The man who brought swing into the mainstream
Known as the “King of Swing,” Benny Goodman is responsible for bringing jazz to the mainstream. His band, the Goodman band, was widely popular throughout the ‘30s, and was one of the first mainstream integrated musical groups.
Goodman was born to two Polish Jewish immigrants in Chicago in 1909. At the age of 10, he started taking clarinet lessons at the Kehelah Jacob Synagogue, and a year later joined the boys’ club band of the famed Hull House. His talent was clear from an early age, and he began taking lessons from the classical clarinetist Franz Schoepp as well. In addition to this classical foundation, Goodman counts the early Chicago jazz scene as an influence. He was particularly struck by New Orleans jazz players such as Jimmy Noone and King Oliver, who had moved north to Chicago. Their influence was so deeply felt that he and a group of local boys formed the Austin High School Gang, who attempted to emulate the New Orleans sound.
He began his musical career in his early teens, making his professional debut in 1921 at age 12 and joining the local musician’s union in 1923 at age 14. That same year, he joined a band fronted by jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke. At age 16, Goodman had his big break when he was invited west to joined the Ben Pollack Orchestra. He then moved to New York in 1929, and spent five years freelancing, where he worked on everything from commercials to George Gershwin's Strike Up The Band and Girl Crazy.
In 1934, Goodman formed his first band. The 12-piece group became the house band for the Music Hall restaurant, and got a record deal through Columbia Records. 1934 also marks the Goodman band’s first appearance on Let’s Dance, a nationally syndicated radio show. It was with Let’s Dance that the Goodman band exploded in popularity, and they embarked on a cross-country tour in 1935. The first part of the tour was considered a disaster. It wasn’t until a show at the Palomar Ballroom that the tour was considered a success. In fact, the Palomar performance was so successful, that many consider it both the beginning of the swing era and the beginning of the Jitterbug dance craze.
Goodman and the Goodman band’s fame would only skyrocket from there. On January 16, 1938, the band played Carnegie Hall to a sold-out audience, making them the first jazz group to play at the prestigious venue. To honor the occasion, they started the night by playing through the history of jazz, ending the night with their own songs.
The popularity of the Goodman band waned in the mid-’40s, with the rise of cool jazz and bebop. Yet Goodman adapted his style, first recording a number of bebop records with Buddy Greco, Zoot Sims, and Wardell Gray and later hearkening back to his classical roots by playing chamber music. Goodman played off and on until the day he died in 1986, at the age of 77. Though his swing style of jazz may have fallen out of favor, there’s no denying it paved the way for modern rock and roll and pop music. Goodman was the first to take the New Orleans style and adapt it to big bands, creating a musical genre that left a lasting impression.