Benny Goodman

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.

Benny Goodman Videos

Bewitched - Benny Goodman 1980

Benny Goodman Quintet play "Bewitched"

Don't let the title fool you -- this version of "Bewitched" was left to Benny Goodman and guitarist Eddie Duran to navigate on their own.

Benny Goodman At The Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark 1972 #4

Benny Goodman At The Tivoli Gardens -- "Shine"

This video kicks off the concert performance of Benny Goodman's quintet live at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.

Benny Goodman At The Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark 1972 # 18

Benny Goodman At The Tivoli Gardens -- "Don't Be That Way" and "Stompin' At The Savoy"

The guys bring it back to earth with this version of the classic "Don't Be That Way." Benny Goodman reels the group back in with his opening riff

Benny Goodman - A Short History

PBS shows a short history on Benny Goodman

Andre Previn narrates this short piece about Benny Goodman for PBS' tribute to the legendary clarinetist.

Benny Goodman  At The Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Demark 1972 #2

Benny Goodman At The Tivoli Gardens -- "A Smooth One"

Once again, in this video, you can hear Benny Goodman singing the tune to his bandmates before counting it off.

Benny Goodman At The Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark 1972 #19

Benny Goodman At The Tivoli Gardens -- "Someday Sweetheart"

Goodman leads off with fluttering flourishes before the boys lilt into this bumbling medium swing tune.

Benny Goodman In Japan 1957

"Airmail" by Benny Goodman

Recorded in Japan in 1957, Benny Goodman's Septet perform a burning version of "Airmail." Drummer Mousey Alexander starts it out with a Buddy Ric

Benny Goodman At The Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark 1972 #3

Benny Goodman At The Tivoli Gardens -- "Tin Roof Blues"

Goodman takes a moment to introduce his band members to the audience before Peter Appleyard does a musical impression of the three famous vibraph

Benny Goodman At The Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen Denmark 1972 #20

Benny Goodman At The Tivoli Gardens -- "After You've Gone"

In another burning up-tempo swing, Benny Goodman leads off with short bursts of energy before the rest of the group jumps in.

The Benny Goodman Story 1955

The Benny Goodman story

Steve Allen stars as Benny Goodman in this biopic on the great clarinetist's rise to stardom and his blossoming romance with Alice Hammond.


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