‘King of Swing’ Benny Goodman Dies at Age 77

Times Staff Writer

Benny Goodman, the eloquent clarinetist proclaimed the “King of Swing” when his dance band suddenly soared to fame in the mid-1930s and who epitomized an era in popular American music, died Friday in his Manhattan apartment after an apparent heart attack. He was 77.

His body was found shortly after 2:30 p.m. (EDT) by his housekeeper, Anna Lekander. His secretary, Lloyd Rausch, said the death was not made public for a time because one of the legendary musician’s daughters could not be reached immediately.

“I spoke with him at 1 p.m. and there was no indication of any problem,” Rausch said. Police said Goodman appeared to have been taking a nap on a guest room couch in his East 66th Street apartment when he died in his sleep.

No funeral services had yet been arranged.

In Semi-Retirement

Goodman had recovered from several illnesses and had been in semi-retirement until early this year when he began to perform at a few concerts. In March, he appeared in a one-hour PBS special, “Let’s Dance,” a tribute to his long career.

For that television show, he formed his first new big band in several years. His reemergence was marked in February by the receipt of an honorary Grammy award for lifetime achievement. In 1982, he joined several other prominent Americans as Kennedy Center Honors winners.


Acquaintances said he was encouraged by the reception accorded the PBS telecast and that he was ready to do more with a big band. At his death, he was preparing for a classical clarinet concert in August.

His time in recent years had been divided between his Upper East Side apartment--described by visitors as a virtual art gallery--and his country home near Stamford, Conn. He swam daily and went fishing often. His wife, Alice, died in 1978.

Although known primarily as a jazz musician and swing band leader, Goodman was equally at home on a classical concert stage playing Mozart or Stravinsky, and he devoted much of his life to such performances.

It was Goodman who helped give swing respectability by taking his band and other top jazz performers into New York’s Carnegie Hall on Jan. 16, 1938, for a concert that rocked that staid old543257956Sing, Sing.”

That was only a few months after the Goodman band had attracted national attention by packing New York’s Paramount Theater for performance after performance with fans who jitterbugged in the aisles.

And it was Goodman who shattered the racial barrier in the band business by being the first leader of a big white dance orchestra to hire black musicians--pianist Teddy Wilson and vibraharpist Lionel Hampton.

‘A Tremendous Loss’

When he heard of his former leader’s death Friday, the still-active Hampton said it was “a tremendous loss, not only to the music business, but to humanity.”

Much of the swinging style that made the Goodman band famous was attributable to the arrangements of Fletcher (Smack) Henderson, a black former band leader.

The Goodman band included drummer Gene Krupa and trumpeter Harry James--both of whom went on to lead highly successful bands of their own--as well as pianist Jess Stacy, trumpeter Ziggy Elman and (at one time or another) vocalists Helen Ward, Helen Forrest and Peggy Lee.

Goodman was intense about his music, achieving his liquid, seemingly effortless clarinet style by hours of daily practice most of his life. “He practiced 15 times more than the whole band combined,” Harry James said of him. Goodman demanded such concentration from his sideman that a few dragging passages could draw from him a cold glare known as “The Ray.”

In New York, singer Lee recalled: “I thought he didn’t like my singing, because he had a preoccupied look. I learned that was one of Benny’s looks. And it meant that he liked it.”

Born Into Poverty

Benjamin David Goodman was born in Chicago on May 30, 1909, the eighth of 11 children of Russian immigrants. His father worked as a tailor in sweatshops and the family lived in poverty.

But when the father heard that a local synagogue was lending instruments and giving music lessons for 25 cents a week, he quickly enrolled Benny and two other sons.

Harry, 12, got a tuba and Freddie, 11, was handed a trumpet. But Benny was only 10 and needed something lighter. He was loaned a clarinet. His brothers were to recall that he immediately held the instrument with delight.

It was not long before young Benny, like another future famous jazz clarinetist, Jimmy Noone, was taking lessons from a stern old German named Franz Schoepp, who was with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A solid musical background and a compulsion for arduous preparation were instilled early.

(Years later, Goodman was to remember that he once asked Schoepp why the latter had written his clarinet textbook in German. “Don’t worry,” Schoepp assured him. “Pretty soon everything will be in German.”)

In Marching Band

The three Goodman brothers played in a marching band organized by a local settlement house and that led to performing at church picnics and youth concerts.

When he was 12, Goodman made his first professional appearance, earning $5 for a Ted Lewis imitation in a theater vaudeville show.

A year later, he was playing dance dates with Murph Podolsky’s band, an outfit that never made the list of great jazz orchestras, and soon he gave up school in favor of being a professional musician.

Once, when he was 13, he was hired to play in an orchestra on a Lake Michigan excursion boat. One of the best-known stories about Goodman is when he wandered onto the bandstand in his short pants (actually knickers) and the famous trumpet player Bix Beiderbecke snapped at him, “Get off there, kid. Stop fooling around.”

By the time Goodman was 16, he had so established himself among Chicago jazz musicians that the popular band leader Ben Pollack sent for him to join the Pollack band at the Venice Ballroom in Southern California.

Included Glenn Miller

The Pollack band at that time also included trombonist Glenn Miller, who did many of the arrangements.

The Pollack orchestra returned to Chicago, where Goodman played at gangster hangouts and at such favorite college student spots as the Blackhawk. Goodman came into constant contact with other young jazz musicians of the time--drummer Dave Tough, drummer Krupa, saxophonist Bud Freeman and guitar man Eddie Condon.

Goodman began to organize jazz groups to make recordings for record companies, and by 1929 he parted company with Pollack. For a couple of years, Goodman hung around New York, appearing in pit bands of such Broadway shows as “Girl Crazy” and “Strike Up the Band.”

During the early 1930s, he put together a band of his own for recordings and for dance dates, but without much success. In that band at one time or another were trombonists Miller and Jack Teagarden, drummer Krupa and such singers as Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey.

In 1933, Goodman met the man who helped him develop the band that was to make him famous, John Hammond, a socially prominent jazz fan, critic and promoter. Hammond’s sister, Alice, become Goodman’s wife in 1942.

Started on Radio

In 1934, Goodman’s new orchestra opened at Billy Rose’s New York theater-restaurant, then played the Roosevelt Grill. Neither booking stirred much excitement, but they led to a contract for a series of Saturday night “Let’s Dance” radio broadcasts by NBC.

The impact of those broadcasts was not immediately felt. The band began a cross-country tour that seemed doomed to failure. The booking agency considered canceling the last scheduled engagements on the West Coast.

But Goodman was allowed to complete the commitment--and thus the Palomar Ballroom at 3rd Street and Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles became the launching pad for his band and, in the view of many fans, of the Swing Era in general.

The Saturday night broadcasts were too late to attract many listeners in the East, but young people had heard them on the West Coast. On opening night, Aug. 21, 1935, a large crowd was in the Palomar to hear the Goodman band in person.

Stanley Baron, who wrote the text for Goodman’s pictorial biography, “Benny, King of Swing,” described the evening:

‘Felt Something Snap’

“For the first hour, Benny played it safe. He called for the sweetest, softest, mostly gently and dreamily danceable arrangements in the band’s book. The response was polite and no more.

“Then suddenly Benny felt something snap, as it were, inside his soul. For all he knew, this might be the band’s last night together. He decided they should ride it out in their own way, and this one last time fully enjoy themselves.”

Another writer, who may have been making a logical assumption, quoted Goodman as suddenly telling his sidemen, “Swing it.”

In any event, he called for one of the band’s own favorites, a Fletcher Henderson arrangement. Which one, Goodman could not later recall. But Baron wrote:

”. . . The great roar of recognition which went up from the crowd was possibly the sweetest sound Benny had ever heard. It was obvious that the kids had all been waiting for the band to really swing. . . . “

Sets Attendance Records

Much of the crowd stopped dancing and surged around the bandstand to listen. The Palomar extended Goodman’s one-month booking to two. Attendance records tumbled.

The Goodman band--with its members gaining individual fame--went back to the Midwest and the East Coast in triumph. During the 1937 Paramount Theater engagement in New York City, fans built bonfires in Times Square.

By January, 1938, when Goodman invaded Carnegie Hall, he had added vibraharpist Hampton, whom he had found leading a band in the Paradise Cafe in Los Angeles after Hammond told Goodman to go there to listen.

The Carnegie Hall concert featured virtuoso performances by Hampton, Krupa, Elman, James and Jess Stacy. A packed house rocked to “Don’t Be That Way,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “Sing, Sing, Sing” and other numbers.

Although perfectionist Goodman did not go into Carnegie Hall without a great deal of rehearsing, immediate reviews were not generally ecstatic. Some of the critics, however, conceded that they were not experts in that field of music.

Something Historic

Nevertheless, recordings of the concert were highly prized by swing lovers and it eventually became clear that something of a relatively historic nature had occurred in the old hall that night.

It was in 1938, too, that Goodman began to build his parallel career as a classical clarinetist, eventually recording with the Budapest String Quartet and commissioning composer Bela Bartok to write for him a work he recorded in 1940 with violinist Joseph Szigeti.

Goodman also commissioned Paul Hindemith and Aaron Copland to compose concertos for him. After World War II, when he had broken up his swing band, Goodman began to study with classical clarinetist Reginald Kell and changed his playing technique.

Goodman continued to make jazz appearances and to assemble swing bands for major tours--including a highly successful one through the Far East in the winter of 1956-57 and a remarkable chain of swing concerts in the Soviet Union in 1962.

He also put together a band for the Brussels World Fair in 1959.

Religious Fervor

“I think you’ve got to make your own life for yourself in music,” Goodman told a New York Times interviewer in 1980, when he was 71 years old and still practicing his arpeggios with an almost religious fervor.

“The jazz scene is a little distressing,” Goodman said. “It’s easier to get classical players to rehearse, or just to sit down and play.”

But, he added: “It doesn’t bother me, because I play all the time. If I can’t get jazz musicians to play, I’ll play classical music. I just love music.”

In 1978, on the 40th anniversary of his first big Carnegie Hall concert, Goodman returned to that scene for another big band performance. Of all the famous performers who had worked for him in the past, only Martha Tilton and Hampton were there that night.

Perhaps expecting that the magic would still be there, the critics were not kind.

Wife Soon Died

It turned out later that Goodman had been under some pressure that evening. His wife was ill and died a few days later.

“You can’t always resurrect the past,” Goodman told jazz critic Leonard Feather in 1979. He pointed out that many of the alumni of his band--those still living--could no longer play the way they had in the 1930s and 1940s.

And, he pointed out, musicians in general were not the same. “It’s a whole different thing,” he said. “Everybody’s playing so differently. You give a band a Fletcher Henderson thing and you aren’t going to hear it the way you used to hear it.”

Goodman and his wife, who lived in a 155-year-old farmhouse in Connecticut, had two daughters: Rachel, a concert pianist, and Benjie.

Relentless Demands

Some of his former sidemen, it was reported, did not remember Goodman with much fondness, primarily because of his relentless demands on their talents.

Harry James was once quoted as saying: “I never saw him take a drink. You don’t get very near a guy like that.”

And Jess Stacy told Time magazine: “All the time I was with Goodman, he was never satisfied. With him, perfection was just around the corner. He’s worked hard enough, but I guess the more you work the more there is to learn.”

Stacy added, “I figure Benny will die in bed with that damn clarinet.”