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Benny Goodman: From The Inside

By Marian McPartland

About 27 years have gone by since they danced in the aisles to the music of Benny Goodman and his band at the Paramount Theater in New York City. In April 1937, the New Yorker ran a profile on “one Benny Goodman.” The writer commented in wonderment on “the roar of hand clapping, whistling, stamping, and ardent hallooing” that greeted the band at the Paramount. This reception was undoubtedly one of the first of many high points in Benny’s career, and the one that finally and irrevocably established the great reputation he still retains.

Last November I played with Benny at New York’s Philharmonic Hall, and the reception he received from the packed house was not too different from the furor at the Paramount all those years ago. A shade more sedate, certainly … no dancing in the aisles … but he received a standing ovation, shouts of “bravo,” and a sustained roar of applause and whistles that must have gladdened his heart. Quite possibly there were many in the audience that night who had been among the stamping, shouting youngsters who helped cheer him at the Paramount.

Nostalgia was in the air, and the majority of the audience was, as George Avakian said, “a gleamingly pink, paunchy crowd.” If Benny ever doubted he could still captivate an audience in the old way, that night, and the many that followed on our subsequent cross-country tour, should have dispelled any doubt.

Benny Goodman is still a great name—a legend—and when he puts a band together and goes out on a concert tour, as he does two or three times a year, he evokes much of the same enthusiasm that he has been generating for the last 30 years. It is, however, to great extent, a nostalgic feeling that pervades the atmosphere. It’s nostalgia mixed with admiration that the then-skinny, dark-haired, young man with glasses—now a trim 55 and as much a master of his instrument as ever—generates. There are still flashes of sheer inspiration; and the tone, the technique, the masterly, flawless, flowing style is unchanged. Benny represents an era, a way of life, and many who come to hear him relive youth for a brief spell as they listen to the familiar mellow sound of his clarinet, the well-known arrangements with hardly a note changed.

That hardly a note is changed is one cause of complaint among some of the musicians who have worked with him in recent years. Tempers flare when new arrangements are discarded in favor of the tried and true—and to some, outdated—numbers. To these men, the Goodman legend is more a “mystique,” a sort of what-makes-Benny-run?, that is a never-ending source of discussion, which is always carried on with that enthusiasm one reserves for a subject that never lacks interest or curiosity.

Every time Benny takes out a band, there’s a fresh flood of stories and anecdotes—some humorous, some tinged with bitterness and anger, many that are probably exaggerated, but all with the unmistakable stamp of this paradoxical man who has confounded, infuriated, snubbed, irritated, thrilled, excited, amused, angered and enchanted more people than one shake a (licorice) stick at.

Now that I am an ex-Benny Goodman sideman (or, rather, sidewoman), I see that it is like being in some special order or fraternity, an in-group. We smile at each other with understanding; we listen avidly to each other’s stories of Benny’s funny little ways; we compare notes, and those of us to whom he may have been unusually caustic, inconsiderate or thoughtless can release any left-over resentment in laughter—or sympathy for someone else’s experiences. Quite often, though certainly not always, there’s an undercurrent of affection and admiration for him running through these stores, but it is mixed with the unholy glee that some musicians obviously feel when recalling and relating their adventures on the road with him.

There seems to be a general air of incredulity regarding B.G. Why does he do the things he does? And what exactly does he do or say that makes some musicians want to hurl their instruments to the floor and stomp out furiously? In a way, it’s like Chinese water torture—it doesn’t hurt, but it drives you crazy! Benny is as many-faceted as a 10-carat diamond, and, to some, he appears as cold and hard.

It has been said that at times he doesn’t show respect for the musicians who work for him, that he treats them like high-schoolers.

Teddy Wilson, who has played with Benny on and off for 30 years, sums it up with, “He doesn’t know how to explain what he wants. He acts dissatisfied, yet can’t put into words what he’d like to hear. He just knows that whatever they are doing—he doesn’t want that.”

What does Benny really want in a musician? It’s difficult to know because he never says directly. His suggestions are rather oblique. He’ll make an indirect reference to a chord change, emphasize a certain phrasing, give a quizzical look, show sudden amusement at something you don’t feel is funny. (I found his famous “ray” to be a sort of stony stare.) These, though seemingly unimportant, are, I believe, some of the things that unnerve those who play with him.

Why has Benny used this approach when a more relaxed attitude would get so much more from his musicians? The average musician is eager to play his best, and given this opportunity and a comfortable climate in which to flourish and grow, he’ll produce the best music of which he is capable. But in the rarefied atmosphere of a Goodman rehearsal, so often charged with tension, it’s enough to make the strongest ego wither from want of nourishment. Or else you rebel! I wonder if Benny realizes just how much these things are discussed, and if he does, whether he considers them important?

His general attitude to my queries was one of polite tolerance. He was rather guarded, evincing a sort of quiet, offhanded amusement that I should concern myself with such things. I felt that he considered any discussion of the music business—with me, at any rate—something to be avoided at all costs. But he stated definitely that he considers any discussion of his fellow musicians somewhat unethical. (Come to think of it, I never have heard him really put down anyone behind his back, except in the mildest possible way.) Not all his fellow musicians share this reticence, however.

“In 1935, I was in the front row at the Texas Centennial to hear the band,” Jimmy Giuffre said. “Harry James was in it, Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. I was in high school at the time, and this occasion was one of the most important influences in starting me on my musical career. At that time, I could do nothing but admire Benny’s playing—the great drive and projection, the fluidity, strong technical fluency and feeling. He’s had more influence on more musicians that anyone else that I can think of. Practically all clarinetists have fallen in behind him. They followed his lead, and it was a good lead.

“He’s tried to open up his recent groups to new trends but usually winds up by going back to his old way of doing things. I wrote an arrangement for him once when he had that bop band with Buddy Greco. It was called “Pretty Butterfly,” but he never used it. Why didn’t he use it? Well, if you applied the word ‘why’ to Benny Goodman, you would be in trouble. He throws curves regularly to most people. As an older musician, I think he fears a new era in music that is leaving him behind, so he tries it all for size, and if it doesn’t happen to fit, he discards it and goes back to his old familiar style. What he’s doing now isn’t really interesting to me anymore because it’s the same approach he’s used for 30 years. Now it’s the expected; then it was an innovation. That band he had in 1935 hasn’t ever been topped—Benny really knows how to make a band swing—he had good guys, but it was his know-how that made the thing so great.

“But I can’t really blame Benny for not going any other route; he picks up the horn, and that’s the way he plays. Now, his playing of symphony music—the way it sounds is that instead of playing the music on a personal basis, he tries to be a legitimate clarinet player with a legitimate sound rather than being Benny Goodman. I feel that he assumes the classical player’s role, whereas he should still be himself, because if anyone has an identity, Benny Goodman has. I feel that jazz music has an identity which is difficult to define; it’s a dialect in the player, an accent. I don’t know if Benny is trying to prove something to himself by playing classical music in this legitimate style, but, to me, it just doesn’t come off. I don’t mean that it’s bad playing—he’s just not in his element, not himself.”

Benny’s long-time friend and great admirer, composer Morton Gould, takes a somewhat different viewpoint:

“It’s impossible to be objective about somebody you feel so strongly about. We would be less than human if we were machinelike in our appraisal. I think that Benny is a first-rate artist; I also feel that too often he is just taken for granted. To me, he has the qualities of a truly great artist—consistent musical integrity. He is very demanding of others, and of himself, and though at times he may be seemingly critical of another person, in my close, intimate contact with him, I have never heard him say anything derogatory, mean, or vicious about another person. He is violently super-critical of himself. Perhaps this is why he finds it so hard to find the right people to work with him.

“Benny, with all his worldwide success and acclaim, is actually a very shy person. He wants to be left alone. Basically, he’s a simple man, with no ostentation—very honest. He has none of the superficial ornamentation that sometimes goes with the public image of a famous personality. He always has his feet on the ground. The legend is that he is unapproachable. Well, basically, he is an introspective person, and, to me, it’s symbolic that a man who has lived though and been a part of so much jazz history as he has could have come away unscathed by the more lurid aspects of the business.

“To sum up my feelings about Benny the man, I feel that he is a very warm and compassionate human being, and I have a tremendous admiration for him. There still is a kind of vitality, virtuosity and imagination in his music. Maybe he’s not in vogue just now with the young set, but, nevertheless, his facility and command of the instrument are just as great as they ever were. All you have to do is listen to other clarinetists—and I mean beyond jazz—I mean that as a clarinetist, not as a jazz artist, he is a fabulous performer. I’ve heard him play and do things on the highest level of musical art.

“Why should a man like Benny Goodman be expected to become far out or be whatever is currently fashionable? All these developments in music are exciting. Popular music, by its very nature, has to change, but somehow one doesn’t expect an Elman or a Heifetz to change his style. I think it’s a little unfair to expect one generation to continually remake itself in the image of the generation that comes after it. It’s not in the cards.”

Pianist John Bunch, who was with Benny on the 1962 State Department tour of Russia and who also was in the group with which I played, seems to have insight into some of Benny’s other aspects. “Benny always seems happier with a small group, but really he’s the most complicated person I’ve ever met, as far as trying to explain him to anyone, or to myself,” John said. “I’m sort of proud that I’ve been able to get along with him so well, personally and musically. I have played seven tours with him. The first one was in 1957, and the more I think about it … wow! … the more I wonder how I’ve managed to stay on such good terms with him.

“When we were on that Russian thing, Benny played some of my arrangements, and I wrote a couple of tunes which he played and recorded. … A lot of people who haven’t had any experience of how he acts get pretty shook up, but I was not so disappointed—hell, I expected it! Knowing him, I know it doesn’t take much to set him off, and he really was under a lot of pressure in Russia.

“But it’s amazing how he seems to have changed since then. He’s more relaxed, remembers everybody’s name and is generally easier to get along with. I don’t agree with a lot of the people who put him down. When he’s really playing—forget about it, he’ll scare you to death! There’s a good reason for his staying on top all these years. It’s because he can play his head off, and he’s had great bands.

“Anybody his age with his endurance is really incredible. He’ll rehearse for hours, and we’ll all be getting tired, but he’ll just be ready to play! One night he came down to the Half Note and sat in with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, and he cooked everybody right off the stand. He must have taken 10 to 15 choruses on every tune. We’re all a bit younger than he is, but we were exhausted when he got through, and there he was, fresh as a daisy, and ready to play some more!

“Anybody that says he can’t play—well, they just aren’t around when he is playing. He practices two or three hours a day, and when we were rehearsing [for last fall’s tour, which was half jazz and half classical], he would play for three hours with the Berkshire String Quartet first—and then start in on the jazz group and rehearse for about five hours straight. He’s like a young kid with all that enthusiasm. It just never occurs to him to take a break, because he never gets tired. Most people practice because they have to, but he practices because he loves it.

“What’s he really like? Well, I’ve been around a lot of characters in my life, and I can usually predict what all of them will say and do, but you can’t predict what this guy will do from one minute to the next. When we were out with a group that had Jack Sheldon, Johnnie Markham and Flip Phillips, Benny was in a real jovial mood the whole time. He was telling jokes. Man, he was a riot. He’s got a brilliant mind for comedy, but not too many people know it.

“I feel I’m pretty qualified—more than most—to say I know him. A lot of guys have just had one brush with him, and they base everything, their opinion of him, on that one experience, which isn’t really fair.”

“I think a guy that can play as well as he does is entitled to a few eccentricities,” said Bobby Hackett, who was in the Lincoln Center group. “I’ve always found him to be most honorable all around. The trouble with him is that he just can’t get his mind off the clarinet. He’s like an absent-minded professor, mentally rehearsing all the time. That’s why he comes up with these strange remarks sometimes.

“I’ve worked quite a few weeks with him at different times, and they’ve all been beautiful. I think a lot of guys that criticize him subconsciously envy his success and his musicianship. Who do you know that pays the kind of salaries he pays? People just don’t pay that kind of money, not matter how much they have in the bank. He pays more than anybody and winds up getting criticized. It’s like when this country lends money to another country, you make an enemy. Tony Parenti told me a marvelous story once about Benny. In 1930 Tony subbed one night for him on Ben Pollack’s band, and instead of cash, Benny gave him a baritone sax! That wasn’t bad pay for one night.”

As marvelous a musician as Benny is, I did notice, however, his seeming lack of interest in rich harmonies. His music reflects this; he always has concentrated on the beat, rhythmic excitement, the melodic line. Lush voicings and chord changes evidently leave him cold. He seems to want the blandest possible changes behind him, and his improvisations are carried out strictly within this framework. It bothers him to hear an unfamiliar voicing—as I found out. This is his style, however, and his taste; I respect it as such.

As regards his expecting perfection, I can understand this better now, because sometimes I’ve found that with my own group, I will lose patience with a drummer or bass player, for not playing the way I think he should play, yet I haven’t really told him what I wanted to hear—I just expected him to know.

I think sometimes Benny (I’m second guessing, as he’s never actually told me this) will hire a musician and expect a great deal from him; then when he finds that he and this person don’t have the rapport he thought they would have, he sort of gives up and shuts himself off. I get the feeling that he expects a musician to know certain intangible things, and if he doesn’t catch on at once, then Benny mentally cancels him out.

As a teenager Benny worked harder and more consistently than most people. In fact, he has all his life, and I think he tends perhaps to have a lack of tolerance for people who don’t have as great a capacity for work and study as he has, which is understandable. I feel that putting down Benny has become a national pastime, and I wonder if the contemporary jazz stars will endure half as long musically, or as people, as he has. I think that at times one tends to grow too emotional about his behavior and that it might be a good idea to examine oneself occasionally, instead of always getting mad at Benny.

In retrospect, working for him was a great experience, one from which I have derived a good deal of insight into my own playing and into working with, and playing with, others. Despite all the pinpricks that seemed so important at the time, I haven’t changed my belief that Benny is a warm human being, and the paradox of it is that he also can be quite naive and gauche—in fact, at times he would make Emily Post faint. But he can be gracious and charming and fun.

Regardless of what people say in favor of, or against, Benny Goodman, his music has endured, and will endure. To quote one of Benny’s favorite expressions, “the old pepper” is still there … the old magic is still there. DB

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