Benny Goodman: From The Inside

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Benny Goodman

(Photo: DownBeat Archives)

“When we were on that Russian thing, Benny played some of my arrangements, and I wrote a couple of tunes which he played and recorded. … A lot of people who haven’t had any experience of how he acts get pretty shook up, but I was not so disappointed—hell, I expected it! Knowing him, I know it doesn’t take much to set him off, and he really was under a lot of pressure in Russia.

“But it’s amazing how he seems to have changed since then. He’s more relaxed, remembers everybody’s name and is generally easier to get along with. I don’t agree with a lot of the people who put him down. When he’s really playing—forget about it, he’ll scare you to death! There’s a good reason for his staying on top all these years. It’s because he can play his head off, and he’s had great bands.

“Anybody his age with his endurance is really incredible. He’ll rehearse for hours, and we’ll all be getting tired, but he’ll just be ready to play! One night he came down to the Half Note and sat in with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, and he cooked everybody right off the stand. He must have taken 10 to 15 choruses on every tune. We’re all a bit younger than he is, but we were exhausted when he got through, and there he was, fresh as a daisy, and ready to play some more!

“Anybody that says he can’t play—well, they just aren’t around when he is playing. He practices two or three hours a day, and when we were rehearsing [for last fall’s tour, which was half jazz and half classical], he would play for three hours with the Berkshire String Quartet first—and then start in on the jazz group and rehearse for about five hours straight. He’s like a young kid with all that enthusiasm. It just never occurs to him to take a break, because he never gets tired. Most people practice because they have to, but he practices because he loves it.

“What’s he really like? Well, I’ve been around a lot of characters in my life, and I can usually predict what all of them will say and do, but you can’t predict what this guy will do from one minute to the next. When we were out with a group that had Jack Sheldon, Johnnie Markham and Flip Phillips, Benny was in a real jovial mood the whole time. He was telling jokes. Man, he was a riot. He’s got a brilliant mind for comedy, but not too many people know it.

“I feel I’m pretty qualified—more than most—to say I know him. A lot of guys have just had one brush with him, and they base everything, their opinion of him, on that one experience, which isn’t really fair.”

“I think a guy that can play as well as he does is entitled to a few eccentricities,” said Bobby Hackett, who was in the Lincoln Center group. “I’ve always found him to be most honorable all around. The trouble with him is that he just can’t get his mind off the clarinet. He’s like an absent-minded professor, mentally rehearsing all the time. That’s why he comes up with these strange remarks sometimes.

“I’ve worked quite a few weeks with him at different times, and they’ve all been beautiful. I think a lot of guys that criticize him subconsciously envy his success and his musicianship. Who do you know that pays the kind of salaries he pays? People just don’t pay that kind of money, not matter how much they have in the bank. He pays more than anybody and winds up getting criticized. It’s like when this country lends money to another country, you make an enemy. Tony Parenti told me a marvelous story once about Benny. In 1930 Tony subbed one night for him on Ben Pollack’s band, and instead of cash, Benny gave him a baritone sax! That wasn’t bad pay for one night.”

As marvelous a musician as Benny is, I did notice, however, his seeming lack of interest in rich harmonies. His music reflects this; he always has concentrated on the beat, rhythmic excitement, the melodic line. Lush voicings and chord changes evidently leave him cold. He seems to want the blandest possible changes behind him, and his improvisations are carried out strictly within this framework. It bothers him to hear an unfamiliar voicing—as I found out. This is his style, however, and his taste; I respect it as such.

As regards his expecting perfection, I can understand this better now, because sometimes I’ve found that with my own group, I will lose patience with a drummer or bass player, for not playing the way I think he should play, yet I haven’t really told him what I wanted to hear—I just expected him to know.

I think sometimes Benny (I’m second guessing, as he’s never actually told me this) will hire a musician and expect a great deal from him; then when he finds that he and this person don’t have the rapport he thought they would have, he sort of gives up and shuts himself off. I get the feeling that he expects a musician to know certain intangible things, and if he doesn’t catch on at once, then Benny mentally cancels him out.

As a teenager Benny worked harder and more consistently than most people. In fact, he has all his life, and I think he tends perhaps to have a lack of tolerance for people who don’t have as great a capacity for work and study as he has, which is understandable. I feel that putting down Benny has become a national pastime, and I wonder if the contemporary jazz stars will endure half as long musically, or as people, as he has. I think that at times one tends to grow too emotional about his behavior and that it might be a good idea to examine oneself occasionally, instead of always getting mad at Benny.

In retrospect, working for him was a great experience, one from which I have derived a good deal of insight into my own playing and into working with, and playing with, others. Despite all the pinpricks that seemed so important at the time, I haven’t changed my belief that Benny is a warm human being, and the paradox of it is that he also can be quite naive and gauche—in fact, at times he would make Emily Post faint. But he can be gracious and charming and fun.

Regardless of what people say in favor of, or against, Benny Goodman, his music has endured, and will endure. To quote one of Benny’s favorite expressions, “the old pepper” is still there … the old magic is still there. DB

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