I’ve written about Benny Goodman before, at least in passing, and have even featured him prominently in some articles. (Including the one in which I wondered if he was my doppelganger.) However, I thought it was time to write in more detail about an event connected to him that had a profound effect on my musical evolution — even though it occurred way before I was born. It was his 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.
I think I first became aware of it when watching 1955’s Benny Goodman Story, in which a stiff Steve Allen played Benny. (Come to think of it, Benny wasn’t exactly Mr. Warmth himself, so maybe Allen was just, you know, acting.) When I saw that movie, I pretty much bought the whole Hollywood version of how the concert occurred, and even though you have to take it with the proverbial grain of salt, they actually weren’t that far off. Not only did I like the movie, but I also loved the music and later I bought the double album. Later still I replaced it with the double CD, and it’s always been one of my favorites.
When the idea of a jazz concert in Carnegie Hall first came up in late 1937, it actually wasn’t that far-fetched because it had already been done. Paul Whiteman, the 1920’s bandleader known as the “King Of Jazz” (even though his brand of music was very tame) had already performed in Carnegie Hall. However, it was time for the swing musicians of the 1930’s to claim their legitimacy, and who better than Benny, the “King Of Swing”?
Benny had an enormously popular band already, and although dance bands originally existed just to provide music for dancing, Benny and others had already proven that they were also popular just for listening, so the time seemed ripe for a sit-down concert. As the January 1938 date approached, guest artists were lined up and added to Benny’s regulars until it was truly an all-star group. Not only did it include regulars such as Gene Krupa, Harry James, Lionel Hampton, Jess Stacy and Teddy Wilson, but also the talents of Count Basie, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, and Cootie Williams. Even Duke Ellington was offered a spot, but respectfully turned it down, probably already planning his own, later, appearance at the hall.
The box office sold out, and it’s said that Benny himself had to deal with a scalper to get tickets for his family — probably a press agent’s story, but there is no doubt the place was packed and seats were even added on one side of the stage. The concert itself was kind of a mixed bag, with a program that was stretched in a lot of different directions, but the talent and determination of the musicians was first class. Here’s a prime example, a song that was originally written to commemorate a Life magazine story about the band. It’s called “Life Goes To A Party”, and features extensive solos by Harry James on trumpet and Babe Russin on sax.
There are a number of albums available that were made from the original recordings of the concert. The sound quality – even with all possible modern tweaking – is nothing like we’re used to these days, but that’s not surprising. The original recording was made with one microphone suspended in mid-air over the center of the orchestra, and was said to have languished in Benny’s closet for years.
Benny has always been appreciated by jazz purists for his talent, but criticized for going after popularity rather than taking risks. However, this was one time that he stuck his neck out and it paid off for him. The concert was a landmark event and created a tremendous amount of attention for Benny and for swing music in general. It’s a special moment in music history and it always returns to my thoughts when I recall how I first became hooked on swing music.