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Benny Goodman: the `King of Swing' is remembered for several firsts

By Amy DuncanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 19, 1986



New York

Benny Goodman was one of a handful of big-band leaders -- including Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, and Buddy Rich -- who managed to ride out the wild shifts in musical tastes during the '50s, '60s, and '70s and to keep his own brand of music alive. In fact, the ``King of Swing,'' as he was often called, put together a new band last year and released a new album, appropriately titled ``Let's Dance.'' It was recorded live at the Marriott Marquis here in a by-invitation-only, $1,000-a-seat concert that was then televised on PBS stations in March.

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But Goodman, who passed on here in New York last week, will be remembered for a lot more.

The history books will record that the King of Swing was also an accomplished classical clarinetist who played and recorded with symphony orchestras all over the world; that Goodman was the first jazz musician to play in Carnegie Hall, in 1938; and that he was also the first musician to present a racially-mixed jazz group -- his unparalleled quartet with Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, and Lionel Hampton -- to the American public.

And then there were the arrangements trademarked by Goodman's orchestra. ``Don't Be that Way,'' ``Stompin' at the Savoy,'' and ``Sing, Sing, Sing'' are just a few of the Goodman numbers that became American classics.

Goodman's life revolved around music. His passion for it dates back to when he took up the clarinet at age 10. By 13, he had joined the musicians' union.

From then on he played in a series of bands -- Ben Pollack's, Red Nichols's, and Isham Jones's, among others -- until he formed his own group in the early '30s. He also did a good deal of recording, playing in Broadway shows, and working on radio with Andr'e Kostelanetz, Paul Whiteman, and others.

In 1934, Goodman formed the band that was featured on the National Biscuit Company's ``Let's Dance'' radio show, the job that moved Goodman into the national spotlight. He made his first national tour in 1935.

Interestingly, the big turning point in his career wasn't a gig in New York, as with so many musicians, but a stint at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. It was shortly after that that the Benny Goodman Band appeared in its first movie, ``The Big Broadcast of 1937,'' followed by a string of films -- ``Hollywood Hotel,'' ``Stage Door Canteen,'' ``Sweet and Lowdown,'' and finally, ``The Benny Goodman Story'' in 1955.

Over the years Goodman traveled with big and small groups throughout Europe, Japan, Thailand, Burma, and the Soviet Union.

He was best known as a clarinetist, but ardent Goodman fans will recall that in his early years he also played the alto, tenor, baritone, and soprano saxophones, and even recorded on trumpet.

Goodman always made a point of practicing his instrument -- usually scales or classical music -- to keep up his technique. Friends say he was practicing right up to the day he passed on. A Brahms sonata was resting on a music stand in his New York City apartment.