Back in the day (like, in the 1920s) when the only music of any consequence was classical and gospel, there were two genres that started to sow and take root. The unheralded makings of the blues and jazz were undergoing a birth of sorts. Blues kept to the underground, while jazz was starting to get noticed. The big band sound (now referred to as “swing”) was popping up everywhere, and dance clubs thrived on the mellifluous sounds of brass and woodwinds that customers could dance to. Nearly anyone who wanted to start a band had one, and since dance clubs were huge back then, there was usually someplace for anybody to play. In 1921, at the tender age of 12, one Benny Goodman took hold of a clarinet, and two years later, he dropped out of high school to be (gasp!) a musician.
Two years later, Goodman joined his first band, fronted by Ben Pollack, and just over a year later, he had his first acetate marker. (Acetate was what records were made from back then, before the advent of vinyl.) For the next eight years, Goodman alternated between being a band member and fronting his own small bands. And when he decided to permanently lead his own merry band of musicians in 1934, he recorded and had his first hit with “Moonglow”. Four decades later, Goodman made his mark in jazz… err, swing history. As THE pioneer of the swing era, he led such luminaries as Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Bunny Berigan, etc., into the spotlight. But it was Goodman that laid the foundation for the dance craze of the ’30s and ’40s. Much of his high points are featured in the double-disc set, correctly titled The Essential Benny Goodman.
The 40 songs on The Essential are broken down into quadratic themes: Benny’s Big Band Arrangers; Benny Visits Tin Pan Alley; Benny’s Small Groups; and Benny Live. Though the first category is the most popular, the other three are nothing to shake a (clarinet) stick at. Of course, those who are into the swing of that era would know the two key Goodman classics: Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp” and “Sing, Sing, Sing”, a Louis Prima tune that featured the powerful drumming of a young Gene Krupa. (Goodman was more of an arranger than a writer; he liked reworking other artist’s songs.) These, as well as many others, were built for the wooden dance floors of yore. Propulsive, driving beats, along with memorable melodies, made Goodman’s interpretations… well, SWING!
(As an aside, when Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park” came out, everyone was shocked that a 7:20 song would be played in its entirety on the radio. In fact, only classical or live jazz pieces tended to be lengthy by nature. So it’s rather interesting that two studio tracks of Goodman — “Sing, Sing, Sing” and “Oh! Baby” — are each over eight minutes long, and were played heavily on the radio.)
The “Big Band Arrangers” section also includes “Let’s Dance”, “Bugle Call Rag” and “When Buddha Smiles”. The “Tin Pan Alley” 10-spot are mostly vocalized, with Martha Tilton and Helen Forrest featured, as well as a name you might recognize: Peggy Lee, who sings on the last two tracks of this grouping: Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” and Ira & George Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?” (No, this isn’t Ace, featuring Paul Carrack.)
The second disc has a lot of gems itself. The “Small Groups” package features the aforementioned “Moonglow, with Teddy Wilson on piano, Krupa on drums, and an up-and-coming Lionel Hampton on vibraphone. The quartet also shines on “Running Wild” and “The Man I Love”. The immortal pianist Fletcher Henderson, along with jazz electric guitarist Charlie Christian, gives “Flyin’ Home” wings. But with all that, it’s the “Live” section that shows just how clever and tight Goodman was as a musician. Standouts here include “Sunny Disposition”, “Ridin’ High”, “Body and Soul”, “Life Goes to a Party”, and the closer, “Stealin’ Apples”.
Like all master bandleaders, Goodman knew when to allow his musicians their chance to shine, and when to make sure the spotlight was on himself. And when the light hit Goodman, he played brilliantly. There was never a note wasted, nor nuance unused. All that practice time since he hit puberty paid off in a big way.
For those who want to venture into the archives of the “swing” genre during the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, you could not find a better place to start than with Benny Goodman. He rooted in swing, and all the other stars of that time emanated from his talent and popularity. Of course, you don’t want to ignore Miller and Shaw (and to a lesser extent, Berigan), but just remember before you could get (ahem) in the mood, you had to sing… sing… sing. The Essential Benny Goodman is a timeless trip back in time, as well as a good starting point to learn about Goodman’s career.