May 30th marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Benny Goodman. The "King Of Swing"'s centennial hasn't garnered the same hoopla as those of, say, Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong, at least not among the part of the population that doesn't love vintage jazz. If you want to know why, look at a picture of Benny next to the Duke or Satchmo. Goodman looks more like an accountant than a jazz musician. It also doesn't help that the clarinet as a jazz instrument is a hard sell, lacking the power of brass instruments like the trumpet or saxophone. In the wrong hands, it can be a whiny, almost comical instrument. Even when played by a master, it can sound dated, quaint, unfashionable to untutored ears. Simply put, Benny Goodman isn't hip, certainly not by early 21st century standards.
Benny's image, or lack thereof, is probably why a lot of people forget that he was the Elvis of the big-band era. "Hot" jazz had been popular for a decade by the mid '30s, and Goodman had been on the scene almost that long. But the title "The King Of Swing" wasn't simply bestowed on him because he was white and popular. He earned it the night his band turned his brand of music into a full-fledged phenomenon. According to legend, the spark became a flame on August 21, 1935 during a broadcast from the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, when the crowd went berserk and the Swing Era began. For the next few years, Benny Goodman was the most popular bandleader in the country, and his music helped to pull the record industry back from the brink of extinction in the middle of the Great Depression.
In 1938, the Goodman outfit took over Carnegie Hall and helped to prove that jazz wasn't just music, it was art. But of course, it was art that you could jitterbug to, and the recording of the legendary concert reveals instances of the audience screaming and whooping like they were at a rock club. Swing wasn't always the mannered music of nostalgia that our grandparents dance to at weddings. Benny Goodman's music was wild, rebellious, and pissed off parents the same way Elvis or the Rolling Stones did decades later.
To dig what the fuss was all about seven-plus decades ago, just put on one of Goodman's records. His band -- which over the years included legends like Bunny Berigan, Gene Krupa, Harry James, Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson, and featured arrangements by the brilliant Fletcher Henderson -- was able to swing with the power of a blast furnace, but with a lightness and fleetness that makes it damn near impossible not to get your feet moving. They rock out, but with a precision and economy that also marks the playing of Goodman himself.
As amazing as his big-band records are, his small-group "chamber jazz" recordings from the '30s, featuring Teddy Wilson on piano, Lionel Hampton on vibes and Gene Krupa on drums, are to my ears even better. The music is witty and elegant but it swings, and swings hard. Goodman may be the leader of the group, but he doesn't step on the toes of the other players. The songs are perfectly crafted miniatures, where every note makes sense, and the overall effect sets the blood to pumping and the toes to tapping. And let it not be forgotten that Goodman had the guts to put together an interracial quartet in 1935, back when even jazz groups were almost completely segregated.
Goodman's music never really progressed beyond the swing era; except for a half-hearted stab at bebop in the late '40s, he didn't really explore the new frontiers of jazz that emerged between the end of the swing era and his death in 1986 (although he did regularly dabble in classical music). But he kept making brilliant records into the '60s; his 1963 reunion album with Wilson, Hampton and Krupa packs almost as much punch as their records of a quarter century earlier. And he kept kicking ass onstage right up to the end, thanks in part to a fanatical practice regime. Frank Sinatra said he once asked Goodman why he practiced so much. Benny's response was, "This way, even when I'm not great, I'm still good."
If you like jazz -- or 20th century American music, for that matter -- then you owe it to yourself to check out Benny Goodman. And if you're already a convert, put on "Let's Dance" or "Stompin' At The Savoy" or the 1938 Carnegie Hall album or any one of Goodman's thousands of classic recordings, and pay respect to one of the greatest musicians of the last 100 years. Happy birthday, your majesty!