Magazine article Insight on the News

The Night Swing Was Born

Magazine article Insight on the News

The Night Swing Was Born

Article excerpt

During a Carnegie Hall concert in 1938, Benny Goodman and some of the brightest stars in jazz ushered in the swing era with performance for the ages.

We thought it was lost: that tremendous night 60 years ago when Benny Goodman, his band and some of the greats of jazz broke loose in the staid confines of Carnegie Hall. Irving Kolodin, one of the few journalist music critics who knew what jazz was about wrote for the following day's New York Sun that "an earthquake of violent intensity rocked a small corner of Manhattan last night as swing took Carnegie Hall in its stride." I suspect that I am one of a tiny company still alive and able to report the excitement of the Benny Goodman Jazz Concert in 1938 and the impact of that invasion on the public's musical perceptions.

The usual Sunday quiet of 57th Street and Seventh Avenue was shattered that night, and we -- we being myself and Eugene Williams, later to become one of the most prescient and sensitive jazz critics -- literally had to fight our way into Carnegie Hall, where it was standing room only (even Goodman had to pay scalpers' prices for the tickets he belatedly sought for members of his family). Some of the Carnegie regulars were there, but for the most part it was college kids like us and the older types with whom we rubbed elbows in Greenwich Village, Harlem and 52nd Street jazz joints.

Until some 23 years later, we did not know that what was heard that night at Carnegie Hall had not perished but had been picked up by a single overhead microphone and fed to CBS, one copy of the tape going to the Library of Congress and the other to Goodman, who threw it in his closet. When the LPs were is-sued in the 1950s we hesitated to play them, fearful that our golden recollections would be shattered. We were wrong, and new generations who have it on compact discs will back us up (Sony Music, B000002657, 2 CDs, $19.97). But more is on those CDs than the music that rocked Carnegie Hall -- the excitement of those who lived through the time when jazz burst through the longhairs' transom in the swing era.

It was a time of the new and the old blending, when the music went `round and `round and came out here. We drove through the dark avenues of Staten Island to hear the after-hours piano of Art Hodes, toothpick-thin as he hunched over the keyboard out of the barrelhouse school and playing beer-hall gigs until he got his Local 802 card. We walked the streets of Harlem, to the cellar joints where the rich voice of an alto sax or a horn cut through the smoke. In the Village, Eddie Condon, Bud Freeman, Peewee Russell and the Chicago gang of white boys blasted out their tighter Chicago-style version of the New Orleans product. And at the Apollo in Harlem, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Jimmy Lunceford blew the curtains off the proscenium. This was jazz in the thirties, before Wynton Marsalis and the reverse racists at the Lincoln Center in New York decreed that jazz was black and you ofays better get out!

But the Carnegie Hall concert gave us a new dimension. Goodman brought discipline to big-band jazz and some of the finest sidemen of the time. He had broken the color barrier, and his trio and quartet included Teddy Wilson, with his sensitive touch and his sprung rhythms, and Lionel Hampton, who brought more music out of his vibraphone than we thought was in it. …

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