Sour notes beneath the big-band sound

July 01, 1993|By Lawrence Freeny | Lawrence Freeny,Contributing Writer

The Benny Goodman orchestra's sound was smooth and seamless as an unfolding bolt of silk; but the creation and maintenance of that sound was anything but smooth.

Devotees of the vintage big bands will find in "Swing, Swing, Swing" a detailed, well-documented account of the ups and downs of the clarinetist's career, and of his often thorny relationships with close friends and sidemen. Others who played key parts in that career included Fletcher Henderson, who discontinued his orchestra in 1934 to become a writer and arranger for Goodman, and John Hammond, a discoverer and promoter of jazz starts and a recording executive.

The book's title is a dual play on words: Goodman was dubbed King of Swing, and the band's 11-minute performance of "Sing, Sing, Sing" climaxed its 1938 appearance in Carnegie Hall. It was the first swing orchestra to play there, although Paul Whiteman's orchestra had in 1925 been the non-classical predecessor.

The entire concert was recorded by Albert Marx as a gift to his wife, Helen Ward, who formerly was Goodman's vocalist. The recording was not released until 1950, in a three-volume album.

While tracing Goodman's rise from impoverished youth in Chicago to international fame, Ross Firestone also describes a driven man whose demanding, quirky personality often baffled associates.

Using numerous sources, Mr. Firestone details Goodman's remote, preoccupied manner; his abrasiveness; and what several of his sidemen termed "the Goodman Glare" that was focused on sources of a sour note, missed beat or some other miscue, as a chilling reprimand.

"Benny wanted perfection and he got it. That band breathed together. It was like one guy playing," Helen Ward remarked.

NB Teddy Wilson, a pianist who played in both the big band and in

Goodman's smaller groups, said: "Benny didn't spare anybody's feelings. He switched solos and first parts in a minute, right in front if everybody. 'You give him that part. You let him play that. You lay out.' "

Goodman's parents, David Goodman and Rora Rezinsky, were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They met and married in 1894 in Baltimore, where the first three of their 12 children were born. They moved in 1902 to Chicago, where David was a tailor in the garment-making sweatshops but, when work was lacking, labored in the slaughterhouses of the stockyards.

Benny, the ninth child, recalled many years later that the family "moved around quite a bit . . . lived in basement without heat during the winter, and a couple of times there wasn't anything to eat. I don't mean much to eat, I mean anything. . . ."

A recounting of Goodman's early career notes his lifetime devotion to practice, and his first paid performance ($5) at age 13 when recruited to play with a Chicago theater orchestra. Then came free-lance and recording dates, and playing as sideman with the Ben Pollack and Red Nichols orchestras.

Having drawn the attention of established jazzmen as well as music writers, Goodman at age 16 was hired by Pollack in 1925 to join his band in California; the $100 weekly pay was far more than he'd received before.

In 1930, when Goodman was busy with free-lance radio and recording work, Nichols hired him to join the pit band that would play for the Gershwin musical "Girl Crazy." Within six months, the clarinetist argued with -- and antagonized -- Nichols. Then, while Nichols was ill, but had scheduled his band for a tour in New England, Goodman lured most of Nichols' musicians to form his own band. It played in a new musical, "Free for All," that ran two weeks.

Nichols reportedly did not speak to Goodman again until 1946, when the ex-sideman stopped in a Hollywood club to hear Nichols play. "It's nice to shake the hand of the guy who stole my band," the unforgiving older leader told him.

"Let's Dance," Goodman's sprightly opening theme, was also the name of a three-hour radio show on NBC's national network, starting in 1934. Three bandleaders alternated: Kel Murray, sweet music; Xavier Cugat, Latin; and Goodman, swing.

"The only trouble with Benny's band . . . was that it did not swing," John Hammond observed. He faulted the rhythm section, particularly the drummer. Goodman agreed.

Hammond then personally acquired, for Goodman, Gene Krupa -- a spectacular drummer and personable showman, in sharp contrast to Goodman's reticent public manner -- and Henderson as writer and arranger.

"Without Fletcher I probably would have had a pretty good band, but it would have been quite different from what it eventually turned out to be," Goodman said in his 1939 autobiography.

Almost 50 years later, Goodman's final television special was taped in the Marriott Marquis Hotel on Broadway, near the old Billy Rose Music Hall, where he had led his first orchestra. Aired on public television in March 1986, the show was dedicated to Henderson (who had died in 1953). Goodman's tribute was: "The fascination with his arrangements was endless. I really thought he was a genius."

Three months later, Goodman died of a heart attack at the age of 77.


Title: "Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman"

Author: Ross Firestone

Publisher: Norton

Length, price: 456 pages, $29.95

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