“Benny Goodman stories” are legendary, and since tales of odd or mean behavior are good copy, they are durable. There’s the man who couldn’t remember his daughters’ names, the villain of the Ray, the man who put on a sweater when the sidemen were cold . . . if you care to, you can add to the list.
But for every truth there is a counter-truth, so here are two brief interview segments I did with the Eminence Dan Morgenstern in 2019, resetting the balance in ways that will surprise anyone committed to the idea of the wicked King of Swing.
I think the emphasis on a cruel miserly inexplicable Benny has also led to a meager assessment of his gifts. Consider these examples. If you played them for someone who knew nothing of the legends and gossip, I think they would be astonished by the music made by the Unknown Clarinetist — and the music he made possible.
and a few years later, in two versions:
I could expound at length on the reasons Benny has been attacked as a person (and he had his failings: no bandleader is always a hero to the people he employs) but that’s another blogpost, one I will leave aside for the moment. For one thing, he became prosperous, which is at odds with the myth of the jazz creator as suffering doomed outsider. Ultimately, though, mocking someone as emotionally lacking or imbalanced is an easy way to undermine the validity of their art. Benny should be regarded for his work — on the level of, let us say, Benny Carter and Bobby Hackett — rather than for his foibles. Who among us doesn’t have them?
Fairness, not vindictiveness. The time is ripe for a balanced view.
May your happiness increase!