Benjamin David “Benny” Goodman (May 30, 1909 – June 13, 1986) was an American jazz and swing musician, clarinetist and bandleader, known as the “King of Swing”. His January 16, 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City is described by critic Bruce Eder as “the single most important jazz or popular music concert in history: jazz’s ‘coming out’ party to the world of ‘respectable’ music.”
When Benny was 10, his father enrolled him and two of his older brothers in music lessons at the Kehelah Jacob Synagogue. The next year he joined the boys club band at Jane Addams’ Hull House, where he received lessons from director James Sylvester. He also received two years of instruction from the classically trained clarinetist Franz Schoepp.
His early influences were New Orleans jazz clarinetists working in Chicago, notably Johnny Dodds, Leon Roppolo, and Jimmie Noone. Goodman learned quickly, becoming a strong player at an early age and soon playing professionally in various bands.
Goodman made his professional debut in 1921 at the Central Park Theater on Chicago’s West Side and entered Harrison High School in Chicago in 1922. He joined the musicians’ union in 1923 and by 14 was in a band that featured the legendary Bix Beiderbecke.
He attended Lewis Institute (now Illinois Institute of Technology) in 1924 as a high school sophomore, while also playing the clarinet in a dance hall band. When Goodman was 16, he joined one of Chicago’s top bands, the Ben Pollack Orchestra, with which he made his first recordings in 1926.
In early 1935, Goodman’s band was one of three bands (the others were Xavier Cugat and “Kel Murray” featured on Let’s Dance where they played arrangements by Henderson along with hits such as “Get Happy” and “Jingle Bells” from composer and arranger Spud Murphy. Goodman’s portion of the program from New York, at 12:30 a.m.
Eastern Time, aired too late to attract a large East Coast audience. However, unknown to him, the time slot gave him an avid following on the West Coast (they heard him at 9:30 p.m. Pacific Time). He and his band remained on Let’s Dance until May of that year when a strike by employees of the series’ sponsor, Nabisco, forced the cancellation of the radio show.
An engagement was booked at Manhattan’s Roosevelt Grill (filling in for Guy Lombardo), but the crowd there expected ‘sweet’ music and Goodman’s band was unsuccessful. The band set out on a tour of the United States in May 1935, but was still poorly received. By August 1935, Goodman found himself with a band that was nearly broke, disillusioned and ready to quit.
At the age of 28 Benny Goodman had reached what seemed to be the pinnacle of success. The new radio program, “The Camel Caravan,” was scheduled in prime time, and the whole nation listened not only to the band itself but to the intelligent commentary by some of the most influential critics of the day, including Clifton Fadiman and Robert Benchley.
But it was not quite the pinnacle. On January 16, 1938, Sol Hurok, the most prestigious impresario in America, booked the Benny Goodman band into Carnegie Hall. For generations Carnegie Hall had been the nation’s greatest temple of musical art, home of the New York Philharmonic and scene of every important artist’s debut (even if they had played in a hundred other concert halls first).