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Benny Goodman: Forever The King Of Swing
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Benny Goodman: Forever The King Of Swing


A hundred years ago today in Chicago, a baby was born into poverty. He would go on to become a virtuoso clarinetist and the poster boy for the Swing Era. Of course his name was Benny Goodman. His innovations changed American music. Tom Vitale has this appreciation of the man known as the King of Swing.

TOM VITALE: By the start of World War II, Benny Goodman was an international celebrity. On a V-Disc created for the troops overseas, he remembered one of the moments that got him there.

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Mr. BENNY GOODMAN (Musician): We gave the first swing concert that was ever heard in Carnegie, and I can tell you, it was a real thrill for me.

Unidentified Man: Yes, and I can vouch for the fact that, from the response you got, a lot of the long-hairs in the audience got a big kick out of hearing the music you dished out to them.

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VITALE: On the evening of January 16, 1938, Benny Goodman took the first jazz band to the stage of Carnegie Hall.

Mr. PHIL SCHAAP (Jazz Historian): Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall in 1938 takes a stand that jazz, however folk-rooted, can be high art and can make it just as a listening concern.

VITALE: Jazz historian Phil Schaap produced the 1999 reissue of Goodman's Carnegie Hall Concert. Up to that point, swing music was for dances and nightclubs. Schaap says the performance at America's most prestigious music venue was a courageous step on Goodman's part.

Mr. SCHAAP: 'Cause he was risking some very bad reviews, since music critics at the time were not jazz people. You didn't have a jazz critic at a publication. You had a music critic who probably was on the record saying jazz was junk.

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VITALE: Critics and most importantly audience members were bowled over. The music was sophisticated, up-tempo hot jazz arrangements written by Fletcher Henderson. The concert was the culmination of a musical steamroller that began three years earlier at the Palomar Ballroom in Hollywood, when Goodman premiered this sound.

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VITALE: The dancers went wild. Other bands copied Goodman, and the Swing Era was born.

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Ms. ANAT COHEN (Clarinetist): I wish I could just be there at that time and just get up and dance, and jitterbug with everybody else.

VITALE: Israeli-born clarinetist Anat Cohen is transcribing Benny Goodman solos in her Waverly Place apartment, preparing to celebrate his centennial at the Village Vanguard.

Ms. COHEN: Swing is just so exciting. And he really goes all the way from top to bottom and back up on the whole clarinet. It's hip and it's traditional. It's Benny.

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VITALE: Cohen says what's special for her about Benny Goodman's clarinet playing — aside from being virtuosic and swinging — is its human quality.

Ms. COHEN: So when you listen to him playing, you hear a personality. It's not just clarinet playing. It's someone that is just expressing everything they can with a clarinet.

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Unidentified Man: Benny, how's about your life history in one paragraph.

Mr. GOODMAN: Well, that's a tough one. I was born in Chicago, B.C. - before (unintelligible) corporal - and I went to school there. When I was a kid, I played in a lot of sweet bands around town.

VITALE: Sweet is how they described the music at the time. Goodman's life was anything but. He was born Benjamin David Goodman in Chicago on May 30, 1909, to poor Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Benny was the ninth of 12 children. His father worked menial jobs, including shoveling lard at the Chicago stockyards. By the time Benny was 14, he was able to help support his family playing music.

VITALE: Dan Morgenstern is author of "Living with Jazz."

Mr. DAN MORGENSTERN (Author):When they were making a little money, they bought their father a newsstand. And then one day he was crossing the street and there was a hit-and-run driver who killed him. And that was one huge blow to Benny, 'cause Benny was very close to his father.

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VITALE: Benny Goodman went on to have a huge impact on American culture beyond music. In 1936, he hired Teddy Wilson to play piano in his trio. It's was the first time an African-American musician appeared onstage with a white band.

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VITALE: In 1979, Wilson was interviewed for the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies by fellow musician Milt Hinton. The pianist recalled that, unlike Jackie Robinson's experience in baseball 11 years later, the integration of the Goodman band met with almost universal acceptance.

Mr. TEDDY WILSON (Musician): As a matter of fact, it was an asset, the racial mixing. The interest in the United States was just tremendous. And the public was so for the thing that not one negative voice in any audience did we ever heard — just tremendous enthusiasm. All the jazz fans were like they were just hungry for this sort of thing.

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VITALE: Later that same year, Goodman added electric vibraphonist Lionel Hampton to the mix, and in 1939 the Goodman band gave listeners another surprise: electric guitar played by another African-American, Charlie Christian.

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VITALE: Amazingly, every innovation worked. For the second half of the 1930s, Benny Goodman was the most popular instrumentalist in jazz, at a time when jazz was the most popular music in America. Clarinetist Anat Cohen calls Goodman's career an inspiration.

Ms. COHEN: I think it's incredible. I think what he achieved — the amount of admiration he got from young people to older people, it was just, we're crazy for him. His music was exciting. And that's something that maybe at some point it was a little bit forgotten — how jazz can really be exciting.

VITALE: Benny Goodman died in 1986 at the age of 77. When the Swing Era ended, Goodman experimented with bebop and studied classical clarinet, even commissioning new work from Bela Bartok and Aaron Copland. But Benny Goodman will always be best remembered as The King of Swing.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: I love that dramatic pause. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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