Friday, May 3, 2013

Benny Goodman * Let's Dance Broadcasts * 1935

Somewhere in the history of jazz, there was a major shift that is nearly impossible to pinpoint, and so far as I can tell, few historians have been concerned to notice or discuss. The shift is this: between classic 1920s jazz and the mid-1930s, bands went from a very hot style, focusing on smaller metrical units, expressed in a generally extroverted manner, to a broader rhythmic approach, filled with greater use of phrasing dynamics and sense of shape. Instead of going from syncopated beat to syncopated beat, players began understanding and expressing longer flowing phrases, with syncopation playing a part in larger units of musical thought, rather than being self-contained destinations. This wasn't limited to solos--in fact, the major shift I'm talking about occurred when entire bands began to feel and implement these broader patterns. Phrases could be built, sequences shaped, and sections could be moved either in tandem or against one another deliberately--not merely boiling soloists shouting over a hot rhythm section.

Some historians have given a tremendous, even mythic, amount of credit to Bix Beiderbecke in the creation of a cooler, more "objectified" style, but the specific aspect of playing I'm outlining here never made it into Bix's ensembles. There are hints of it in Joe Haymes's recordings as early as 1932, but the first performances I hear of a full expression of the new, more nuanced approach to jazz phrasing are Benny Goodman's 1935 "Let's Dance" Broadcasts. Significantly, both the Haymes band of the early '30s and Goodman's new orchestra shared a lead trumpet player: Pee Wee Erwin.

The importance of Goodman's lead trumpet is a recurring theme on The Jazz Clarinet, including names like Bunny Berigan, Harry James, Ziggy Elman, and Cootie Williams. But before all of them was Pee Wee Erwin. Erwin didn't go on to establish his name as a fire breathing trumpet monster: for some reason he never attained the fame of his successors. But while still a teenager his recordings with Joe Haymes evince a uniquely mature musician--a trumpeter of confident, round, golden and unforced sound. The manner in which he could throw off phrases--shaping them dynamically without losing either their drive or their relaxed character--might well have set the template for every Goodman section thereafter. That he was already playing this way with Haymes suggests it was something he brought to the band, as opposed to having been influenced by Goodman.

A lead trumpet player can't change the rhythmic concept of an entire orchestra, though. Proof of this is found in countless Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke recordings, where the rhythm sections seem unable to comprehend the advances of their soloists. Goodman's 1935 band, however, had a drummer with an unprecedented talent for form. Gene Krupa's drumming, far from the caricature he is often remembered as, was uniquely capable of subtle grooves, emphases, and mood shifts. Unlike many of his era, Krupa was actually a highly intellectual musician; a deep thinker regarding form. All of these traits show in the 1935 recordings. The interplay between Erwin, Krupa, and the former violinist turned saxophonist, Hymie Schertzer, leading their respective sections, was probably unprecedented for independence of feel, subtlty, and nuance.

This band was Goodman's concept, and however many charts he might have bought from Fletcher Henderson or others, no band had sounded like it before--it demonstrated that American jazz could remain true to itself while becoming as nuanced-- in its own way --as European concert music. Other orchestras, including Paul Whiteman and Casa Loma, had success in sweet music and occasional jazz, but Goodman's was an uncompromising jazz band. It's of little surprise then, that Goodman's band became the first to play an all jazz concert at Carnegie Hall only three years after his Let's Dance engagement. While only 25 years old, Goodman was already a fully formed soloist, with his distinctive tonal depth and uniquely commanding presence, so rarely ever achieved on a clarinet.

These broadcasts were responsible for creating a large West Coast audience for Goodman (because of the timezone difference, they came on the air earlier out west, giving the band a prime time audience). The 1935 Goodman band is widely credited for starting the craze that made the "Swing Era", coincidentally the only era of our history when jazz was also the nation's popular music. The generation that came of age during that era has sometimes been called "The Greatest Generation"-- seemingly unique in its capacity for self-sacrifice, giving, large families in the midst of modernism, community building, and civil rights leadership. While music can't be credited as the source these things, who is to say that this intelligent, creative, emotionally honest and healthy music didn't play a significant cultural part?

Whatever the unique combination of cause and effect, Benny Goodman's unique ensemble was at the heart of the era, and the 1935 Let's Dance Broadcasts arguably the most important of them all. We are fortunate that some excellent transfers still exists of them.       

No comments: