Monday, January 20, 2014

The Autobiography of Benny Goodman * The Kingdom of Swing * 1939

It's a generally annoying habit of celebrities to publish an autobiography just after their first flush of major success, resulting in little more than commercial fluff. The genre is cliché-ridden: glossies in a middle section, often of more interest than the text, optimism writ large, and celebrity itself celebrated. America likes these stories, and rarely wants volume two, the sordid discontents, which generally follow.

There are a couple of major exceptions to this rule in the history of jazz clarinet autobiography, most notably Sidney Bechet's Treat it Gentle, which was compiled from interview tapes and published posthumously, and Artie Shaw's The Trouble With Cinderella--a challenging book questioning the premises of fame, fortune, and their relation to music.

Goodman's The Kingdom of Swing was co-written with Irving Kolodin, and published in 1939, at the zenith of Goodman's popularity. Benny himself was still in his late 20s as it was being written, and so this book bears all the hallmarks of commercial fluff. It therefore comes as a great surprise that it isn't.

From the dedication page reading "To the Memory of My Father, David Goodman" forward, Benny talks quite a bit about his family. His father is depicted as the reason he got into music in the first place, due to his love of it and their poverty--a type of poverty that made free concerts at Douglas Park, and affordable lessons at the synagogue, particularly attractive. If America likes rags to riches stories, this is certainly a good one. As Benny wrote:

My memory of those early days is hazier than that of most kids, because we moved around a lot. But I can remember a time when we lived in a basement without heat during the winter, and a couple of times when there wasn't anything to eat. I don't mean much to eat. I mean anything. That isn't an experience you forget in a hurry. I haven't ever forgotten it.

The thumbnail sketches of Benny's childhood are deftly chosen and portrayed, rendered in admirably true voice by Kolodin. He describes the now famous time the young Goodman went down to Kelelah Jacob Synagogue with his brothers to pick out instruments. Benny, being the youngest among them, ended up with the clarinet.

I remember going down to the place for the first time with Harry, who was about twelve, and Freddy who was a year older than me. This was in 1919, when I was ten. Harry was the biggest, and he got a tuba. Since Freddy was bigger than me, he was given a trumpet. The only thing left for me, the smallest, was the clarinet. There have been stories that I went for the clarinet in a big way because it had shiny keys and looked pretty. There might be something in that, but I know that if I had been twenty pounds heavier and two inches taller, I would probably be blowing a horn now instead of a clarinet.

Goodman's description of Franz Schoepp, and his influence, are more forthcoming and gracious than many jazz musicians tend to be, regarding a teacher's influence.

About this time, I started to take clarinet lessons from a man who probably did more for me musically than anybody I ever knew. He was a German named Franz Schoepp, who once taught at the Chicago Musical College. He was quite an old man when I studied with him, and he died only a few years ago at the age of 77.

[...] Buster Bailey, the fine Negro clarinet player [studied] with Schoepp about the time I did. Schoepp was a small man quite white-haired when I studied with him., and he used to look over the top of his glasses at me. He was very strict about details, and never allowed a mistake to pass without being corrected. For a while Buster came for lessons on the same day I did, and we'd play duets, while Schoepp stood over us, counting time and watching that we played correctly. Another very good Negro musician who studied with Schoepp was Jimmy Noone, who still plays a lot of clarinet. As a matter of fact, one of the first things I heard about Schoepp was that he gave lessons to anybody, regardless of color, and I guess that sort of impressed me, because there was plenty of prejudice about such things, even in Chicago. If you remember, they had those terrible race riots there only a little while before, in 1919.

The two years I spent with Schoepp was the only real teaching I ever had, but I went through the regular books like Baerman [sic], Klose, and Cavallini with him, and got the foundation for a legitimate clarinet technic. After all, the most any teacher can give you is a foundation--after that, you're on your own.

This is one of the things that makes this book so interesting: Benny didn't use it as an opportunity to build a mythos--he discusses the hard work without exaggerating it; gives credit where credit is due, and shares more than a little wisdom along the way for aspiring musicians.

His mention of other clarinetists is almost always positive--including a gratuitous nod to rival Artie Shaw at one point. But the most important thoughts concerning jazz clarinetists occur early on, when discussing his formation. The influence of Leon Roppolo on Goodman is of historical interest, and best expressed here:

My idea of a great player...was Leon Rapollo [sic], who was playing at the Friars' Inn then with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, and I did my best to sound like him. I never heard him play in person more than once, but there were plenty of good records to study up on.

Benny's preference for Roppolo's approach to playing had a direct influence upon his career and the future of jazz clarinet. In terms of his career, it helped land the breakthrough gig of his early career--playing with Ben Pollack. Pollack was somewhat of an enigma, and even a tragic figure in the history of jazz. He had an eye for talent, and even an ability to develop that talent as a bandleader, but inevitably those players he recruited would find far greater musical success only after leaving his ensembles. It was his love of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings's sound and approach that made him hire a young Benny Goodman.

Benny's youthful hero worship of Roppolo lead to him playing slouched in his chair--almost on his back--as 'Rap' had done. This, and Benny's ability to play like Roppolo, impressed Pollack enough to offer him the gig, which eventually took Goodman to both coasts.

For the history of jazz clarinet, the connection is equally important, as it links the first great recorded soloist--Leon Roppolo of New Orleans--to the next generation's most important jazz musician, Benny Goodman of Chicago. There is a natural rivalry, especially in the world of jazz clarinet, between New Orleans and Chicago, stoked by the fact that many of the most famous sons of NOLA did their gigging and living in Chicago. The artistic link between Goodman and Roppolo, however, demonstrates a kinship between styles, and the natural growth of an artform. Sidney Bechet once commented that there was no real difference between New Orleans and Chicago style, and Goodman's story helps corroborate this understanding: Chicago style was a development of New Orleans style, not an opposing force.

This also highlights the importance of Leon Roppolo to multiple branches of jazz history. His influence extended through Goodman to most mainstream jazz clarinet that has followed, but also back to his native New Orleans--both Irving Fazola and Pete Fountain's playing bore a strong family resemblance to Rap.

This digression aside, Benny's autobiography has a good amount of quotable material on other topics.
Here he is on conductors:

With some conductors I got along well, but I had trouble with some of the others, especially when it came to doing jazz, and they would tell me how to handle something on sax or clarinet. That rubbed me the wrong way for two reasons: I hadn't grown up in the habit of following somebody else's idea of what the music meant--I had knocked around the business, at that time, for almost ten years and figured I had a way of playing the instrument that was my own, and I wanted to stick to that way. Then, too, some of these conductors didn't know their stuff.

On other peoples' opinions:

Well, lots of musicians and leaders have had their say about me, just as I've expressed my opinion about a lot of fellows I've worked with.

On growing up poor:

One game we played pretty much all the time , though, was cops and robbers. A funny thing about this was that the cops always got the worst of it, because in that kind of a neighborhood, the cops represented something that never did much for the poor people.

I grew up with pretty much of a resentment against the way folks like my father and mother had to work, trying to take care of a big family, making a go of things with most of the breaks against them. Even in the hottest part of the summer they never could get anything like a rest or a vacation.

I was no great shakes in school. I gave more time to music than I did to books, and, like all kids, did the most in what I was interested. Only in my case it didn't happen to be sports, but music. What I might have become if I didn't play an instrument--I never stopped to think about that. From the time I was old enough to think about working, music was in my hand, and I guess I grew up with it. As a matter of fact, judging from the neighborhood where I lived, if it hadn't been for the clarinet I might just as easily have been a gangster.

On the first clarinet he ever owned:

...[was] a swell Martin that my sister Ethel helped me to get. She was also responsible for my first "tux," which I needed for work. At that time she was working for a clothing firm (Kuhn, Nathan and Fisher) as a bookkeeper, and I went down there to see about a suit. But I was so small (what she called a "peanut") that none of the ready-made suits fitted me. So they made one to order for me, for which she paid back by working extra. That was the first tuxedo in the Goodman family, a very big thrill.

On growing up in a big family:

Growing up in a big family naturally put us kids on our own a lot more than if there had been fewer of us. Ida was already married; Harry, Ethel, and the rest were out working, so we didn't see so much of each other except on Sundays. But occasionally things happened that brought us together. For example the time during the summer when Mom discovered there was another baby coming. The youngest one, Gene, was then about six, and Mom didn't have any equipment in the house for the next one. So one night after I had got my week's pay for the job (about fifty dollars) she took the money and got the things she needed. It made me pretty proud to help out that way in preparing for the arrival of the baby of the family--Jerome.

At fourteen I was able to bring home some money regularly, and help out with things which was even better.

The book is filled with interesting notes on a bygone era, as seen from one its most important musicians. The centrality of Benny's family to the motivation for his career, and his background of extreme poverty (but also extreme talent) give a different perspective on his life story, not always sympathetically rendered in more common histories of jazz.

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