Benny Goodman, taciturn and reserved, was larger than life and remains so in death, with several selves created through the perceptions of those who knew him and those who mythologized him.
One self was the IRREPLACEABLE MUSICIAN, as evidenced here:
His playing was both exultant and expert; he made superb music on his own (an eight-bar solo on a 1931 dance-band recording is both immediately recognizable and completely uplifting); he gathered superb musicians around him for fifty years and gave them space to express themselves.
He hired Black and White musicians who were seen onstage, in films and television: Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton pre-dated Jackie Robinson. He drew inspiration from the greatest musicians of his time and was himself an inspiring force. And he brought American music to audiences who might otherwise have not known it, and his sixty-year career is a monument to his love of the music.
But even when Benny was alive, another, darker self was given room — and posthumously, the INEXPLICABLE ECCENTRIC has grown, fueled by anecdote after anecdote.
Some of them are surely true: he was so engrossed by the music and his craft that he didn’t remember people’s names; he demanded perfection of others, the same level of art he expected of himself. Few bosses are heroes to their subordinates, and satirizing one’s employer is a time-honored way of reducing their power. Benny was frugal, but he had come from real poverty where “having nothing to eat” meant empty cupboards; he was self-absorbed, but spent much of his life in physical pain.
That second perception also comes from our uneasy relation to heroic achievers in recent times. People applaud the striver, but when someone is too successful, those same people become envious. The audience can buy the records but they are resentful that they didn’t play the music that filled Carnegie Hall. A public person’s fame, coming from unique abilities, makes them feel inadequate and they take the only revenge they have, creating destructive narratives.
“She’s a great singer.” “Yes, but she was mean to the waitstaff.” And more.
The tale of Benny, putting on a sweater because someone else says they’re cold makes better copy than another beautiful solo or ensemble, another triumph. The King of Swing, once a monarch, must be dethroned, must be brought down below us. A Facebook commenter recently offered Benny in subjective miniature: two negatives to one positive and of course, an emoji:
Hard taskmaster – but great musician . Not known for being over generous 😂.
Benny was also unfortunate to become famous, to live long, to die wealthy, without any of the suffering some expect from jazz heroes.
So the collective assessment slants towards cheap, mean, thoughtless Benny — as if the inventive virtuoso who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and Charlie Christian was merely a dim memory.
But a new work, a screenplay titled simply GOODMAN, by Alessandro King, has the power to change all that.
King is, in his own words, “a mega swing fan,” a playwright who’s spent the last years researching Benny, his music, his world, and coming to new understanding of what has been taken as truth for so long. And he’s also a singularly gifted dramatist.
Although many good books have been written about Benny, he remains larger than any biography or discography. King’s screenplay embodies the reality that Benny’s life was inherently and consistently dramatic, not just one successful performance after another, that the dramas persisted when there were no crowds in evidence. When I read it, I was entranced by King’s ability to see, to perceive situations that made Benny who he is. His Chicago poverty; his work ethic; his romantic entanglement with Billie Holiday; his fraught relations with his spiritual brother John Hammond; his intense need to create and share his art. In GOODMAN, Benny comes alive as a person — not simply as a face attached to a clarinet nor as a collection of unpleasant quirks — a son, a friend, a lover, a pioneering artist.
It will be an engrossing film.
But I should let Alessandro take the stage.
I have been very lucky that my writing style has evolved in recent decades, from simple naturalistic stage plays to expansive screenplays and pilots. This development has been contemporaneous with my passion for the music of Benny Goodman, which began with a single compilation CD and is now embodied in a collection of over 2,500 songs spread out over 150 discs; there is not a day that goes by without my listening to Goodman’s music or thinking about its maker.
These two through-lines have overlapped in my screenplay GOODMAN, and it is perhaps because of this melding that GOODMAN is the best thing I have ever written. The script conjures Benny’s role in the launch of the swing era and demolition of the music industry’s racial segregation, and I am proud to say the results have garnered attention from organizations such as New York Stage and Film and the Academy Nicholl Fellowship.
I am confident that this movie is ready to be made. To that end, I have accepted Michael Steinman’s generous offer to promote the piece on Jazz Lives, in the hope that it will be recognized by those who’d perhaps appreciate it most: members of the music community. Please accept my invitation to read the first twelve pages of the script here; if you are interested in perusing the full screenplay, please email me at AlessandroMKing@gmail.com.
Thanks very much for reading this self-promotion. As a token of my gratitude, please enjoy this photograph of my grandmother snagging an autograph from a certain reed player; is this the only visual evidence of Benny getting caught incognito (without glasses)?
GOODMAN is a marvelous human story, subtle and revealing. Reading the screenplay, each time I saw the movie in my head. Now I want to see it on the screen.
May your happiness increase!
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