Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Birth of the Goodman Quartet, from the Autobiography of Lionel Hampton

Before August 19, 1936, one could argue that the vibraphone was a novelty instrument of uncertain future. After that date, the vibes would rapidly become a central instrument to the development and history of jazz. This change in the fortunes of an instrument's history was strongly influenced by two tunes recorded that day by Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, and the remarkable ensemble they created with Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa. The tunes were "Moonglow" and "Dinah", both of which were to become classics, forever afterwards associated with Goodman.

"Moonglow" remains a testimony to Goodman's style. Perhaps only "Body & Soul", recorded earlier with Wilson and Krupa, reveals as much of Goodman's unique gift for song: no matter how simple the melody, because of Benny's tonal depth and interior sense of swing, the notes resound with meaning. What most musicians would call 'phrasing' is a hollow description of what actually occurs, which is a very subtle use of variable tone color, minute portamento, and impeccable timing. I've read critiques of the Goodman style which suggest 'scoops' and other such tonal devices weren't central to his style--he's often portrayed as 'classical' clarinetist inserted into jazz. But this is simply not true, and a careful listening to 'Moonglow' reveals how constantly Benny was engaging in extra-classical inflections. These weren't grafted on, but part of an organic 'speaking' approach to the instrument founded in the aural/oral tradition of jazz. Part of Goodman's brilliance as a player stems from his near complete timbral control of the horn. Like Edmond Hall, he could employ a variety of growls and gritty tones throughout the entire range of the horn; but unlike Hall (who confessed such techniques were difficult to stop once they'd started), Benny could seemingly turn them on or off at will. Many players miss the beauty and genius of Goodman because they are overly focused on harmonic innovation. Benny's style, however, like many of the New Orleans masters, was founded in timbral speech.

Jazz clarinetists who have subsequently covered 'Moonglow' have generally been smart, not trying to reproduce the tune in the same key or register. Shaw recorded it in the clarion, Pete Fountain lower in the chalumeau, and Eddie Daniels took the tune up-tempo. The only folks who regularly fall into the trap of playing it as a transcription are classical players putting out a tribute karaoke-style album, usually with cringe-worthy results.

But this recording session was important for more than Benny's performance: it was the beginning of a group which set a new standard for small group jazz. Whereas other small "bands within a band" such as Tommy Dorsey's "Clambake Seven" and Bob Crosby's "Bobcats" basically reproduced the New Orleans/Chicago line-ups popular since the days of King Oliver, the Goodman Quartet charted new territory. The timbral balance, the fleet lightness, and the range of mellowness to brilliance that resulted from these four men collaborating under Goodman's leadership created jazz's answer to the classical string quartet. While the choice of instruments was nothing short of brilliant, the choice of men was even more important. Because there was no bass in the ensemble, Wilson had to provide it via stride piano. Combined with this effervescent keyboard approach, Goodman was able to play either in a sustained and mellow style, or jump fleetly, weaving in and out of Wilson's lines, without a muddy texture weighing any of it down. Hampton added a smooth, placid light on ballads; fire and ice on up tempo tunes. Krupa's brushes and drive likewise pushed and pulled, allowing Benny to fall back and provide the swinging tension.

In short, it sounded as though these men were born to play with each other--a feeling echoed by Hampton himself. In his autobiography, Hamp, (Warner Books, 1989), he discusses the formation of the Quartet:

    It was John Hammond who thought [Benny] should get a more exciting sound--and who decided my sound might be what Benny needed.  
Now, John Hammond knew that I was black, and by recommending me to Benny, he was leading Benny into uncharted territory--an integrated band. Benny did have Teddy Wilson traveling with him, but Teddy didn't play with the band. Teddy only played intermission piano. By recommending me, John Hammond was pushing Benny into a completely different arrangement.  
Benny was busy, so he sent his brother Harry out to the Paradise. Harry must have brought back a good report, because the next night Benny came himself. He sat at one of the front tables, and I remember thinking he looked familiar. But I didn't try to place him in jazz circles. With his granny glasses and his business suit, I thought maybe he was a politician or somebody whose picture I'd seen in the papers. Then, during a break, Sam Ervine whispered to me that Benny Goodman was in the audience, and then I knew why the guy looked so familiar.
After the break, he got up on the bandstand with me, pulled his clarinet out of his case, and we started to jam. We jammed all night and into the morning--it must have been six o'clock when he finally said, "Pleased to meet ya," and left. For me, it was a night to remember. I had all his records and had copied his solos and his riffs. But he was white and we moved in different circles. I was honored to jam with Benny Goodman.  
The next night was even more exciting. I'm up onstage playing as usual, and I hear this clarinet player playing next to me, and I turn and there is Benny Goodman, playing right next to me. He had brought Gene Krupa and Teddy Wilson along, and the four of us got on the bandstand together, and man, we started wailing out. We played for two hours straight, and Benny liked the sound we made so well that he said, "Come on and join me at a recording session tomorrow at RCA Victor, out in Hollywood."  
Well, I was so excited that I couldn't sleep. I didn't get to sleep until about seven or eight o'clock the next morning. Around eleven, [my mother-in-law] shook me awake and told me that a Mr. Goodman had called and he was waiting for me at the RCA Victor studio. I was wide awake in an instant. I jumped out of bed and into some clothes and hailed a taxi for the Paradise to pick up my vibes. [...]  
When we walked into the RCA Victor studio, Benny gave me a look, but he didn't say anything. Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa were there. We didn't do much rehearsing before we started to record. We did two numbers--"Moonglow" and "Dinah." I had a great time. I felt as if I'd been playing with those guys all my life. That was August 19, 1936, and I'll never forget it. [ pg. 52-53 ]
Hamp's comments regarding Benny's character throughout the book are a welcome tonic to some of the more envy or grudge-driven accounts of other musicians and scholars. While Benny was certainly no easy man to work for, and undoubtedly earned his share of negative reviews, when dealing with the life of a celebrity, one thing is certain: rivals and detractors will have their say. Jealousy and hard feelings find their way into print very quickly after major success, and Benny Goodman's life story is no exception. But with this in mind, no one's life portrait is complete without the assessment of those who have appreciated their finer qualities. One of Benny's was a commitment to Teddy Wilson's and Lionel Hampton's safety when they were on the road during a deeply and openly racist era. Once when heading to Texas, Benny hired escorts to ensure their well-being. So many precautions were taken by Goodman that Hampton later wrote:
People said to me "Why you goin' down south? Those white folks will kill you." And I'd say "They'll have to kill Benny Goodman first." [ pg. 64]
This classic quartet only lasted for a few brief years. Soon Hampton, Krupa, and Wilson all left to lead their own bands, and Goodman expanded to a Sextet that was to remain his standard format for small groups for a couple of decades, sharing the stage and solo time with jazz luminaries as notable as Charlie Christian, Cootie Williams, and Stan Hasselgard. In some ways, though, this quartet was the most revolutionary. The freshness of their musical approach, the naturalness of their musical camaraderie, remains invigorating over three quarters of a century since they first formed.  

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