Friday, July 27, 2012

Big Band Jazz Clarinet: Essential Performances (2)

2. Benny Goodman & His Orchestra * Live from the Congress Hotel, 1935-36

There are many early performances of Benny Goodman's that might deserve placement on this list, and many by Artie Shaw that might lay claim to the number two spot. Goodman's stint on the Let's Dance  program, and his wild success at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1935 have both been cited as the beginning of the "Swing Era" and therefore have enough historical merit to garner consideration. Artie's recordings from the Cafe Rouge and the Blue Room are of such a high level of playing that they, on pure musical merit, could warrant this spot as well.

But these NBC broadcasts from 1935-36, from Goodman's time in Chicago immediately after the Los Angeles success, are important to both players, and therefore unique in the history of jazz clarinet.

By 1935, Artie Shaw had given up on the music business (not for the last time) and retired, at the ripe old age of 25, to become a novelist. He was in a marriage that was falling apart (also not for the last time), and living the life of a bohemian writer in a Pennsylvania farmhouse. One night as he was driving home, he was blown away by who he heard on the radio: an old rival who had challenged him for alto sax parts in the New York studios only a year or so before: Benny Goodman.

Shaw's farm was so remote, it didn't have electricity--so when he got home, he took his radio outside and hooked it up to the car battery. He was so impressed by what he heard that he wrote Goodman a letter praising him for his success.

Goodman's response probably did more to motivate Shaw than anything else could have. Instead of thanking him graciously, Goodman jabbed back "I'm gonna blackmail you [ with that letter.]" (Nolan pg 56). A fire was lit under Shaw to return to playing--Goodman was not going to let him go away from music quietly. I believe Benny responded that way because he knew how much talent Shaw possessed, and how good it would be for the entire music scene to have him back--including a rivalry that might add to their drawing power. Shaw claimed later to have loathed the rivalry, and even tried to suggest he didn't recognize it as such, but the signs were undeniable, and the influence of Goodman--the spur and challenge he presented--undoubtedly pushed Shaw to some of his greatest musical achievements.

Apart from the importance to the Goodman/Shaw rivalry, the Congress Hotel broadcasts represent another milestone in Benny's career. Swing was officially 'dance' music--it was supposed to exist for that specific purpose. But at the Congress Hotel in Chicago, a new thing happened. Music fans showed up--and they didn't want to dance. They wanted to listen--many of them simply standing on the dance floor with their eyes and ears attentively on the band. And when some tried to dance, they were booed off the floor. [Collier pg 170 f] Perhaps it was here that Benny first started to get a notion of the importance of swing as concert music--a notion that would eventually lead to Carnegie Hall, and change the public perception of jazz forever.


Works cited:

Artie Shaw: King of the Clarinet by Tom Nolan
Benny Goodman and the Swing Era by James Lincoln Collier.

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