collab. Hampton and E. DeLange

Gone with ‘what’ wind, 1939, collab. C. Basie; Opus Local 802, 1939

Opus 3/4, collab. Hampton; Pick-a-rib, 1939

Seven Come Eleven, 1939, collab. C. Christian; Soft Winds, 1939

Air Mail Special, 1940, collab. Christian; Benny’s Bugle, 1940, collab. Basie; Breakfast Feud, 1940

Six Appeal, 1940

Wholly Cats, 1940

Fiesta in Blue, 1941

Pound Ridge, 1941

Solo Flight, 1941, collab. Christian and Mundy; Rachael’s Dream, 1944

Slipped Disc, 1944

Lucky, 1945, collab. J. Palmer and Sampson; Rattle and Roll, 1945, collab. Basie and B. Clayton; Benjie’s Bubble, 1946, collab. J. Bushkin; Swing Angel, 1946, collab. Clayton; Tattletale, 1947, collab. T. Todd; Bannister Slide, 1948


Riffin’ at the Scotch, 1933

Stompin’ at the Savoy (A. Razaf), 1934, collab. Sampson and C. Webb; Don’t be that way (M. Parish), 1938, collab. Sampson; Once More, 1940

Let the doorknob hitcha, 1941


  • B. Goodman and I. Kolodin: The Kingdom of Swing (New York, 1939)
  • B. Goodman: ‘That Old Gang of Mine’, Eddie Condon’s Treasury of Jazz, ed. E. Condon and R. Gehman (New York, 1956/R), 258–74
  • D.R. Connor: BG off the Record: a Bio-discography of Benny Goodman (Fairless Hills, PA, 1958, enlarged 4/1988 as Benny Goodman: Listen to his Legacy)
  • B. Green: ‘Benny Goodman’, The Reluctant Art: Five Studies in the Growth of Jazz (London, 1962), 51–90
  • A. McCarthy: Big Band Jazz (New York, 1974), 226ff
  • [B. Goodman]: Benny, King of Swing: a Pictorial Biography Based on Benny Goodman’s Personal Archives (London, 1979)
  • F. Kappler and G. Simon: Disc notes, Giants of Jazz: Benny Goodman TL J05 (1979)
  • M. McPartland: ‘Benny Goodman: from the Inside – the Sideman’s View’, All in Good Time (New York, 1987), 91–104
  • A. Rollini: Thirty Years with the Big Bands (London, 1987)
  • B. Crowther: Benny Goodman (London, 1988)
  • G. Klussmeier: Benny Goodman und Deutschland (Frankfurt, 1989)
  • J.L. Collier: Benny Goodman and the Swing Era (New York, 1991)
  • R. Firestone: Swing, Swing, Swing: the Life and Times of Benny Goodman (New York, 1993)
  1. Oral history material in S-Sva; collection of scores, recordings and other materials in US-NH

New Haven (CT), Yale University, Irving S. Gilmore Music Library