Benny Goodman 1909-1986
06/30/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
It seemed an era had ended: Swing—that lovely kissing cousin of America's musical genius, jazz—was really gone. The grand, rambunctious beauty had increasingly seemed passé and now she was. Everybody fashionable said so.
The year everybody said that was 1937.
In January 1938 Benny Goodman gave the first swing concert ever held in august Carnegie Hall, where you felt the hovering ghosts of Chaliapin and Tchaikovsky. At one point, Gene Krupa, who had been insistently thwacking his drums on a thunderous number called Sing, Sing, Sing, erupted in pure, demonic, measured dictatorship, cornering the very air. At other moments, Jess Stacy went through his piano keyboard like a benign Attila, making a joy of rampage. Throughout, Goodman, the leader, tilted his head back and gave the hallowed hall something new to remember: the sound of a clarinet set free. And when they were done, the swing era, far from dead, had been reborn.
He had begun it, with Fletcher Henderson's arrangements, at the Palo-mar Ballroom in Hollywood in 1935, just when he figured he was through. The key moment came when Bunny Berigan rose and blew his trumpet as though sounding a last divine call. Benny said the audience's roar of approval—not Berigan's notes—was "one of the sweetest sounds I ever heard." Most said it wouldn't last. But after Carnegie Hall, swing dominated pop music until the end of World War II.
And then it didn't. In the '50s, Goodman would stand in a Manhattan club, announce his great Air Mail Special, hear silence before the applause, turn, smile and say, "That's all right. We almost didn't remember it ourselves."
Other styles, other voices intervened; Benny stayed. In 1964 his quartet was briefly reunited after a 26-year layoff. It sounded ill at ease until, midway through China Boy, Krupa and Lionel Hampton, on the vibes, started laughing together musically. Their old leader doubled over in delight, aimed his horn at the sky, and it was old times again. In 1958 he killed them at the Brussels World's Fair, in 1962 in Leningrad. In 1982 he got the Kennedy Center Honors award from President Reagan. Early in 1986 he made a recording for Music masters, which will be released soon; this month he was working on a tour that was booked through November. Everybody agreed, and they were right for once, that he still had the purity—it was like a bird's or maybe the sound of a stream—that had awakened them 51 years earlier.
He made both fans and enemies, often of the same musicians. He was demanding, perfectionist, often rude and jealous of his slot: The King of Swing knew his title well. The turnover in his bands was heavy. Jess Stacy once said, "He's so damned wrapped up in that clarinet. All the time I was with Goodman, he was never satisfied." Last week Artie Shaw, the only man whose clarinet was as good and may have been better, said, "Benny was so immersed in the clarinet there was very little left over." A week earlier a TV interviewer asked why he was still playing the instrument. "That's all I have," Benny Goodman said, seemingly sad. Even if that were so, he died on June 13, 1986 a rich man.