© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“You know, I don't talk much about my childhood," he said. "Many times I've been asked to talk in depth about it. But I've resisted. I don't know why. I guess there are things that I simply want to block out. Probably because I never found it all that enjoyable. Growing up poor. Living in certain parts of Chicago. I'm not a great one for remembering."
- Benny Goodman in a 1975 interview given to Ira Berkow
This piece evolved after I read the following postscript by Gary Giddins to the republishing of his essay The Mirror of Swing in Robert Gottlieb, ed., Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now. The compilation was produced in 1996 by Pantheon Books.
“*When I wrote "The Mirror of Swing," a couple of days after Benny Goodman died, I had heard many of the nasty Goodman stories making the rounds, but underestimated the depth of resentment. A few months later, John Lewis, Roberta Swann, and I produced an American Jazz Orchestra tribute to Goodman. More than two-thirds of the AJO had worked with Goodman at one time or another (an extraordinary statistic), and their recollections made the rehearsals memorably hilarious. Yet some stories were related with a naked hatred for what was described as the man's cruelty, cheapness, and vulgarity. Of course, virtually every one of them commenced with a statement of high regard for his musicianship. John Lewis, who does not traffic in gossip, mused one afternoon that throughout jazz history the most innovative and accomplished musicians on every instrument but one were black; his exception was the clarinet and Goodman.
My own limited experiences with Goodman were altogether positive. He graciously met with me in 1975, when I approached him for my own illumination, with no story or publication in mind; and he agreed immediately to lend his name and prestige to the initial board of advisers to the AJO. Still, Goodman was by all accounts a troubled and troubling man, which makes his untouchable status as a celebrity all the more remarkable. Despite the petty jealousies he exhibited and elicited, his private woes remained if not entirely private then confined to the grousing of musicians. I see no reason why they shouldn't be aired now. Yet it would be a shame if the contemporary thirst for pathographies (Joyce Carol Oates's sadly indispensable term) obfuscated Goodman's nearly impeccable public posture and the affection he inspired in the hearts of music lovers for more than half this century.” [Emphasis mine]
Benny Goodman was my introduction to Jazz. If it weren’t for his music, I might have missed an entry into the joys of Jazz and have been relegated instead to the nascent rock ‘n roll that infected so many of my contemporaries.
And although I’ve had the pleasure of making many, different stylistic journeys through the World of Jazz over the past 60 years, Benny’s music still appeals to me today in a manner that is as thrilling and exciting as the first time I heard it.
In Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism from 1919 to Now, Gary Giddins’ The Mirror of Swing essay  is preceded by one written 50 years earlier by Otis Ferguson entitled The Spirit of Jazz. At the time, Otis Ferguson was better known as one of America's finest film critics who also wrote about Jazz for The New Republic in the mid-thirties. (He was killed in World War II.) The Spirit of Jazz, with its vivid appreciation of Benny Goodman, appeared in December 1936.
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought that it would do its part in helping to ward off any obfuscation of Benny Goodman’s importance to Jazz by representing two perspectives of his significance in the form of excerpts from Ferguson and Giddins essays on these pages.
The Spirit of Jazz.
“Benny Goodman was born in what he now refers back to as the Chicago ghetto twenty-seven years ago, and about twelve years later showed up in knee pants on one of the riverboats, to play in a small jazz band with Bix Beiderbecke, dead now and immortal (Go away, boy, Bix is reported to have said. Don't mess around with the instruments). But Benny Goodman had with him a clarinet of his own, which at that time must have been as long as he was, and he had a superior sense of music; he played with the band, all right. He played around all the time in those first days, studying under good men, mastering his difficult instrument, and going to high school a little, and after that forming a band with a few boys from some sort of conservatory he attended—historic names now, Bud Freeman, Dave Tuft [Tough], Muggsy Spanier. And at the age of sixteen he went to the West Coast to join the Ben Pollack orchestra, which is as historic as the deuce. He stayed with the organization about four years, playing it out every night, working alongside such men as that force on the trombone, Mr. Jack (Big Gate) Teagarden, learning. When he left Pollack, he worked here and there in New York, in pit and stage and radio bands, recording and later getting up a band of his own.
But that is all an interim period for most of us. The general public must have heard his music at one time or another, but there was no ballyhoo to announce where it was coming from. Then, less than two years ago, he started going to town for the general public, and reports came back from the Palomar in Los Angeles that you could not get within fifty yards of the stand, and afterward you could hear over the Congress Hotel's wire in Chicago that this might have been a sedate enough ballroom before, but now Benny was in and blowing the roof off, and they were yelling from the floor.
And this winter he is to be seen in the main room at the Pennsylvania Hotel. The room as you come in is spacious and warm with the air of moderately well-to-do living, people and tables filling the space around the floor and around the raised walk on all four sides, waiters and captains bustling in a quiet efficiency of silver and steam and flourish. But the far side of the room is the main side, where the boys sit high and easy in their chairs and Benny Goodman stands in front, quiet or smiling into the spotlight or tilting his instrument to the rafters as they rise to the takeoff. Sooner or later they will lead into one of those Fletcher Henderson arrangements of an old favorite, and the whole riding motion of the orchestra will be felt even through the thick carpets and the babble of the crowd, and those with two feet under them will move out onto the floor, because the music can be heard best when it is fulfilling its original simple purpose, coming through the ears and the good living wood underneath. As they get along into the later choruses, the boys will let out a little of that flash and rhythmic power which make these separate defined instruments into something indefinable, a thumping big band with the whole room under its thumb ("Got the world in a jug"); the floor will become solid with people, even some of the bare backs and stiff shirts will jolly up noticeably and perhaps do the truck a little (dear, dear).
And then, even with the final blast of the out-chorus still echoing in the hall, everything is suddenly natural and workaday. The men put up their instruments, stretch, look about them, file off at random; Benny stands leafing through his music to give out the numbers for the next set, recognizing as many people as is expedient, later going off to sit at a table somewhere: How's everything? That's fine. Himself, he's on the wagon tonight; he drinks with glum heroism at a glass of plain water. "A Scotch here and a soda there and where the hell are you in the morning? You know?" So now he feels better in the morning. He has a heavy voice coming from well down under the ribs and pleasant with the forthright lively concision of popular speech. Someone comes up, moving with vast importance, and desires that Benny should intervene with the Selmer people. They make clarinets and it seems they've got some conspiracy of imprecise mouthpieces as against the gentleman in question: if she plays good high, then she don't play good low; likewise vice versa. Benny says come around after, he'll see; then presently out of the side of his mouth: Never was one of the things that would play right by itself, you have to nurse it. You know a clarinet? What's he think I can do about a damn clarinet, drive me crazy. Benny Goodman looks sadly at the Scotch on the table and drinks his water.
By now a slight and quiet young man has detached himself from the gossip and joshing of the musicians hanging around in the back, and drifted over to the piano—on which he has only time left to run through two numbers, if that. In a place like this, where there are too many dine-and-dancers too sure that a young man sitting at an upright piano can't be anything to hush your mouth about, Teddy Wilson is as fine an artist at starting late and quitting early as he is at his music, which is the finest. He runs through a few chords. Anyone who wants to hear it a little can move over to the piano. Some do. Just playing to amuse myself is all, Teddy says.
Well, how about the Waller tune "Squeeze Me," Teddy; you used to play that pretty nice. Oh that? he says with his fine smile. I believe I forgot that one by now. He feels through the chords with unerring musical sense and listens for the turn of phrase in some backward corner of his mind—like the mind of any good jazz musician, it is a treasury and stuffed catalogue of all the songs the rest of us have thought lovely and then presently put aside for new toys. He finishes, repeats the last phrase. Hm, I knew I didn't have that one rightly any more, he says, shaking his head. But the song is back for us, the song never died at all. He starts the first chords over, and this time his right hand is released from concentration and free on the keyboard, and to get the pattern in music of those clear single notes without hearing the phrase as it is struck off, you would have to make some such visual image as that of a common tin plate scaled up into the sun, where there would be not only the flash and motion but the startling effect of flight, the rise and banking in curves, the hesitation and slipping off, and the plunge straight down coming suddenly. Wilson in his best mood of creation is something like that.
These nights he shows to better advantage when he comes out with the quartet. There, with something to work for, he really works and is fine in many ways. Remember that he is a Negro in a white man's world, a jazz player in a world where the thirst for music is so artificial it cannot attend with comfort anything not solemnized. And then see the quiet repose and lack of cocksureness, strut, or show, the straightforward and friendly absence of assumption that comes only from a secure awareness of the dignity of a person and of his work. But even if this were the place for over solemn pronouncements, there isn't the time. The stand is filling up again, the boys sucking on reeds, limbering up valves—doing whatever it is that musicians do with a sort of happy-go-lucky boredom. There is no more than time to say, as the first pop tune starts to go up in smoke, that memory may fade and the current musical note perish, but that fifty years around the recorded music of Mr. Teddy Wilson (now craftily surprised that the band came back so soon) should have established him where he belongs — not only great in jazz but among the best lyricists of any time or form.
Swing in, swing out, the band is up again and drawing the people out like the sun in the fable. With Krupa, Reuss (guitar), and the inspired quiet Stacy (piano) laying down a thick rhythmic base, it plays on through whatever songs are the demand of the day, making most of them sound like something. This is an organization in the line of the great jazz bands — Jean Goldkette, Fletcher Henderson, McKinney's Cotton Pickers, Ellington, Kirk, et al. — a little lighter than some of these but more beautifully rehearsed and economical, and with cleaner edges. The reed section, scored as such, is more prominent than in older hot bands, giving a fuller lyric quality; but the section (five men, counting Goodman) has a hard skeleton of attack and swing that supports any relative lightness of brass. The band as a whole gets its lift from the rhythm men and the soloists as they take off; it is built from the ground rather than tailored—thanks to the talent, ideas, and leadership of one man.
The recent spreading of interest in good jazz to some extent made Benny Goodman's current music possible, and to some extent was made possible by Benny Goodman's music. He got good men working together, got some ace arrangements of all the good tunes, new and old, and played them wide open though bands weren't supposed to be successful that way. It wasn't so much that he made the people like it as that he gave them a chance to see what it was like when done well (too many hot bands have sounded like a barnyard until they got going around 2:00 A.M.). And one of the important things about his show is that he went right ahead with the same method of getting good music when it came to the old color-line bogey. He would introduce Teddy Wilson as playing with the trio, and the people would bang hands for more (they say on some nights he even had to send the rest of the band home). So hotel managers would get the point almost painlessly: and could no longer say No beforehand, on the ground that people would not stand for it. And when the trio got Lionel Hampton to play the vibraphone, the balance between black and white was even (two of each), and still no kick. Stand for it? — the people stand up from their tables just to hear it better.
They play every night — clarinet, piano, vibraphone, drums — and they make music you would not believe. No arrangements, not a false note, one finishing his solo and dropping into background support, then the other, all adding inspiration until, with some number like "Stomping at the Savoy," they get going too strong to quit—four choruses, someone starts up another, six, eight, and still someone starts—no two notes the same and no one note off the chord, the more they relax in the excitement of it the more a natural genius in preselection becomes evident and the more indeed the melodic line becomes rigorously pure. This is really composition on the spot, with the spirit of jazz strongly over all of them but the iron laws of harmony and rhythm never lost sight of; and it is a collective thing, the most beautiful example of men working together to be seen in public today.
It isn't merely hell-for-leather, either. Gene Krupa, a handsome madman over his drums, makes the rhythmic force and impetus of it visual, for his face and whole body are sensitive to each strong beat of the ensemble; and Hampton does somewhat the same for the line of melody, hanging solicitous over the vibraphone plates and exhorting them (Hmmm, Oh, Oh yah, Oh dear, hmmm). But the depth of tone and feeling is mainly invisible, for they might play their number "Exactly Like You" enough to make people cry and there would be nothing of it seen except perhaps in the lines of feeling on Benny Goodman's face, the affable smile dropped as he follows the Wilson solo flight, eyes half-closed behind his glasses. There was a special feeling among them the first morning they recorded this piece, the ghost of the blues perhaps; and when the clarinet takes up, you will hear the phrases fall as clear as rain, with a sustained glow of personal essence that starts where command of the instrument (the tension of mouth, delicate fingering, etc.) leaves off. Then Hampton sings a chorus, his vibrant hoarse voice and relaxed emphasis so appropriate to the general color; and when they take up again, the instruments blend so perfectly as to be indistinguishable, singing in unison with a sweet breadth of tone that goes beyond the present place and time to some obscure source of feeling and native belief. The term "swing"—no more definable in words than the term "poetry"—is defined at its best in this piece, where the actual beats are lost sight of in the main effect, so that the inexorable and brute lift of the time signature as carried in Krupa's great drum seems fused in the harmony and melodic line of the song. And you may say of the excitement this thing starts in the blood only that these four men are quite simple and wonderful together, that they are truly swinging.
The quartet is a beautiful thing all through, really a labor of creative love, but it cannot last forever, and as the band starts again, you realize that even in jazz there are several kinds of musical appreciation. For if they'll agree to put on the "Bugle Call Rag" before the end of the evening, I'll be willing to say there's nothing finer. There is some hidden lift to this old band standby, with its twenty quaint notes from the "Assembly" call dropping the barrier to a straight-out progression of simple chords—and they are off, riding it with collective assurance and fine spirit, the men in their sections, the sections balancing, the soloists dropping back with care for the total effect. The guests are presently banked in a half-moon around the stand, unable to be still through it or move away either; and as it builds to the final solid chords, Krupa becoming a man of subtle thunder and Benny lacing in phrases, the air is full of brass and of rhythms you can almost lean on. The music seems more than audible, rising and coming forward from the stand in banks of colors and shifting masses—not only the clangor in the ears but a visual picture of the intricate fitted spans, the breathless height and spring of a steel-bridge structure. And if you leave at the end, before the "Good-Bye" signature, you will seem to hear this great rattling march of the hobos through the taxis, lights, and people, ringing under the low sky over Manhattan as if it were a strange high thing after all (which it is) and as if it came from the American ground under these buildings, roads, and motorcars (which it did). And if you leave the band and quartet and piano of the Goodman show and still are no more than slightly amused, you may be sure that in the smug absence of your attention a native true spirit of music has been and gone, leaving a message for your grandchildren to study through their patient glasses.
And exactly fifty years later, the brilliant and omnipresent critic Gary Giddins sums up Goodman on the occasion of his death. From Faces in the Crowd (1992).
The Mirror of Swing
“While memories are fresh, it won't do to consider Benny Goodman, who died in his sleep on the afternoon of June 13, 1986, at 77, exclusively as a jazz musician. The emotions conjured by his name are unique to those few who transcend the specifics of talent and come to represent an era. If he wasn't the king of a musical idiom called swing, he was surely king of the Swing Era, an agreeable focus for Yankee pride at a time when music counted not only for art, entertainment, and sedative, but as a balm with which to weather terrible storms. Goodman will be remembered for his contributions to jazz, which are manifold, and he occupies an impressive historical niche as the first musician to enjoy hugely successful careers in three discrete fields (jazz, pop, and classical). Yet in his time Goodman was also a blessed and seemingly eternal presence in media culture who, through an unofficial contract between artist and public, reflected the nation's new vision of itself in the arts — earthy, democratic, and homegrown, and at the same time refined, virtuosic, and international.
The enormous sense of loss that attended his death was animated in part by the realization that an age had passed, and not just a musical one. (Other Swing Era titans are still with us, including the great progenitor Benny Carter and the great crooner Frank Sinatra, who inadvertently helped supplant big bands in the public affection.) Goodman came to prominence when America was making major discoveries about the nature of its cultural life, and proved an exemplary figure for national preening. He was in all important respects distinctively American, purveying an undeniably American music with at least the tentative approval of academics and Europhile upper crust, into whose circles he married. His connections put him in Carnegie Hall (a big deal in 1938) five years before Duke Ellington. The public took comfort in him, too. He was white, but not too white, which is to say Jewish, but not too Jewish; and serious, but not too serious, which is to say lighthearted, but sober. At the height of the Depression, he had perfect credentials for entertaining a suffering, guilt-ridden nation. Goodman was one of the 12 siblings born to penniless Russian immigrants in Chicago. He received his first clarinet at 10, in 1919, and had a union card three years later.
Everyone knows this story, or a version of it. As the favorite fable of the 1930s, it was internalized by Depression-bred children who went on to dramatize it for stage, screen, and radio countless times into the late 1950s, and occasionally ever since. It's told of Berlin, Gershwin, and Jolson, and with appropriate variations in ethnicity, of Armstrong, Crosby, Sinatra, Handy, Jim Thorpe, and Presley. Until Vietnam and the civil rights era, it was standard grammar school indoctrination, combining the American dream with melting pot diversity, cheerful tolerance, and a ready willingness to brave new frontiers. If nations were judged by the lies they told about themselves, this one just might guarantee salvation. Small wonder, then, that when an individual appears worthy of the crown, we bow our heads in gratitude. With few exceptions, however, only performing artists and athletes are able to pull this particular sword from the stone.
Few Americans have handled the role of cultural icon as well as Goodman. For more than 50 years, he endured as one of the nation's favorite images of itself. Several weeks before his death, a few musicians were sitting around trading anecdotes about him, causing one to remark, "At any given time somebody somewhere is telling a Benny Goodman story." Those stories are rarely kind, usually having to do with his legendary cheapness, absentmindedness, mandarin discipline, rudeness to musicians, and various eccentricities. But they never dented his media image, nor were they meant to. Americans usually come to resent the entertainers they've deified, yet Goodman remained virtually unblemished. Any real skeletons that may have resided in his closet rattled in peace. It isn't hard to understand why. Everyone could feel good about Goodman. You could send him anywhere, from Albert Hall to Moscow, and rest assured that he would comport himself with quiet dignity and spread Americanism in a manner the world would take to heart. Had he worn striped pants and a top hat, he could not more naturally have embodied everything America wanted to believe about its promise of tolerance and opportunity — those democratic underpinnings insufficiently embraced at home but glamorized for export to the rest of the world. …
Last summer , as an unbilled performer at a tribute to John Hammond, he provided the highlight of the Kool Jazz Festival. It was anything but a middle-aged jazz audience that cheered him on when he came out and played "Lady Be Good" with George Benson, and then — seated, both legs levitating — layered climax after climax on "Indiana." Up to that point, the young white-blues crowd had greeted every jazz performer with impatient demands for the man of the hour, blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. When Goodman finished, that same crowd was on its feet.
When my review of that concert appeared, Goodman's assistant told me the Old Man was pleased and surprised by it, since he'd gotten it into his head that I considered him outmoded. I have no idea why. How could anyone think that? Goodman kept his faith until the end. Ultimately, he mirrored not only a chapter in America's cultural history, but the spirit at the core of a music that can only be enfeebled when nostalgia gets between musician and audience.
In 1975, I visited Goodman at his East Side apartment. He had been practicing Gounod's Petite Symphony when I arrived, and I asked him if he preferred improvising or playing written music. "Gee," he said, "I enjoy both. Listening to music is emotional. Sometimes you like something a lot, and another time you hate it. The whole goddam thing about jazz is emotional. I like to feel the excitement. If it doesn't come out as a wild endeavor — wild with restraint — it doesn't have it." Goodman had it in 1926, and he had it 60 years later.*”