Benny Goodman on Film
December 16, 2013 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
The relationship of music and film is an intimate partnership that has existed since people realized it was slightly awkward to sit in silence in large groups and watch moving pictures. Some historians claim that the first film music served a very practical purpose: drowning out the noise of the projector. And once the projector noise became less of a problem, music stayed a part of film. Many would argue—myself included—that music remained an integral part of the film experience. There are some films, however, that require the music to pull a bit more dramatic weight.
When the movie is about a musician, composer, or performer, music may play a greater role in the narrative. One of my favorite “biopics” (as they are called) is The Benny Goodman Story. It was produced in 1956 and starred Steve Allen as legendary clarinetist, Benny Goodman. Steve Allen portrayed Goodman as a charming, quiet man. I’m a fan of the movie not because it’s so accurate—all biopics take some liberties with the facts. I’m a fan because music is such a big part of the film, and because Benny Goodman was a pretty interesting person.
Goodman was born in 1909, grew up in Chicago, and started playing clarinet when he was ten years old. Although he had some classical training, he loved Jazz and played it well. In Chicago, he was able to hear some of the great jazz clarinetists of the time. He was playing professionally (and had joined the union) by the time he was fourteen years old. At first he played in other people’s bands, working as a session musician in New York City. In the late 1920s, he played in a band with other future Big Band greats Tommy Dorsey and Glen Miller. Miller actually played in one of Goodman’s early bands, Benny Goodman’s Boys.
Goodman began a friendship with Fletcher Henderson, an African-American bandleader and composer, who headed up an immensely popular big band. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, bands could not be racially integrated, and this was a condition that Goodman would eventually use his influence to address. In the early 1930s, Goodman formed a trio with black pianist Teddy Wilson and drummer Gene Krupa. In 1936, the trio became a quartet with the addition of famed vibes player, Lionel Hampton. These small groups were not allowed to play in the south due to Jim Crow laws, but Goodman’s popularity meant that they could make enough money without touring in the south.
By all accounts, Goodman was a kind and thoughtful man who just wanted to play with the best musicians, regardless of the color of their skin. When the Stock Market crashed in 1929, Goodman helped Fletcher Henderson out, purchasing his arrangements, and helping to extend the popularity of his music. Goodman’s own popularity took off with his bands’ appearances on a radio show called Let’s Dance. Goodman’s time slot on the show was too late to be popular on the east coast, but the kids were just loving his music on the west coast. In fact, the band’s gig at Los Angeles’ Palomar Ballroom on August 21, 1935 was described in retrospect as the beginning of the “Swing era.” (For facts on the Palomar, see below.)
Goodman was popular on the radio and on recordings, but he made his big screen debut as part of the Big Broadcast of 1937. It was around then that people started calling Goodman the “King of Swing.” In 1938, the Benny Goodman Orchestra did something unprecedented: they played Carnegie Hall. The live recording of this concert, which took place on January 16, 1938, has become one of the best selling albums of live jazz, and with good reason. The version of Goodman’s famous “Sing, Sing, Sing,” is worth the purchase price alone. On it, Goodman solos, as do Babe Russin (saxophone) and Harry James (trumpet). Drummer Gene Krupa gets to show off his energetic style, and the whole band comes together for moments of pure magic. Forget about qualifiers, this version of “Sing, Sing, Sing” is one of my favorite live recordings of any style of music, hands down.
When The Benny Goodman Story came to the screen in the 1950s, I wonder if there was any talk of having the bandleader play himself. In fact, Benny Goodman had done just that in The Big Broadcast of 1937. In 1938, he appeared in Busby Berkeley’s Hollywood Hotel. Other cameos followed in Birth of the Blues (1941), Stage Door Canteen (1943), and Make Mine Music (1946). Most likely, though, they figured that the real Benny Goodman was too old to play himself, since the film ends triumphantly with the Carnegie Hall concert. Steve Allen was the perfect choice; he was the right age, he wore glasses like Goodman, and he knew his way around the clarinet. Donna Reed played Alice Hammond, the sister of producer John Hammond. Benny and Alice married in 1942. Their love story is made central in The Benny Goodman Story. In the film, Alice is impressed by Benny’s ability to play Mozart as well as he played jazz and swing.
After the Swing Era, Goodman kept up with popular styles, trying his hand at Bebop and Cool jazz. Eventually, he turned back to his classical roots, recording some Mozart pieces, and commissioning chamber and orchestral works from contemporary composers like Bela Bartok and Aaron Copland. In 1957, Goodman was inducted into Downbeat’s Jazz Hall of Fame. He lived into the 1980s, and continued to play and develop as an artist and performer. He received honorary doctorates from, among others, Columbia, Harvard, and Yale. Goodman’s papers were donated to Yale after his death.
Benny Goodman, who set off the Swing era, who brought jazz and big band music to Carnegie Hall, who played with the best musicians regardless of race, is a national treasure. I feel a special kinship with him since we have the same birthday (May 30), but my love of his music started with old big band albums and with The Benny Goodman Story. Sure, the film isn’t a documentary, but the songs on the soundtrack are the only “facts” that matter. This film is out there and available, and it does help the viewer get to know the man behind the music. But why not just let the music speak for itself? If you’ve not heard a lot of Benny Goodman before, the live recording of the Carnegie Hall concert is a good place as any to start. But don’t play it on “shuffle.” Save “Sing, Sing. Sing” for the end. It’s a tough act to follow.
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Facts about the Palomar: The Palomar Ballroom once stood on Vermont Avenue, between Second and Third. There’s a Von’s supermarket on that block now. In its heyday, admission cost forty cents for men and a quarter for women. It had a large dance floor, big enough for eight thousand people. It followed segregation policies until it burned down in October 1939.