Times Arts Editor

Watching and hearing the broadcasts about the death last week of Benny Goodman at 77, I had the feeling that some of the young television anchors in particular were simply reciting the wire service gospel and wouldn’t have known Benny Goodman from Benny Hill.

It was different at the jazz radio stations, KLON and KKGO, where the deejays left no doubt it was a personal loss, a death in the family. The stations dug some amazing curiosities out of their vaults, including, on KLON, a supremely corny vocal duet by Goodman and Stan Kenton, chiding each other in verse.

The stations also, inevitably, played large chunks from the two-record album of the famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert with its condensed but impeccably executed history of jazz.

That was, I think, the first long-playing record I ever bought, and even now it seems a miracle of preservation and a triumph of presence, given the recording techniques of 1938. Forty-eight years later, you are still there; the music is the more exciting because of the crowd noises and the imperfections. The jam session on “Honeysuckle Rose” sounds as if it caught the recordists by surprise, and it comes into focus belatedly, like a home movie.


For a lot of us, the death of Benny Goodman measures not merely the passage of time but massive and not entirely appealing changes in popular music. There is some irony in the fact that the paper that carried Leonard Feather’s appreciation of Goodman also carried a news report on violence and death at a rock concert.

It seems an unthinkably long time ago that band leaders looked like business executives rather than sideshow escapees. They wore suits and ties, tuxedos if the cover charge was high enough. A publicity shot of an early Goodman band shows the sidemen, Bunny Berigan among them, in identical suits and checkerboard ties, like a precision drill team.

But what captured us was exactly the band’s combination of crisp and swinging precision plus the incredible virtuosity of the maestro on clarinet and the solos by the likes of Berigan, Harry James, Ziggy Elman, Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa, Dave Tough and platoons of sax players.

It was a stream within the larger stream of the Big Band sound. (A wide stream it was, to be able to accommodate Duke Ellington and Blue Barron, Goodman and Artie Shaw and Kay Kyser, Bill Basie and Wayne King.)


The appeal of the Goodman band was the musicianship. The sound was by no means bloodless, but it wasn’t carnal either. Its excitements, and they were enormous, appealed to the head as well as the pulse rate. The music belonged in ballroom, not the gin mill, and it was resolutely cheerful, even on slow ballads. “Let’s Dance” was wonderfully apt as the band’s opening theme.

Many of us of a certain generation discovered the Goodman band, and the others, on those legendary remote broadcasts. My town in rural Upstate New York, Hammondsport, sits in a nest of hills that thumb their noses at radio signals. Even the clear stations were crowded at night by interlopers from Pittsburgh, Wheeling, St. Louis and, on particularly weird evenings, Denver and Los Angeles. The signals would come and go maddeningly, like waves, as you fiddled to keep the Roosevelt Grill in earshot.

I listened to the Camel Caravan (not a remote) the night Benny announced his trumpet player was starting his own band. “What’s your theme song gonna be, Harry?” Goodman asked, and James blew a few bars of “Ciribiribin.”

It was the time of the playing leaders, none more gifted than Goodman, Shaw or James--or Ellington or Basie on piano. The Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey trombones tended toward the ceremonial or decorative, I always thought, but the young of my time got through their scales and marches fantasizing about being the next Benny or Harry.


Listening to a stack of Benny Goodman records over the weekend, I thought as I have before that his finest hours were with the trios and quartets, perfectly matched with Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa and doing those rippling runs and dazzling arpeggios like no one else.

It was never really soulful--Artie Shaw was more soulful as well as more experimental--but it was brilliant, and no one shone brighter.