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Benny Goodman Biography

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Benny Goodman, born Ben? Guttman, (May 30, 1909 – June 13, 1986) was an American jazz musician, known as "King of Swing", "Patriarch of the Clarinet", "The Professor", and "Swing's Senior Statesman".

Goodman was born in Chicago, the son of poor Jewish immigrants from Hungary who lived in the Maxwell Street neighborhood. He learned to play clarinet in a Hull House-run band. He became a strong player at an early age and began professionally in bands while still a child.

His early influences were New Orleans jazz clarinetists in Chicago, notably Johnny Dodds, Leon Roppolo, and Jimmy Noone.

At the age of 16, Goodman joined one of Chicago's top bands, the Ben Pollack Orchestra, with which he made his first recordings in 1926. He made his first record under his own name two years later.

Goodman's father, David, was a working-class immigrant about whom Benny said (interview, 'Downbeat', Feb 8, 1956); "...Pop worked in the stockyards, shovelling lard in its unrefined state. He had those boots, and he'd come home at the end of the day exhausted, stinking to high heaven, and when he walked in it made me sick. I couldn't stand it. I couldn't stand the idea of Pop every day standing in that stuff, shoveling it around".

David Goodman was killed in a traffic accident shortly after Benny joined the Pollack band and had urged his father to retire, now that he (Benny) and his brother (Harry) were doing well as professional musicians. According to James Lincoln Collier ("Benny Goodman and the Swing Era", Oxford University Press 1989): "Pop looked Benny in the eye and said, 'Benny, you take care of yourself, I'll take care of myself.' "

Collier continued: "It was an unhappy choice. Not long afterwards, as he was stepping down from a street car — according to one story — he was struck by a car. He never regained consciousness and died in the hospital the next day. It was a bitter blow to the family, and it haunted Benny to the end that his beloved father had not lived to see the enormous success he, and through him some of the others, made of themselves. It is, truly, a sad story. The years that the immigrant David Goodman had sweated in the stockyards and the garment lofts had paid off in a way he could never have possibly imagined, and he never got that reward."

Goodman left for New York City and became a successful session musician during the late 1920s and early 1930s. He made a reputation as a solid player who was prepared and reliable. He played with the nationally known bands of Red Nichols, Isham Jones, and Ted Lewis before forming his own band in 1932. In 1934 he auditioned for the NBC "Let's Dance" radio program. Since he needed new charts every week for the show, his agent John Hammond suggested that he purchase some Jazz charts from Fletcher Henderson, who had New York's most popular African-American band in the 1920s and early 1930s.

The combination of the Henderson charts, his solid clarinet playing, and his well rehearsed band made him a rising star in the mid-1930s. In early 1935, Goodman and his band were one of three bands featured on "Let's Dance", a well regarded radio show that featured various styles of dance music. His radio broadcasts from New York had been too late to attract a large audience on the East Coast, but had an avid following in California, and a wildly enthusiastic crowd for the first time greeted Goodman. He and his band were to remain on the show until May of that year when a strike forced the cancellation of the radio show. With nothing else to do, the band set out on a tour of America. However, at a number of engagements the band received a hostile reception, as many in the audiences expected smoother, sweeter jazz as opposed to the "hot" style that Goodman's band was accustomed to playing. By August of 1935, Goodman found himself with a band that was nearly broke, disillusioned and ready to quit. It was at this moment that everything for the band and jazz changed.

Many suggest that Goodman achieved the same success with jazz and swing that Elvis Presley did for rock and roll. Both helped bring black music to a young, white audience. It is true that many of Goodman's arrangements had been played for years before by Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra. While Goodman publicly acknowledged his debt to Henderson, many young white swing fans had never heard Henderson's band. While some consider Goodman a jazz innovator, others maintain his main strength was his perfectionism and drive. Goodman was a virtuosic clarinetist and arguably the most technically proficient jazz clarinetist of all time. Goodman was one of the most important musicians of the Twentieth Century in that he was the major catalyst for the big band era. The Lycos Music website says of Goodman:

Goodman is also responsible for a significant step in racial integration in America. In the early 1930s, black and white jazz musicians could not play together in most clubs or concerts. In the Southern states, racial segregation was enforced by the Jim Crow laws. Benny Goodman broke with tradition by hiring Teddy Wilson to play with him and drummer Gene Krupa in the Benny Goodman Trio. In 1936, he added Lionel Hampton on vibes to form the Benny Goodman Quartet; in 1940 he added pioneering jazz guitarist Charlie Christian to his band and small ensembles, who played with him until his untimely death from tuberculosis less than two years later. Goodman's fame was great enough that his band had no financial need to tour in the southern states, where his lineup would have been subject to arrest. The integration of popular music happened 10 years before Jackie Robinson entered Major League Baseball.

Benny met Alice Hammond Duckworth, the sister of his friend John H. Hammond. After dating for about three months they got married on March 14, 1942. They had two daughters: Benjie and Rachel. Both studied music to some degree, though neither became the musical prodigy Goodman was.

Depending on who you talk to, Goodman was a demanding taskmaster, or an arrogant martinet. Many musicians spoke of "The Ray", Goodman's trademark glare that he bestowed on a musician who failed to perform to his demanding standards.

Musicians also told stories of Goodman's notorious cheapness, continuing to pinch pennies as he had in his poverty stricken youth long after he had attained fame and fortune. He reportedly would skip out on the bill in restaurants, and was stingy with sidemen when re-forming one of his bands for a revival tour, forcing him often to employ inferior players in later years compared to what might have been available to him if he had opened his wallet a little more.

At the same time, there are reports that he privately funded several college educations and was sometimes very generous, though always secretly. When a friend asked him why one time, he reportedly said, "If word got out what I did, everyone would come to me with their hand out."

Goodman continued to play on records and in small groups. Aside from a collaboration with George Benson in the 1980s, he was content to play in the swing style he was most known for. He did however practice and perform classical music clarinet pieces and also commissioned some pieces for the clarinet. Periodically he would organize a new band and play a Jazz festival or go on an international tour. He continued to play the clarinet until his death in New York City in 1986 at the age of 77.

A longtime resident of Pound Ridge, New York, Benny Goodman is interred in the Long Ridge Cemetery, Stamford, Connecticut.
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