Tag Archives: Ross Firestone

REVISITING BENNY GOODMAN’S TRIUMPH, JANUARY 16, 1938

In the past year, there’s been much well-deserved attention paid to the life and music of Benjamin David Goodman, clarinetist supreme, cultural icon, King of Swing, trail-blazer and phenomenal improviser — because he was born a hundred years ago.  In 2008, there was another reason to celebrate while invoking his name — the seventieth anniversary of his Carnegie Hall concert. 

I don’t wish to take an iota away from the significance of that event, nor do I wish to dull our reverence both for it and the recordings of that evening.  It may be heretical that I find the records uneven — but, then again, attempting to capture any live jazz is risky, and that Carnegie came off so spectacularly is a tribute to everyone’s creative energies.  (As an aside, I don’t have much enthusiasm for the recent concert recreations where a first-rate jazz band plays the concert, from first note to last, “live.”  The original event is irreproducible, another tribute to its essence.)  Perhaps my reaction is the result of having listened to the original recordings too many times in my youth, although the jam session on HONEYSUCKLE ROSE is still thrilling.

Here, to celebrate the event, is a snippet from a Goodman documentary: I include it not because of the leaden commentary, but for the silent newsreel footage taken in the hall that night. 

A celebration of January 16, 1938 that I can applaud whole-heartedly is Jon Hancock’s wonderful book: BENNY GOODMAN – THE FAMOUS 1938 CARNEGIE HALL CONCERT (Prancing Fish Publishing, 2009).

Before I explain this book’s virtues, I must reveal my own reactions to much of what is published on the subject of jazz in general and Goodman in specific.  Having read the best prose and criticism, I dislike sloppy research, poor attribution and inept paraphrase, polemical ideological statements passed off as evidence.  I applaud Whitney Balliett and Martin Williams, Dan Morgenstern and Richard M. Sudhalter even when I disagree with them, because of their insight and their evidence-gathering.  But many “jazz writers” have only the opinions and attitudes of others to offer: leftovers presented as fresh. 

Goodman, too, is a special case.  I have savored Bill Crow’s brilliantly lacerating memoir of the 1962 trip to Russia; Ross Firestone’s affectionate, forgiving biography of Benny, SWING, SWING, SWING told me things I hadn’t known and was therefore valuable.  Ultimately, Goodman the musician is a more absorbing study than Benny the neurotic. 

Hancock’s book is exciting because it does offer new information about this most singular event.  Even better, he has made a point of not taking familiar statements as gospel without tracing them back to their original sources.  The result is a fascinating mosaic.  I knew, for instance, that Harry James said, “I feel like a whore in church,” joking about his being in the august hall, but I knew nothing of the newspaper reports before the concert: predictions that Big Joe Turner might sing and W.C. Handy might appear, that Mary Lou Williams was writing a “Jazz concerto,” and, even better, that Lionel Hampton was composing a “Swing Symphony” for the occasion. 

And there’s just as much pleasure in the visual memorabilia.  John Totten was the stage manager at Carnegie, and he collected signatures in his autograph book.  One page of this book (beautifully reporduced) has the signatures of Benny, Jess Stacy, Hampton, “Ziggie” Elman, Gordon Griffin, and others; another page has the signatures of George Koenig, Martha Tilton, Pee Wee Monte, and “best remembrances” from Joseph Szigeti.  That’s priceless.

There’s also a photogrraph from the Ferbuary 1938 Tempo Magazine of a pre-concert rehearsal for the jam session: Freddie Green, Benny, Lester Young, his high-crowned hat pushed back on his head, a grinning Gene Krupa, an intent Harry James.  Is it evidence of Benny’s over-preparation that he would have musicians rehearse to jam on HONEYSUCKLE ROSE — or is it just that he wanted the opportunity to play a few choruses with Lester and Freddie? 

A beautiful picture of a young (he had just turned 29) Gene Krupa adjusting his tie between sets in the Madhattan Room has him against a background of brass instruments that, curiously, looks like the work of Stuart Davis or someone inspired — at first glance, I thought that the painter (and occasional drummer) George Wettling had been the artist. 

Hancock’s book also reproduces the twelve-page concert program; here one finds announcements for upcoming concerts by Rudolf Serkin and Adolf Busch, advertisements for Schrafft’s and the Russian Tea Room, for Maiden Form brassieres and Chesterfield cigarettes, and (something to live for) notice that the Gramophone Shop would have on sale on January 22, 1938, Teddy Wilson’s Brunswick record of MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF YOU and IF DREAMS COME TRUE.

 These lovely artifacts, including a ticket from the concert, shouldn’t make us forget that the real glory of the book is Hancock’s meticulous (but never stuffy) eye for detail — that pro-Franco demonstrators picketed Carnegie the night of the concert, chanting “Benny Goodman is a red from Spain,” necause Benny had played a concert for the Spanish Loyalists in December 1937.  Ziggy Elman’s rejoinder, “No, he isn’t, he’s a clarinet player from Chicago!” satisfies me, even if it did little to placate the protesters. 

The centerpiece of the book is Hancock’s easy, unforced commentary on the music played at the concert — forty pages of analysis and commentary, neither highflown musicology in the Gunther Schuller way or a fan’s yipping enthusiasm — something to read while the compact discs of the concert are playing.  Anything about the concert — the microphone setup, the photographs and newsreel footage — as well as the recordings made, the mythic story of their re-discovery, their various issues . . . . up to Benny’s later appearances at Carnegie — all are meticulously covered by Hancock.  And there’s a touching reminiscence of BG at home by his daughter Rachel Edelson that is a masterpiece of gentle honesty. 

Reviewers have to find flaws, so I will say that a few names are misspelled, as in the pastoral “Glen Miller,” but since none of these musicians were in the Goodman band, I and other enthusiasts forgive Hancock . . . while applauding his tremendous effort, both enthusiastic and careful.  Writing this post, I must add, took a long time — not because my mind wasn’t made up within the first fifteen minutes of looking at the book, but because I kept getting distracted from writing to reading and re-reading.  Good job!

Jon has a website, www.bg1938.com., where you can find out more about the book — and the more important information about how to get your own copy.  And you can add your own opinion about Just Who the Mystery Man is.  Someone has to know!

BENNY VISITS “AVALON”

In the last few days I’ve been listening to the Benny Goodman Festival being broadcast on WKCR-FM (if you’re out of range of this New York City FM station, you can hear it online at www.wkcr.org).  Whenever I turn on the radio a Goodman small group is eagerly exploring AVALON at a jaunty tempo, a coincidence that both amuses and puzzles me.

BGNow, I don’t plan to accuse Goodman of being an aging artist caught in his own boredom, but the frequency with which jazz musicians return to their own narrowing repertoire of familiar songs to improvise on is worth comment.

I know that Hot Lips Page famously said (to whom?) “The material is immaterial,” and Bob Rusch has gently reminded me that jazz is about what one does with the material rather than the material itself.  “‘T’ain’t what you do, it’s the way that’cha do it,” sang Trummy Young.

And anyone brave enough to improvise in public at the tempos Goodman favored should, by law, have the right to choose his or her own favorite set of chord changes — no matter whether the improviser in question is Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, or John Coltrane.  But I’ve also heard some of the finest jazz artists turn in established solos on familiar pieces for their features, occasionally playing something quite moving, but more often falling back on set routine.  I think of Jo Jones’s CARAVAN, of Buddy Tate’s BODY AND SOUL, of Vic Dickenson’s IN A SENTIMENTAL MOOD, and so on.

One could, of course, make the case that jazzmen have “master solos” and “polished performances” to fall back on, because improvisation is such a demanding art.  And Ricky Riccardi has made the point that Louis Armstrong’s versions of INDIANA that often began his later performances were anything but rote repetition.

But Benny himself (according to Ross Firestone’s sweet-natured biography) seems to have been dissatisfied with the music he played in his last decade, saying to someone, “You can’t play LADY BE GOOD forever.”  But he did play AVALON for fifty years.

Did he play it so regularly because it was a song he loved from his childhood (it first appeared in 1920)?  Did he return to it because it was one of his proven hits, a selection that his audience — sometimes made up of people who had cheered him on in 1937 — wanted, expected, and waited for?  Did he feel a responsibility to please the people who had paid to hear him with a medley of his Greatest Hits?  Or was playing AVALON something that gave him pleasure in itself — both as a stunning ride over the chord changes and as a way of making an exciting performance?  I can’t begin to say.

And some of the performances of AVALON I’ve heard on WKCR-FM are justly thrilling — not just in terms of technique and facility, but as musical expressions — evidence of an older artist still finding “something new to say” on a familiar text.  Some of them sound like Goodman playing at being Benny Goodman — with playing that is technically exciting but not especially creative improvised music.

The only time I was fortunate enough to see Goodman in person — at a great distance — was at a Carnegie Hall concert in 1974 or 1975, with a truly all-star group including Bobby Hackett and Roy Eldridge (!).  Of course, the King offered us AVALON, STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, and DON’T BE THAT WAY to enthusiastic applause, but I was much more moved by Hackett’s choice of a feature number — an uptempo SECRET LOVE, which I can still dimly hear in my head as I write this.

Does this make me a snob for asking my beloved jazz heroes to “be original”?  I don’t know.  Perhaps if I had been able to ask Benny why he explored and re-explored AVALON, he would have said, “I like it.”  And that would have been enough, even for me.  Any artist who’s given us so much for such a long time is entitled to his idiosyncracies.