About a month ago, I picked up a sealed copy of a truly joyous LP, a recording of the Benny Goodman Trio and Quartet in concert. The record was pressed in 1973 but the broadcast performances date from 1937 and 1938.
More remarkable than the music is the fact that these men played it before audiences. Why? Because it was Depression-era America and Benny
Goodman and his drummer Gene Krupa were white while pianist Teddy Wilson and vibraphone virtuoso Lionel Hampton were black.
Black and white Jazz musicians had been playing together informally for years, often in late-night jam sessions after their respective
performances. But an integrated ensemble on the bandstand? That was a different story–and an ugly one.
In some places, ordinances prohibited white and black musicians from playing onstage together. Like New Orleans. In 1949, Louis Armstrong, the
city’s greatest son, returned for Mardi Gras celebrations. He and his All-Stars were booked to play a concert, but when NOLA’s civic knuckledraggers discovered
Armstrong’s trombone player (and close friend) Jack Teagarden was white, they nixed the gig.
An indignant Armstrong vowed to never come back. “I don’t care if I never see that city again,” he said. “Jazz was born
there and I remember when it wasn’t no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow.”
A story like that makes Goodman’s gamble over ten years prior all the more impressive. Unlike Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers
president and general manager who planned for decades to break Baseball’s color barrier, Benny Goodman did not initially intend to tour with an integrated band. Goodman had
assembled his trio strictly for recording in a studio where a player’s skin color would vanish within the anonymity of a record’s grooves.
Two factors compelled Goodman to take the chance: the music and his conscience–the latter generously prodded by concert promoter Helen
First, the dazzling lineup he assembled made music too good to be bottled up in a studio. That firepower started with himself on clarinet.
As with Rock music, when a given instrument is named, Jazz fans passionately champion their choice for its greatest practitioner. Charlie
Parker, John Coltrane, Lester Young, and Sonny Rollins vicariously vie for saxophone supremacy (as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Jeff Beck duke it out in absentia on electric guitar.) Trumpet honors go to Louis Armstrong, but Miles Davis adherents make a mighty case, as do Dizzy Gillespie and Bix Beiderbecke’s factions (this one’s more like boxing, I think, with Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali as Armstrong and Davis, while Rocky Marciano and Jack Dempsey wait in their corners.)
But when it comes to clarinet there are only two names on the bill, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw; conveniently, they differ like Dionysus and
For a salient précis of Benjamin David Goodman’s rise, here’s Jazz and culture writer Gary Giddins from his lovely remembrance of
Benny in his Faces in the Crowd:
Goodman came to prominence when America was making major discoveries about the nature of its cultural life, and proved an exemplary figure for
national preening. He was in all important respects distinctively American, purveying an undeniably American music with at least the tentative approval of academics and Europhile
upper crust, into whose circles he married. His connections put him in Carnegie Hall (a big deal in 1938) five years before Duke Ellington. The public took comfort in him, too. He
was white, but not too white, which is to say Jewish, but not too Jewish; and serious, but not too serious, which is to say lighthearted, but sober. At the height of the
Depression, he had perfect credentials for entertaining a suffering, guilt-ridden nation. Goodman was one of the 12 siblings born to penniless Russian immigrants in Chicago. He
received his first clarinet at 10, in 1919, and had a union card three years later.
By 1937, riding the waves of record sales, radio play, and performances, especially the nationally broadcast Let’s Dance radio show and a sensational three-week stand in August 1935 at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, Benny Goodman was arguably the most popular musical artist in America. Though he was never comfortable with the title, the media dubbed him the “King of Swing.”
Integral to the rousing Goodman sound was Gene Krupa, a whirling dervish of a drummer and veritable one-man percussion section. Like Goodman,
Krupa was Chicago-born and dirt-poor with lots of company at home, the youngest of nine. He joined Benny’s band in December 1934, well on his way to becoming one of the most
legendary and massively influential drummers of all time.
Then Benny met Teddy. Goodman first played with Teddy Wilson in 1934 at an after-hours session in Forest Hills, Queens, New York. “Teddy
and I began to play as though we were thinking with the same brain,” Goodman recalled.
It’s worth remembering that the piano is a percussion instrument, because beneath Teddy Wilson’s fingertips it becomes something
far more suave than just mallets rapping on taut strings. Pure lyrical elegance, his deft touch could turn dizzyingly fast, an unleashing of notes like a cascade of mathematical
equations, all calculated to please your ears and get your feet tapping.
Commenting years later about the trio’s first public appearance, Goodman said, “the three of us worked together as if we had been born to play this way.”
They had been, but it took Helen Oakley’s persistent appeals to Goodman’s conscience–to acknowledge the debt he owed black
Jazz artists–and her assurances that Wilson would be a crowd-pleaser before he would take his trio public. The three concerts held at Chicago’s Congress Hotel which
Oakley arranged were a success. And a watershed.
Encouraged by his trio’s reception, Goodman didn’t hesitate to sign Lionel Hampton and bump up the ensemble to a quartet when he
heard Hampton playing the vibraphone (a very new instrument at the time) in a Los Angeles bar.
To watch Hampton ply the vibes is to not believe your eyes or ears. His play and the timbre of his instrument perfectly complement
Wilson’s piano and Goodman’s clarinet.
There’s nothing better than listening to their music, but as far as a description goes, Otis Ferguson, a wonderful Jazz critic who wrote
for The New Republic (and taken from us at age 36 when he was killed in action at Salerno in 1943), puts us in the front row in his aptly named piece, “The Spirit of Jazz.”
They play every night–clarinet, piano, vibraphone, drums–and they make music you would not believe. No arrangements, not a false
note, one finishing his solo and dropping into background support, then the other, all adding inspiration until, with some number like “Stomping at the Savoy,” they
get going too strong to quit–four choruses, someone starts up another, six, eight, and still someone starts–no two notes the same and no one note off the chord, the
more they relax in the excitement of it the more a natural genius in preselection becomes evident and the more indeed the melodic line becomes rigorously pure. This is really
composition on the spot, with the spirit of Jazz strongly over all of them but the iron laws of harmony and rhythm never lost sight of; and it is a collective thing, the most
beautiful example of men working together to be seen in public today.
As to the differences in their shades of epidermis, Ferguson rhetorically asks: “Stand for it?–the people stand up from their
tables just to hear it better.” Love it!
My record has ten songs, including three classic compositions by George and Ira Gershwin: “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “The
Man I Love,” and “I Got Rhythm.” It’s Jazz as Nature intended it, color-blind, by turns effervescent and dizzying like Champagne then as moody and
melancholy as a rainy night.
Years later, Hampton would say of Goodman: “As far as I’m concerned, what he did in those days–and they were hard days in
1937–made it possible for Negroes to have their chance in baseball and other fields.” Teddy Wilson would say that “the Goodman thing was as solid as a
family–we were all there, just like brothers.”
I encourage you: hear them, see them. Their music is transcendent, as is their story.