Let's not kid ourselves: Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall concert was clearly the most important single event in the history of Big Band Clarinet. It marked the first time an all-jazz program was offered at the nation's most revered venue for classical performance, and had it flopped, the resulting clatter would have resounded throughout Goodman's career and altered the critical trajectory of jazz.
Goodman was the right man for the job in many ways. For one thing, he had already emphasized the history of the artform on his Camel Caravan radio show. This rare penchant for educating a popular audience probably paid dividends for his Carnegie Hall presentation, which featured a brief review of jazz history. This section emphasized the contributions of many artists, including Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie (some of Duke's men even performed in the sequence, and the Count himself performed). Some of the performances are more convincing than others, and the extended on-stage jam session on 'Honeysuckle Rose' might be considered a miscalculation. But even if this is concluded, there remains Goodman's unassailable intent, which was to help a subscription audience, who might have little understanding of what they were hearing, learn on the spot.
Over 80 years later, the recording still grips. Like the opening chords of Beethoven's 'Eroica', it is always bracing, and repeated listening never blunts the impact. The tension is palpable, and the soloing of Goodman, Harry James, Ziggy Elman, and Gene Krupa especially, are electrifying.
The concert contained an amazing breadth of material. There were standards like Gershwin's 'The Man I Love' and 'I Got Rhythm'; Irving Berlin's 'Blue Skies'; originals like 'Don't Be That Way' and 'Swingtime in the Rockies'; and ethnic numbers ranging from the Scottish 'Loch Lomond' to the Yiddish 'Bei Mir Bist du Schoen'. The concert confidently and unselfconsciously demonstrated that jazz was America's artistic voice--like Whitman's poetry and the nation itself, containing multitudes and belonging to all.
The performance of Jimmy Mundy's famous arrangement of 'Sing Sing Sing' has been written about at length in many other places. Suffice it to say here that the clarinet solos, with their poignant sense of loneliness and probing, alternating between commanding and pleading, and ending in a prayer-like ascent to double C, are among the most important ever played. Much has been made, rightly, of Jess Stacy's inspired solo which followed. Rarely noticed is that Stacy's solo would have been impossible had not Benny (and Harry James before him) set the musical mood perfectly.
Too often, swing era music is caricatured as 'fun', 'lighthearted', merely diverting music, as though the musicians involved were just having one big, carefree party while playing. But a tune like 'Sing Sing Sing' was hardly fun, nor did it express anything carefree or merely entertaining. Harry James said later:
I don't think I ever told anybody this, but I was going through a real mental thing and it was all built around 'Sing Sing Sing'. [...] [It] happened the first time time I was supposed to get up and play my chorus on 'Sing Sing Sing'. I just couldn't make it. I fell back in my chair. Ziggy [Elman] said to me, 'Get up!' but I couldn't; so when he saw what was happening, he got up and played my solo. I was completely out of my mind. It happened again another time, too, and so every time the band played 'Sing Sing Sing' I'd get bugged and scared it would start all over again. You know, that Stravinsky-type thing that the trombones and then the trumpets play just before the chorus? Well, that would really set me off. I tried to explain it to Benny, and I'd even ask him to play 'Sing Sing Sing' early in the evening, so I could relax the rest of the night. But of course, that was his big number and I couldn't blame him for wanting to hold off. So finally I just left the band. I couldn't trust myself anymore.[quoted in James Lincoln Collier's Benny Goodman and the Swing Era, Oxford, 1989. Pg 222]
Whatever his fears, however this music might have rattled him, James gave a solo for the ages on that cold night in 1938.
If we listen to it with fresh ears, 'Sing Sing Sing' is driving, intense, and sometimes disturbing music. It wasn't nostalgic to the men who first performed it, and it needn't be now. I consider the Goodman Carnegie Hall performance of Mundy's arrangement to have been every bit as profound a statement as Vaughan Williams's sixth symphony. This is part of the reason that Carnegie Hall concert was such a success: the music equalled or surpassed the depth of what was usually played there.