Clarinetist, band leader. Born Benjamin David Goodman, in Chicago on May 30, 1909, Goodman (or “Benny,” as he was commonly referred to) became known as the “king of swing” during the jazz era of the 1930s and 40s, and he was a pioneer in breaking the "color line" by hiring black musicians to perform in his band. His clarinet technique and his contribution to the big-band "swing" style made him famous throughout the world, even into the 1980s. Often called "the Professor" because of his rimless glasses and rather formal appearance, Goodman also broke ground in the musical world by bringing a jazz concert to Carnegie Hall in New York for the first time, and by crossing musical lines to play classical concerts. Goodman received many honors in his lifetime, including an award from the Kennedy Center, a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement, and an honorary doctorate in music from Columbia University.
Born to Russian-Jewish parents, Goodman was one of twelve children. He grew up in poverty, but his father, David, a tailor's employee, encouraged him to use music to better himself. Benny revered his father, who worked twelve to fourteen hours a day to support the family and constantly stressed the value of education. Benny was not as close to his mother, Dora, who never learned to speak English and held on to the peasant lifestyle of her native Lithuania. It is possible that Goodman was somewhat embarrassed by his mother, who did not quite fit the upper-class life he aspired to as he became more successful. To his credit, however, he supported his mother and other members of his family as his career blossomed.
In 1942, Goodman married Alice Hammond Duckworth, sister of his mentor John Hammond and a descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt. By all accounts, they had a good marriage, and Goodman often sought Alice's advice on his career moves. The Goodman family included Alice's three children from a previous marriage as well as Benny and Alice's two children, Rachel and Benjie. Alice died in 1978.
When Goodman was 10 years old, his father sent him and two of his brothers to Kehelah Jacob Synagogue to study music. Benny took up the clarinet, while his brothers came home with a tuba and a trumpet. Goodman's teacher was a well-known member of the Chicago Symphony, Franz Schoepp, whose insistence on daily exercise and diligent practice stayed with Goodman the rest of his life. Goodman's first musical experience was with the boys' band at the synagogue, and later with the band at Hull House, a famous settlement house begun by Jane Addams.
By age 11, Goodman had appeared with his first pit band, and by age 13 had acquired union card. He joined bands on the excursion boats cruising Lake Michigan and played at local dance halls. When he found he could actually make money performing, he dropped out of school at 14 to pursue his career full-time. Greatly influenced by listening to jazz recordings in his teens, he soon found a style that suited him and began to sit in with jazz groups and to perform with his brothers on occasion. In Chicago's south side cabarets, he learned the New Orleans dixieland style from both black and white musicians. He appeared with small pick-up bands wherever he could, at high school proms, parks, and dance clubs.
Goodman's first real break came when, at the age of 16, the Ben Pollack band to play in Los Angeles hired him. During the four years he spent with the band, Goodman gained confidence in his solo work, sometimes on the saxophone as well as the clarinet, and participated in recording sessions for the first time. Goodman was one of many jazz musicians to migrate from Chicago to New York in the late 1920's. He struggled for a time, growing desperate enough at one point to steal milk bottles from his neighbors to get the deposit money. In 1928, he took a break from Pollack's band to play in the pit band for the musical Hello Daddy. Since this period of Goodman's life was during the Great Depression, he took a chance when he finally left the relative security of the Pollack band to freelance as a sideman in various live bands and in recording sessions. Yet he still managed to make a living, and even supported his widowed mother during this time, partly through radio work, for which he earned two hundred to four hundred dollars a week.
Goodman's career really began in 1933, when John Hammond, a wealthy amateur jazz musician and promoter, took an interest in him. Over the course of several decades, Hammond supported such legendary performers as Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. He was a rather arrogant man who let nothing get in his way when he wanted to crusade for a particular musician. Despite his often-abrasive personality, Hammond was responsible for launching the recording careers of many important artists. He decided to record Goodman's work in England with such well-known musicians as Gene Krupa and trombonist Jack Teagarden. These recordings attracted attention in America and gave Goodman his first significant national reputation. Goodman participated in many more recording sessions for Columbia Records. Although some of the cuts from this period are labeled "Benny Goodman and His Orchestra," Goodman did not really begin his own band until 1934, when he appeared at Billy Rose's Music Hall in New York City.
Fast becoming a nationally popular band, Goodman's group entered the living rooms of America with weekly radio appearances on the National Broadcasting Company's "Let's Dance," a show recorded before a live audience. The National Biscuit Company, in an effort to promote its new Ritz cracker, conceived the show as a three-hour "dance party" with three different bands. Fletcher Henderson and Spud Murphy, whose work Goodman used throughout his career, did most of the arrangements for his "Let's Dance" repertoire. Vocalist Helen Ward, famous for the song "You're a Heavenly Thing," contributed greatly to the success of the band at this time. The youth of America, who embraced swing music as their own in school gyms, dance clubs, and ballrooms throughout the nation added to Goodman's popularity. Goodman's band was known for being extremely well rehearsed, with great attention to detail and superb intonation. As Goodman's fame increased, however, so did his reputation for arrogance and unreasonableness. A perfectionist and a demanding taskmaster, Goodman was said to have fired musicians nearly as fast as he hired them.
In 1935, Goodman joined the management firm of the Music Corporation of America (M.C.A.). For Victor Records, he also began to record many numbers which would eventually become old standards, such as "The King Porter Stomp," "Blue Skies," and "Anything Goes." Few other so-called "hot" jazz bands rivaled Goodman's at this time. Only Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra offered much competition. Goodman was quickly attracting the college audience interested in new dances such as the jitterbug, which simultaneously delighted young people and dismayed their parents with its bouncy contortions.
The mid-1930s were indeed the era of "swing" music. The sweet style of Guy Lombardo was giving way to an improvisational style based on New Orleans ragtime and Dixieland. Unlike ragtime, however, swing musicians worked within a framework of a printed arrangement, with free improvisations built around a theme. The modern dance orchestra, developed before Goodman's time by such leaders as Art Hickman and Paul Whiteman, was a larger group than the old Dixieland bands, with the orchestra divided into sections, often playing off each other in a "question-and-answer" format with solo or ensemble passages. Goodman's was the first predominantly white band whose style approached the relaxed swing and mellow tones of black groups like Duke Ellington's. Goodman improved on his predecessors' innovations and inspired other swing ensembles, such as those of the Dorsey brothers, Glenn Miller, and Artie Shaw. Time magazine in 1937 rightly called Goodman the "King of Swing." After an uncertain start in the slums of Chicago, Goodman had become eminently successful, earning $125,000 in 1937. As busy as he was during this period, he found time to write an autobiography, The Kingdom of Swing (1939), with music critic Irving Kolodin.
In 1935, a disappointing tour to the East Coast culminated in a sensational appearance at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, solidifying the swing era. Goodman's band was greeted by hordes of enthusiastic young people, dancing in the aisles to the Henderson arrangements the bandleader brought out. Goodman remarked, "After travelling 3,000 miles we finally found people who were up on what we were trying to do, prepared to take our music the way we wanted to play it." This blockbuster performance was followed by more triumphs in Chicago and New York. At the Urban Room of Chicago's Congress Hotel, Goodman's group was first called a "swing band." At the Chicago Rhythm Club in 1936, the Goodman Trio, consisting of Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Gene Krupa, made its first public appearance.
In 1938, another historic concert was held in Carnegie Hall, with players from the Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands performing show-stoppers such as "Don't Be That Way" and "Sing, Sing, Sing." This performance was notable both because it was the first jazz concert in the stately old hall and because the band was biracial in an era not known for its tolerance. Goodman once said that if a concert venue was opposed to racial mixing, he would not play there and would take the band elsewhere.
Goodman continued to draw huge crowds in Chicago and New York. His band was so "hot" during the mid-1930s that he replaced the popular Casa Loma Orchestra on the Camel Caravan radio show and agreed to participate in the movie The Big Broadcast of 1937. Around this time he added Lionel Hampton to the band, making Hampton famous and eventually compelling him to form a group of his own. Goodman made the cover of Billboard magazine in 1937 after a spectacular concert at the Paramount Theatre in New York. Many of his best-known works, such as "Stompin' at the Savoy," were recorded for Victor during this period. He also continued to perform in small ensembles such as the popular Goodman Quartet, a biracial group which included Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Hampton, and Gene Krupa.
By the time Goodman signed with Columbia in 1939, swing records were selling far faster than any other popular music. Goodman had great success with the recordings of the newly created Benny Goodman Sextet, with jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, who helped create exciting new pieces like "Shivers" and "Seven Come Eleven." By this time, however, many other swing bands--including those of Count Basie, the Dorsey brothers, Harry James and former Goodman band star Gene Krupa--were crowding the field. After the United States entered World War II in 1941, swing bands started a slow decline. Jukeboxes, radio, and films had already cut into the popularity of live bands. In addition, the draft took away many of the musicians, gas rationing limited the mobility of travelling bands, and ballrooms and clubs gradually lost business. While public tastes were changing and former teenage fans became young married people, Goodman resisted changing his musical style, left M.C.A. in 1944, and went on hiatus for a whole year while continuing to play with his small ensembles.
After a brief flirtation with the new bebop music practiced in the mid-1940s by new musicians like Thelonius Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, Goodman was persuaded to work on his classical music repertoire. He had first recorded with the Budapest String Quartet in 1938, and now he began to appear with major symphony orchestras as a soloist, performing works by Mozart, Brahms, Copland, Weber, Bart˘k, and others. To perfect his skills, he studied with classical clarinetist Reginald Kell. Although some critics felt that Goodman never really felt comfortable with this musical genre, audiences who packed the concert halls were surprised and delighted with his technical brilliance.
In 1950, Columbia re-released some of Goodman's old recordings, to great public acclaim. Goodman continued to put together occasional bands and ensembles for special occasions. In 1953, he attempted a much-heralded tour with trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong but was forced to leave the tour--perhaps because of both illness and a clash of egos. In 1955, The Benny Goodman Story, starring Steve Allen as Goodman, was released to mixed reviews. Although it was not an entirely accurate portrait of Goodman's life, the film did reacquaint the public with his music. A tour to the Far East in 1956 and 1957 was followed by another to Europe in 1958 in conjunction with the Brussels World's Fair. Goodman also brought the first jazz band to the Soviet Union and was well received by audiences there.
While continuing to create music in both jazz and classical formats, Goodman never acquired an interest in the new rock music becoming popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Some critics faulted him for refusing to change with the times, and younger musicians in his bands often complained when he stayed with the old standards and would not experiment with newer music. As late as the 1980s, however, he was still able to bring in large audiences whenever he performed. Heart problems forced him to slow down in the mid-1980s, but he still made occasional appearances with bands. On June 13, 1986, Goodman died of cardiac arrest.
For more than five decades Goodman was a major force in the world of popular music. Putting his own mark on the dance music of the 1920s, he was the most important figure in the development of the swing phenomenon that dominated the next two decades. Despite an irritable personality and an appearance one biographer called "about as romantic as a grocery clerk," he fascinated the public throughout the years of the Depression and World War II, earning the respect of the other major jazz musicians of his time. Although he steadfastly declined to have much to do with newer forms of jazz, he inspired others like Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, and Claude Thornhill to create the so-called "progressive jazz" of the mid-to late 1940s. His trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets also set the stage for later ensembles such as the Modern Jazz Quartet. Goodman greatly disliked most rock music and could never really break out of the swing style with which he was most comfortable. Nonetheless, his place in popular music history is assured. Goodman classics like "The One O'Clock Jump," Stealin' Apples," and "Let's Dance" are still popular among both older and younger people.
Biography Resource Center, © 2001 Gale Group