June 3, 2009

100 Years of Benny

Swing fans mark the spring of 2009 as a significant event, the centennial of the birth of Benny Goodman, the King of Swing. After a few years as a studio musician in New York he launched his own band. As the story goes, Benny launched the swing era on the west coast, and young dancers went crazy to his music. Calling anybody the “king” of anything can certainly cause arguments and discussions. I wonder what William Basie and Edward Ellington thought about Benny Goodman being called the “King of Swing.” He certainly was the person who made swing a household word and the pop music of the day, although there were many artists who could have laid claim to the title. Fortunately, William Basie was called the “Count” and Edward Ellington was called “Duke,” so there was enough royalty to spread around.

Benny Goodman was known as a perfectionist, to put it mildly. He thought about his clarinet, his clarinet and his clarinet, and then he thought about the perfect band. He also had a couple of other attributes that swing fans might not have known. One was his astounding absence of a memory. During our interview with Steve Allen he had a first-hand experience with Benny’s lack of memory concerning names. (See blog entry dated February 6, “A Social Hero”). Steve had a great connection to Benny because Steve played Benny’s character in “The Benny Goodman Story” and actually learned to play the clarinet.

Another non-musical attribute of Benny’s was his (let’s be kind) frugal approach to life. He was not a big spender, especially when hiring sidemen. The consummate bassist Milt Hilton shared a couple of stories in a Hamilton College interview that was conducted by our dear friend Joe Williams. According to web references Benny was born on May 30, 1909 in Chicago, but Milt relates otherwise. Milt reminisces about three particular experiences with Benny, growing up in Chicago, at a daughter’s wedding and on a West Coast jazz event:

MH: I’ll tell you a funny story about Benny Goodman. Now Benny Goodman was nine months older than I. July 18, 1923 I took my first violin lesson. My mother sent me to the west side to the Jane Ellis Hull House, every Saturday, where kids could get music lessons for twenty-five cents. And Benny Goodman was right there. There was nine in his family. We were, back in 1923, we were taking music lessons together. And he remembered that. We’d argue and fight, he’d fire me and hire me back again, but we had respect, of a musician, a good musician. He knew what a good musician is. He was a good musician. It was unfortunate that he wasn’t nearly as liked as well as we wish he had been liked, but it was because he had such an insatiable desire for perfection. And you know Benny wasn’t born in Chicago, he was born in Russia, outside Kiev. But when his mother and father came to Chicago, he was a baby in arms. So you can apply for papers for your child, as born in America. I found out that years later. And we kept our friendship to the last. When his daughter got married, he called me up and said “hey, Milt, my daughter’s getting married, you and Mona come on over on Friday.” He’d say “bring your bass.” And he was all dressed up in his finery, so proud of his daughter getting married, and we had George Barnes there, and Bucky Pizzarelli, and a bunch of musicians. And we were over in the corner playing and everybody’s congratulating Benny Goodman because his daughter’s getting married, and his foot is going like this, tapping his foot. And next thing we know he’s got his clarinet and he’s right over there with us. He was an insatiable musician.

JW: Did you hear that marvelous story that Mel tells about him, Mel Powell? He says Benny came out to California in later years and called him up and says “Mel?” He says “Yeah, Benny.” He says “Let’s do lunch.” So Mel says “yeah, all right. You buying?” He said there was a long pause, and Benny said “let’s go Dutch.”

MH: He couldn’t get away from that. I got a funny one. There’s a million Benny Goodman stories. You know he called you up, saying he’d just passed from Concord Records, Carl Jefferson was out there in California, and he was having a big jazz party out there, and he called me up and he says “Milt, I’d like for you to bring a group of major musicians from New York out, so get some guys.” And I say “okay, I’ll get them together.” So I got Jo Jones, Claude Hopkins, Budd Johnson, Benny Morton, Roy Eldridge, and I mentioned Jo Jones and myself. You couldn’t get a more senior group than that. So we were going to go to California to do this concert. So Benny Goodman’s going to be out there. So Carl Jefferson told Benny, “well Milt is going to come out and bring some guys,” and he says, “oh he is? Well maybe I can get them to play with me.” He says, “call him up and tell him that.” So Carl Jefferson says “no, you call him and tell him that.” Now Carl Jefferson is giving me $6,000, a thousand dollars apiece for each one of us to come out there. And Benny Goodman called me up and says “hey, Milt, I see where you’re going to be out here in California at the concert.” I say “yeah.” He says “I’m closing, do you want to play with me?” I say “yeah Benny, I don’t mind playing with you,” I said “what’s the bread like?” He says “will $185 be okay?” I say “oh, wait a minute, Benny, wait a minute” I say. He says, “okay, what do you want?” So I figured out, I got greedy. I say, well I’m getting $1000 already, I’ll just ask him for $500 more. So I say “if you give me $500 I’ll do it.” He hung up the phone on me. He hung up the phone.

Lastly, Skitch Henderson, of “The Tonight Show” fame and New York Pops Orchestra, had his own take on Benny Goodman, who, no matter how perfect the musical situation seemed to be he would be the last person to be completely satisfied. Skitch talked about Benny Goodman’s performance on “The Tonight Show” in New York with Johnny Carson, when Skitch was musical director:

SH: This was a funny night with Goodman. I asked Goodman, I think I must have asked him for two or three years to come and do the show, and he never would do it. Benny was Benny. “No, Pops, forget it, Pops. I’m not going to come down and have to rehearse.” So at last I saw him one day and I said “Benny, I’m going to give you a gift.” I said “I’m going to get all of Fletcher’s old charts and they have been blown up just a bit, there are five saxophones instead of four, and I want you to just — it would be good for you, and I want you to do it for the guys in the band. Because you’ll never have an aggregation like this again.” Anyway he did the show. I asked him who he wanted to play piano, and it’s interesting that he called Marian McPartland, as opposed to Teddy Wilson, which fascinated me. Anyway it was a hell of a night. Now I’m playing, I’m conducting — two years pass, and I’m conducting in Brisbane, Australia. Now I’m not in Omaha, I’m in Brisbane. And the phone rings and it’s Benny. I mean I hear this voice. “Hey Pops, I left my braces in Sidney, do you have any spare braces?” You know, suspenders. So I said “Yeah I guess so.” And then that night after that concert he and I sat and talked in this smelly gymnasium where they played, and it kind of broke my heart because I said, we had a confession period to each other. He was talking to me about his unhappiness that he hadn’t, even though he was a very successful player and guest, he had no placement with a group because nobody would work for him, he was so mean, let’s face it. Bobby Rosengarden, I think Bobby refused the calls, everybody did. They gave up at last. So in this strange night in Australia I said “Benny, I have very few things that ever made me smile on “The Tonight Show” because there was always rankling from upstairs about the clients,” and I said “the band took care of itself and I just had to work out the schedule.” But I said “the night you came on and played it really thrilled me to hear that, that you could have that kind of virtuosity in every chair.” I mean there wasn’t a guy there that hadn’t paid their dues a hundred times over. And there was dead silence and he looks at me and said “yeah, Pops, but it didn’t swing.” And then he launched into a tirade. He had just toured with a British band of five brass, four saxophones and three rhythm, like the old, old Benny, 1936 Benny Goodman Band. And that’s what he was happy with. I’ll never forget that. “Yeah, Pops, but it didn’t swing.” That Bucky Pizzarelli and I talk about. Because Bucky was good to the end. He’d go to the house in Connecticut and play with Benny, just the two of them, just to make him play. But it was strange that he had that.

MR: He wasn’t even happy with perfection.

SH: Yeah. And he was such a perfectionist.

MR: Wow.

SH: “Yeah, Pops, but it didn’t swing.” That was, for me, almost like a curtain coming down in Benny’s life with me. And I told the guys. Of course they thought “what else do you expect him to say?”

Benny Goodman’s music will certainly last forever. In addition, Benny played an important role in racial dynamics in the United States and we wrote about this in the blog entry dated February 6, 2009.

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