Benny Goodman: From The Inside

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Benny Goodman

(Photo: DownBeat Archives)

His general attitude to my queries was one of polite tolerance. He was rather guarded, evincing a sort of quiet, offhanded amusement that I should concern myself with such things. I felt that he considered any discussion of the music business—with me, at any rate—something to be avoided at all costs. But he stated definitely that he considers any discussion of his fellow musicians somewhat unethical. (Come to think of it, I never have heard him really put down anyone behind his back, except in the mildest possible way.) Not all his fellow musicians share this reticence, however.

“In 1935, I was in the front row at the Texas Centennial to hear the band,” Jimmy Giuffre said. “Harry James was in it, Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. I was in high school at the time, and this occasion was one of the most important influences in starting me on my musical career. At that time, I could do nothing but admire Benny’s playing—the great drive and projection, the fluidity, strong technical fluency and feeling. He’s had more influence on more musicians that anyone else that I can think of. Practically all clarinetists have fallen in behind him. They followed his lead, and it was a good lead.

“He’s tried to open up his recent groups to new trends but usually winds up by going back to his old way of doing things. I wrote an arrangement for him once when he had that bop band with Buddy Greco. It was called “Pretty Butterfly,” but he never used it. Why didn’t he use it? Well, if you applied the word ‘why’ to Benny Goodman, you would be in trouble. He throws curves regularly to most people. As an older musician, I think he fears a new era in music that is leaving him behind, so he tries it all for size, and if it doesn’t happen to fit, he discards it and goes back to his old familiar style. What he’s doing now isn’t really interesting to me anymore because it’s the same approach he’s used for 30 years. Now it’s the expected; then it was an innovation. That band he had in 1935 hasn’t ever been topped—Benny really knows how to make a band swing—he had good guys, but it was his know-how that made the thing so great.

“But I can’t really blame Benny for not going any other route; he picks up the horn, and that’s the way he plays. Now, his playing of symphony music—the way it sounds is that instead of playing the music on a personal basis, he tries to be a legitimate clarinet player with a legitimate sound rather than being Benny Goodman. I feel that he assumes the classical player’s role, whereas he should still be himself, because if anyone has an identity, Benny Goodman has. I feel that jazz music has an identity which is difficult to define; it’s a dialect in the player, an accent. I don’t know if Benny is trying to prove something to himself by playing classical music in this legitimate style, but, to me, it just doesn’t come off. I don’t mean that it’s bad playing—he’s just not in his element, not himself.”

Benny’s long-time friend and great admirer, composer Morton Gould, takes a somewhat different viewpoint:

“It’s impossible to be objective about somebody you feel so strongly about. We would be less than human if we were machinelike in our appraisal. I think that Benny is a first-rate artist; I also feel that too often he is just taken for granted. To me, he has the qualities of a truly great artist—consistent musical integrity. He is very demanding of others, and of himself, and though at times he may be seemingly critical of another person, in my close, intimate contact with him, I have never heard him say anything derogatory, mean, or vicious about another person. He is violently super-critical of himself. Perhaps this is why he finds it so hard to find the right people to work with him.

“Benny, with all his worldwide success and acclaim, is actually a very shy person. He wants to be left alone. Basically, he’s a simple man, with no ostentation—very honest. He has none of the superficial ornamentation that sometimes goes with the public image of a famous personality. He always has his feet on the ground. The legend is that he is unapproachable. Well, basically, he is an introspective person, and, to me, it’s symbolic that a man who has lived though and been a part of so much jazz history as he has could have come away unscathed by the more lurid aspects of the business.

“To sum up my feelings about Benny the man, I feel that he is a very warm and compassionate human being, and I have a tremendous admiration for him. There still is a kind of vitality, virtuosity and imagination in his music. Maybe he’s not in vogue just now with the young set, but, nevertheless, his facility and command of the instrument are just as great as they ever were. All you have to do is listen to other clarinetists—and I mean beyond jazz—I mean that as a clarinetist, not as a jazz artist, he is a fabulous performer. I’ve heard him play and do things on the highest level of musical art.

“Why should a man like Benny Goodman be expected to become far out or be whatever is currently fashionable? All these developments in music are exciting. Popular music, by its very nature, has to change, but somehow one doesn’t expect an Elman or a Heifetz to change his style. I think it’s a little unfair to expect one generation to continually remake itself in the image of the generation that comes after it. It’s not in the cards.”

Pianist John Bunch, who was with Benny on the 1962 State Department tour of Russia and who also was in the group with which I played, seems to have insight into some of Benny’s other aspects. “Benny always seems happier with a small group, but really he’s the most complicated person I’ve ever met, as far as trying to explain him to anyone, or to myself,” John said. “I’m sort of proud that I’ve been able to get along with him so well, personally and musically. I have played seven tours with him. The first one was in 1957, and the more I think about it … wow! … the more I wonder how I’ve managed to stay on such good terms with him.

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November 2021
Joey DeFrancesco
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