2009 is a great year for jazz centennials — Herschel Evans, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Stuff Smith, Chick Webb, and Benny Goodman. Last year, I began to write an article on the subject –or should I say the subjects — of BG, but eventually gave it up because balancing his many selves got to be overwhelming. I felt like a novice waiter who takes too many dishes from the table . . . with the inevitable crash. Goodman was so many people, depending on which angle he was observed from: the cruel skinflint; the star who didn’t want to share the applause; the artist so engrossed in perfection of the art — his clarinet, his band — that his awareness of his fellow musicians diminished and almost disappeared. But he was also the jazzman who loved to swing, before there was Swing; the supreme melodic improviser; the man who gave Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Christian, Cootie Williams and many others the kind of recognition they would not have had otherwise. (I even have forgiven him for having made Sidney Catlett cry.) John Hammond, the great mythologizer, would have had it that Goodman was timid, someone who would have stayed in the studios, playing lucrative pop music, if Hammond hadn’t rescued him — perhaps that was true in 1931, but I don’t think it stayed true for long. Hear how Goodman inspired and was inspired by Jack Teagarden, by Basie, by Jo Jones, and you hear a truly creative improviser. How many years will have to pass before we can listen to his playing on, for instance, WHO? (by the Trio) and recognize its immense art?
But Goodman may not need my defense as long as the recordings exist. This post, however, is about public celebrations of his centennial at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Both programs take place at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, 40 Lincoln Center Plaza.
On Monday, June 1, at 3 PM, the discussion is titled, appropriately, “Memories of You.” Martin E. Segal and Phoebe Jacobs will remember Benny — their conversation moderated by George Boziwick. Phoebe, in case you’ve never met her or heard her speak, is a Genuine Treasure. She was there; she tells the truth, lovingly and hilariously.
On Monday, June 8, at 6 PM, the emphasis shifts to “The Music of Benny Goodman,” as played by this small jazz ensemble: Miles Brown, bass; Paul Merrill, trumpet; Bobby Weinschenk, alto saxophone; Joshua Abraham, tenor saxophone; Robert Cowie, piano; Kevin Lowe, drums. These musicians are new to me, but I am sure they know how to swing. I do find it odd that no one is listed as playing the clarinet, but perhaps the two saxophonists will switch off. It should be most intriguing to learn who’s written the charts for a group that obviously isn’t imitating any of the Goodman small groups, and what repertoire they choose.
I hope to be at both events. Admission to both programs is free; first come, first served. Call 212-641-0142 or visit www.nypl.org/lpaprograms.
And the best part of these centennial celebrations is that no one, I am sure, will even think to say, “Benny, don’t BE that way.”