February 6, 2009

A Social Hero

One can’t turn on the television these days without hearing about the societal leap America made in electing its first black president. And it’s true, January 20, 2009 will forever be known as the date where a giant step was made in race relations. Tracing the history of the integration of black and white into a merged society, one repeatedly comes across the name of Benny Goodman as being one catalyst for the integration of black and white musicians sharing the stage.
Though Benny was known for his quirky business relations and often miserly ways, he refused to understand why he couldn’t have the best people he could find playing with him at all times. The music quality came before any other considerations for him. He wanted the best available. I have chosen two quotes to demonstrate how Benny’s interesting personality forced racial integration, because he insisted it would be so. First, racial mores or racial prejudice weren’t part of Benny’s lexicon; Benny just wanted the best of the best as his sidemen. Second, Steve Allen relates his personal experiences with the “King of Swing.”
The following two quotations were taken from early interviews, Lionel Hampton in 1995 and Steve Allen in 1999. We are fortunate to have such first-hand recollections documented in our Archive, as both interviewees were icons who unreservedly told first-hand stories about their experiences working in the thriving entertainment world of the thirties through sixties:

The first clip, from Lionel, talks about doing his musical homework as a child and his early development on the vibes, which would later catch Benny’s ear:

Lionel Hampton & Monk Rowe, in 1995
LH: [W]e got through rehearsals and, which we did, and if you became a newspaper boy, you had to practice, I think it was three times a week. And so in between, after, we’d go to music school, where the Chicago newspaper boys rehearsed at, and they had some xylophones there, and I would play the solos that I had taken off the records that was played by Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins and Benny Goodman. And it ended up that I liked it a lot. I would practice and play note for note what these stars played.
MR: So you’re really developing your ears for music.
LH: So I got a little head start on jazz, see? So I played something for a song that Louis had made a record on, called “Chinese Chop Suey.” And Louis liked it so well, he said “I’ll tell you, you keep the vibraphone out there, and we’re going to have you record with us.” So Eubie Blake, the big solo player and piano player at that time sent Louis arrangements to record for him. And the name of the tune was “Memories of You.”
MR: A beautiful song.
LH: Yeah, a beautiful song, yes. And so I played on the record, and people was wondering what instrument it was that they heard. And the vibes got very popular on the gig. And I found a new career.
MR: Because you got — your quartet started playing around California? And eventually that led to meeting Teddy Wilson and Benny Goodman?
LH: Yes.
MR: So it’s funny how things in your childhood will work. The fact that you got a little experience on that xylophone really paid off later on.
LH: Yeah. Real big. And about the big band, you know I joined Benny Goodman .... And we were the first integrated group, the first black and white group.
MR: Was that ever a problem playing in certain parts of the country?
LH: No, no, because we all played good music. And Benny presented us in a professional way. We were a four in his organization, and it would be noticeable that we were soft. And the people liked that. Some of the ovations that he used to get, it was the sound.
MR: I thought it was interesting that that quartet didn’t use a bass player a lot.
LH: No. Because Teddy Wilson played it in the left hand.

Later Lionel speaks about his actual integration into the Benny Goodman Quartet:

LH: I was the first black musician to play in a white band. See and Teddy Wilson was playing with Benny, but he used to play when Benny used to take intermission, and no white musicians was on stage, then Teddy would play, by himself see? So I was the first one, legally to break that tradition down. But you know the funny thing about it, there wasn’t no black and white playing together no place. Not in pictures, moving pictures, not in baseball, or football, no kind of sports. The Benny Goodman Quartet was the first mixed group and it was, you know.

Steve Allen spoke about working with Benny Goodman, and his often bizarre show business ways. Steve played the title role in the movie “The Benny Goodman Story,” and for that role he learned to play the clarinet. Steve related some insightful stories about his preparation for that part, and a subsequent duet playing with Benny on “The Steve Allen Show”:

SA: As soon as I agreed to do the movie then of course the question was even though I was a musician I knew nothing about the clarinet, so we had to hire somebody to teach me, and somebody knew about Sol, our mutual friend Bobby Rosengarden once said something hysterically funny, he described Sol Yaged as quote the Jewish Benny Goodman. For you young people, Benny himself is Jewish. But anyway Sol was the perfect choice, and a very easy guy to work with, so he gave me several weeks of just basic lessons, you know how to hold it, how to blow and all that stuff. And the reason I did have to go through all that, some people have said well why did you bother? Why didn’t you just go like that and pretend to play? The answer is my fingers had to be on the right holes. Now if you’re taking a shot from the back of a ballroom, it doesn’t matter, you can hardly see my hands. But on a close up I can’t be playing this if the real notes are over here. So I did have to have my fingers, and I did have to learn the instrument, and I learned it well enough to do a little playing in public. I once played a duet with Benny himself on a little tune I’d written. Benny himself that night was in a fog as usual. Benny Goodman lived in a fog. He was Mr. Absent Minded and often didn’t know what he was doing. He’d walk on stage with his fly open and stuff. And through accident, he was just a careless man and didn’t think much about the world. He was just the greatest clarinet player of them all. So just after the movie, NBC and Universal Studios got together to do a little promotion going in both directions, so that meant booking Benny on our show, which was on the air Sunday nights at NBC at the time. So Benny himself played for a few minutes, and naturally was thrilling as always, and then our production group decided that Benny and I would do my little song with the two of us playing clarinets. It was sort of a riff thing [scats], an easy thing to play. So in the script I walked in after Benny had played his marvelous numbers, and I said “Benny that was terrific.” And his line was “well thank you, Steve, say, I see you brought your clarinet, why don’t you and I do something together?” A pretty simple line, and he’d had a whole week to work on it, he had one line with a week to work on it, and he forgot my name. Now it was my show, I was playing him in the movie, you might figure if there was any name he wouldn’t forget it’s mine. He might have forgotten his own. But anyway he did, on the air, and he did what he always did, because he was always forgetting people’s names. He had the world’s worst memory for names. One night parenthetically I’ll tell you about his memory. He was doing a performance somewhere and his usual pianist, who was Teddy Wilson, the great black pianist, was not available that week and so he wasn’t at the instrument. I don’t know who the other guys was … it was some white player.
MR: Johnny Guarnieri?
SA: Thank you. So Benny is saying “thank you ladies and gentlemen, and I’d like to also share the thanks with our great drummer, Mr. Gene Krupa, and the King of the Vibes, Mr. Lionel Hampton,” now he turns to the white piano player and says “and at the keyboard, uhhh, Teddy Wilson, ladies and gentlemen.” That was the only name he could come up with. So that’s how Benny was about names. Anyway, back on my show, thirty million people watching. In those days you did have an audience that large. So I said “Benny that was fantastic, beautiful.” There’s about a two second silence and then he says “oh thank you, uh, Pops, say why don’t we do something together?” So that was the name he used. He called his grandmother Pops, and anybody. If he couldn’t think of a name he called them Pops.

There have been many milestones in race relations in this country, and, in jazz, we recognize the contribution of clarinetist Benny Goodman, one of our social heroes.

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