Benny Goodman: Philip Clark Surveys the Career of a Clarinettist Who Recorded Mozart, Bartok and Copland While Changing the Course of Jazz History by Launching the Swing Era

By Clark, Philip | Gramophone, June 2016 | Go to article overview

Benny Goodman: Philip Clark Surveys the Career of a Clarinettist Who Recorded Mozart, Bartok and Copland While Changing the Course of Jazz History by Launching the Swing Era


Clark, Philip, Gramophone


When Benny Goodman died in June 1986, aged 77, he was in the middle of rehearsals for an appearance at that year's Mostly Mozart festival in New York City and his daughter Rachel has recounted the last time she saw her father--looking contented in his apartment, clarinet in hand, standing next to a music stand overflowing with sheet music by Brahms and Mozart.

Goodman had always been a classicist by instinct. The saxophonist, bandleader and jazz historian Loren Schoenberg, who became his music director during the last decade of his life, has recalled marvelling at the precision with which Goodman communicated every grace note, trill and suppleness of orchestration as he taught his library of classic 1930s swing arrangements to a band of young jazz turks 50 years later. For Goodman, these scores by master arrangers like Fletcher Flenderson, Eddie Sauter and Edgar Sampson held their allure as magically as the inner mechanics of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto--because whether playing jazz, or interpreting a classical concerto, Goodman was fascinated by the spontaneity of interaction between soloist and ensemble.

It's only right and proper that today Goodman is remembered primarily as a catalyst for jazz change. Had he never been born and elevated big bands into being the pop music of the mid-1930s, jazz might have skipped one of its key developmental milestones--but the development of Western classical music would, of course, have marched forwards irrespective.

But Goodman's second career as a classical clarinettist was far too important, and remains too influential, to overlook. As he recorded cornerstone works like Mozart's Clarinet Quintet (with the Budapest Quartet) and Clarinet Concerto (with Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra), Debussy's First Rhapsody (John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic) and chamber music by Brahms and Weber (often accompanied by pianist Nadia Reisenberg), he also used his celebrity status as The King of Swing, often matched by his personal wealth, to stir up interest in new music. And Goodman had impeccable taste: the composers he commissioned, or would collaborate with, included Bartok, Stravinsky, Bernstein, Morton Gould, Milhaud, Britten, Copland and Hindemith--and with Gould and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra he recorded Nielsen's thorny Clarinet Concerto, a rarity indeed back in 1967.

On January 16, 1938, Goodman brought his swing band with assembled guests, including Count Basie, Buck Clayton and Lester Young, together at Carnegie Hall--the first time a jazz orchestra had headlined America's classical music mecca. The momentous reputation of tire hall clearly prayed on Goodman's mind--'How long does Toscanni take?' he replied when asked how long he needed his interval to be. But as he prepared for this historic jazz concert, Goodman was also corresponding with Bartok. Joseph Szigeti, recently arrived in the US, had wanted to commission his fellow Hungarian--and the result was Contrasts, Bartok's 20-minute trio for clarinet, violin and piano, paid for out of Goodman's own pocket. …

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