Innovator, leader, musician and perennial overachiever, Benny Goodman , was each of those and more. With the death of the family patriarch, Goodman sacrificed and struggled at a young age and stuck to his music with pride and dignity to become the “King of Swing” and a legend in the Swing Era.
Born Benjamin David Goodman on May 30,1909, in Chicago, Illinois he was the ninth of 12 children to poor Russian immigrants David Goodman and Dora Grisinsky.
At age 10, Benny was sent with two of his brothers to study music at Kehelah Jacob Synagogue in Chicago by his father. A Chicago Symphony member named Franz Schoepp took Benny under his wing and taught him the clarinet. Benny’s first taste of band membership was at Hull House, a famous community house owned by Jane Addams, a social and human rights activist. Benny’s first pit band experience came at age 11, and at 14 he became an American Federation of Musicians member, the same year he quit school.
At 15, his father passed away and Benny supported his family with money he earned from being a musician. His time in Chicago gave him the opportunity to play with nationally renowned musicians including former schoolmate Dave Tough.
In 1926, Ben Pollack hired Benny, who was 16 at the time, and moved him to Los Angeles. He worked with Pollack for several years. During the Great Depression, Benny left Pollack and headed to New York to work on recordings and radio shows. He joined Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey at the studios in 1933, worked with jazz promoter John Hammond, drummer Gene Krupa and other artists.
By 1934, Goodman was leading his first band and played the Billy Rose Music Hall. The Benny Goodman Band played a mix of ragtime and Dixieland.
American audiences were starting to hear Goodman and his band on
a weekly basis due to his “Let’s Dance” radio show on NBC. This was the start of swing music.
The genesis of the Swing Era is consider to be August 21, 1935, with Goodman’s show at Palomar Ballroom. Teens invented new steps to dance to the music and led to Goodman being labeled the “King of Swing” by Time Magazine in 1937.
Goodman became the first to show mainstream media that having black and white musicians together is acceptable as he added Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton, both black, to the Benny Goodman Quartet. He and his band also became the first jazz band in history to play Carnegie Hall in New York.
Swing music began to diminish at the start of World War II. The draft had taken some musicians and touring became tough as gasoline was rationed. Goodman never gave up playing swing and also spread out to classical music, soloing and studying the clarinet. He toured Asia and Europe after his movie “The Bennie Goodman Story” was released in 1955 and exposed new audiences to his music.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Goodman toured with his former quartet members Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa. The band stopped off at Carnegie Hall once again in 1978 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Hall’s first Jazz concert. Goodman was honored in 1982 for his lifetime achievements in swing music by the Kennedy Center.
Until his death in June 1986 from cardiac arrest, Benny continued to play his music and was rewarded a doctorate degree in music from Columbia University and a Grammy for lifetime achievement.