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An American Amalgam - Benny Goodman

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Nashville, Tennessee (the home of Turner Publishing) is considered by many as the central hub of country music. However, the Nashville music scene has more to offer than just country music. If you walk the stretch of Broadway – home to some of Nashville’s most famous honkey-tonks – you’ll hear a mixture of country twang, the smooth saltiness of blues musicians, the upbeat tempo of pop musicians, the unforgettable beat of hip-hop, and numerous other music offerings.

Like Nashville, American music is itself an amalgam, a melting pot, a stuffed stew like the famous Hank Williams song of the far South, “Jambalaya”.

A man who represented the crazy quilt of U.S. sounds as much as anyone was the jazz clarinetist and band leader of the last mid-century, Benny Goodman.

Here’s an excerpt from a chapter on that impresario from A Patriot’s A to Z of America:

American Music: Kings of Swing and Rhythm It was a stunning sight, and sound, for the “high brows” of Carnegie Hall, the classical-music venue of New York City, on January 16, 1938. The orchestra in question, although neatly attired, was not playing Brahms, but Basie.

In fact, with songs like “I Got Rhythm,” a series of acts were providing a veritable history of jazz, the rhythmic, popular music that in recent decades had been shaking up the country, and much of the world.

All-Star Lineups

There were African-American spirituals. And popular songs, fit for a Broadway stage or a vaudeville hall, played and sung with a rhythmic lilt. There were up-tempo “swing numbers” propelled by powerhouse drummer Gene Krupa, trumpeter Harry James, and other talented bandmates of the headliner, Benny Goodman, the acclaimed “King of Swing.” The audience members, far from listening politely, clapped loudly and stomped their feet.

The intense, exacting Goodman, born in 1909 and raised in Chicago, was the son of immigrants from the Russian provinces of Poland and Lithuania. From age 16, he had been playing with the likes of future jazz superstar Glenn Miller and trombonist Jack Teagarden.

Along the way he was assisted by music impresario John Hammond—scion of the Vanderbilt railroad family—who would discover other jazz standouts like Billie Holiday and, much later, famed musicians of the rock-and-roll era.

In Chicago in 1935, Goodman put together the “first jazz concert,” a sit-down affair as opposed to the usual dance hall shake-up.

He also recruited pianist Teddy Wilson and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, both of African-American ancestry, thus breaking the “color line” in music a dozen years before Brooklyn Dodgers player Jackie Robinson did so in sports. His band, with arrangements from

Fletcher Henderson, developed a distinctive style of “swing,” the brassy, big-city sound that had supplanted the New Orleans–based “Dixieland jazz” of Louis Armstrong. Goodman, pushed by Hammond, would later add soloist Charlie Christian, playing the novel instrument of the electrified guitar, destined to have a vast impact on pop music.

Novelty within the Tradition

What Goodman was doing was unique, but also of a piece with American musical trends before and since. Performers take European instruments, like woodwinds, brass, and drums, and the old continent’s musical forms, like classical and church music. Then they add American musical styles, be it Stephen Foster’s folk songs of the 1850s, the catchy Broadway and Tin Pan Alley tunes of the urban North, John Philip Sousa’s marching-band stomps, the bluegrass of Appalachia, or blues or gospel permeating the postbellum South, or a banjo plucked from Africa. Finally, they commercialize the music enough to reach the masses, via the ever-changing technology of the day: bandstands, recorded media, the airwaves, cassette tapes, and Internet downloads.

The formula has worked spectacularly again and again: Scott Joplin’s syncopated ragtime of the early 1900s; the rap and hip-hop of the 1970s to today, using antiquated turntables and cutting-edge “sampling” technology to call up old-school hits to construct trendy new sounds; Hank Williams’ music of the 1950s, broadcast on newfangled television and featuring the new instrument of pedal steel guitar, borrowed from American Hawaii; and so forth.

But Goodman’s perhaps remembered most of all for a strange new sound that’s echoed down the eras: the stomping of feet at the venerable Carnegie Hall.

Want to read more about A Patriot’s A to Z of America? Read more here...