Nowadays, the late Benny Goodman is almost universally recognized as not only one of the greatest jazz clarinetists of the 20th century, but possibly the best—and certainly the most versatile—of all time. Nowadays, there are numerous tribute albums to the late Chicago-born musician, trying their best to ape his style in not only the jazz he played so well for decades but also in the classical pieces that he and only he made famous with the American public: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, Bartók’s Contrasts, the Brahms Clarinet Sonata and the Weber Clarinet Concerto No. 2. Clarinetists the world over have finally come to realize that his unusual combination of a deep, woody-sounding low range, a mellow mid-range and biting, metallic high notes was a mixture he could take apart and put together many different ways in many different pieces of music, and that in the end he was, as Buddy Rich described him, “the best clarinetist in the world.”
But that’s nowadays. Even as recently as the early 1990s, Goodman was a pariah to the majority of classically-trained clarinetists. When I was working as a telemarketer, selling ads on vinyl phone book covers (remember phone books?), one of my co-workers was a woman who had studied classical clarinet at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. I asked her if she liked Benny Goodman. I’ll never forget her reaction. You would think I had asked her to drink a frog I had liquefied in a blender. “You’ve GOT to be kidding!” she snapped at me. “Benny Goodman? With that disgusting low range and that whiny, squeaky top?” Well, yeah—except I’d call his low range “woody” and his high range exciting, not whiny or squeaky. I regaled her with my first-hand experience seeing Goodman play the Weber Concerto live and in person at Carnegie Hall in 1967, and how much I enjoyed it, then how he followed up the second half with jazz, playing with his original trio (Teddy Wilson on piano and Gene Krupa on drums), later joined by George Duvivier on bass and a vibes player (it wasn’t Lionel Hampton; I think, but am not positive, it might have been Terry Gibbs) to form a quintet.
But no matter. She was adamant, and no amount of persuasion would convince her that Goodman was anything but an interloper in the classical world. And her opinion was not a deviation from the norm. Even back in 1938, when Bartók wrote Contrasts for him on commission, he purposely wrote the clarinet part so difficult that the interloper, the “jazznik,” wouldn’t be able to play it—but play it he did, and very well at that. The Budapest String Quartet, which recorded the Mozart Quintet with him, was on record as saying that Goodman had no business playing Mozart because he didn’t have the proper style. Classical record critics tore his discs of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto and the Weber Concerts to shreds. He was only good, they said, when playing jazz-influenced works like Leonard Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs. Otherwise, he had no right to play anything classical.
Funny, but Igor Stravinsky had no problem with conducting him in a recording of his own Ebony Concerto. And you can’t claim that he only did it because both were signed to Columbia records at the time: Stravinsky put his foot down on many a performer suggested to him that he did not approve of. Nor did Aaron Copland have a problem with him playing his Clarinet Concerto. But hey, what the hell did they know about clarinet playing? They probably weren’t familiar with the “great,” but utterly boring, Reginald Kell or Heinrich Geuser, right?
So what changed their perception? Or, perhaps more correctly, why was he hated so much? A lot of it had to do with his personality. Benny wasn’t really a bad person—certainly not as anti-social as his chief rival, Artie Shaw—but he tended to be aloof, self-centered to the point where he was often in a fog, and highly critical of any musician who didn’t meet his high standards. There are more stories among jazz musicians about Goodman than any other performer, living or dead. If a member of his band didn’t play up to snuff, he would often stare at them consistently until they noticed, at which point they would become even more nervous and play even worse. Musicians called this stare “The Ray.” Benny was also tight-fisted with salaries to musicians in his band, though not nearly as tight as Lionel Hampton. There’s a famous story about the time (later in his life) when he called up Xerox and had them bring their most expensive copier over to his apartment for a trial run. Goodman ran his complete hand charts off on the copier so he could give the parts to all of his members, but in the presence of the Xerox guy frowned at the quality of the copies. After the salesman left with the copier, Goodman gave a wink to one of the band members who was present. He had just gotten close to $30 worth of copies for free.
A lot of the time, however, “The Ray” was just Benny staring absent-mindedly into space. Some players couldn’t tell the difference. His absent-mindedness was legendary. One snowy January night, he left the theater after a concert and passed a convertible with the top left down. “Look at what this jerk did!” said Benny. “He forgot to put the top up, and now his car is filled with snow!” Ten seconds later, he realized it was HIS car. He was also stubborn about others recommending musicians to him, even if he trusted their judgment. The most famous story concerns Mary Lou Williams raving to him about Charlie Christian. “Yeah, but he plays an electric guitar,” said Benny. “I’ve heard those guys. They either play hillbilly music or Hawaiian crap.” Finally, his brother-in-law John Hammond just sat Christian in the Goodman rhythm section before a performance without Benny’s knowledge. Goodman hit the roof when he saw Christian, who looked like a rube in his bright green suit and Stetson had, but when he called off Rose Room and pointed to Christian to solo, the guitarist played six brilliant choruses. Benny was finally convinced. A year or two later, he was looking for a piano player. Someone recommended young Mel Powell. “But is he really the best available?” Benny kept asking. Once again, he had to hear for himself before he was convinced.
These personality traits were not entirely peripheral to his acceptance as a classical musician. Classical clarinetists were composed, self-assured and polite. In short, they weren’t Benny Goodman. Goodman didn’t really make so many enemies as he did people who were just turned off by his personality and, in classical music, by a sound they felt was inappropriate.
So why is it appropriate now? I’ll give it to you in two words: Richard Stoltzman. Stoltzman, whose technique is also unorthodox, is well-accepted as a classical clarinetist, and in the latter phase of his career he has given many concerts devoted to the music of Goodman, both jazz and classical. To a lesser extent, Don Byron has also opened doors for the Goodman sound, largely through his years playing with the Klezmer Conservatory Band. Thanks to them, the more acerbic clarinet style of jazz and klezmer—Goodman’s two great influences—have become more acceptable in the music world. Also, in the past decade or so, “world music” has finally become a big part of classical performance, and once again klezmer and jazz-type clarinet playing has been a part of that.
But here’s the rub. No one does Benny Goodman as well as Benny himself did. He still daunts everyone today, just as he did during his lifetime. Only now his sound is something that many clarinetists want to emulate, whereas before it was a sound they rejected and detested.
Reginald Kell, eat your heart out!
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley