Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman was a jazz musician and composer that lived between 1909 and 1986. He was born and raised in the lovely city of Chicago in the fine state of Illinois. Benny was the son of working class Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father was a tailor in Russia but in the states the best he could manage was a job at a lard processing plant at the ship yard, probably one of the lowest positions available. Despite the hard work Benny’s dad managed to support his twelve children and even send some of them to music school. It was in music school that Benny excelled on the clarinet. He did so well that eventually was sent on for additional one on one instruction with a classical clarinetist. Benny’s focus wasn’t classical music though he was enamored with the emerging jazz scene that was particularly thriving in Chicago. By 1926 at the age of seventeen Benny was in one of the top swing big bands of Chicago and his first records were pressed that same year.

Benny Goodman was kind of to jazz what Elvis was to rock n’ roll. Benny certainly wasn’t jazz’s founder but he was the right guy at the right time to bring jazz to the masses. It has been said that a series of concerts Goodman’s band played in 1935 kicked off the swing era and opened the floodgates for many acts to follow in the years and decades to come. Through the course of his career Benny received almost endless praise and for good reason. He was a master at his instrument, even today few have reached his level of playing jazz on the clarinet. He was a driven band leader that demanded perfection from his players, to his detriment on some occasions. There are stories of Benny not being happy with how one of his guys were playing and making them sit in the back of the stage behind everyone else as punishment. While this strict discipline may have made being in his band a tough experience it ensured Benny Goodman fans a consistently high quality show. Benny was also one of the first headliners to have a racially integrated band. Back in the twenties and thirties the Jim Crow laws were still in full effect down south and seeing a band, regardless of the genre, with both back and white members was unheard of, north or south. Benny got around the Jim Crow laws by simply not playing down south. A simple approach to a potentially complicated issue.

Benny Goodman’s music embodies a exciting time in American culture, the twenties and thirties when things were changing fast. Social change, government change, global change, things were shifting and in my mind I can use Benny Goodman’s jazz for that backdrop. It is just pure swinging jazz, everything to come after was built off of it. Sure he got his sound from predecessors and not all the of his songs are originals but he was the first to take this music, wrap it up and deliver it in such a tidy fashion. There are dozens if not hundreds of compilations containing his various recordings. I try to stick to the comps created by his primary labels, RCA and Columbia but I doubt there’s a flop in the bunch.

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