Saturday, May 30, 2009

Quote of the Day (Clive James, on Benny Goodman, Jazz and Race)

“A man like Benny Goodman, for example, can’t possibly be fitted into a schematic history that would base itself on the white exploitation of a black invention. He carried within himself the only answer to the conflict, and, as things have turned out, he presaged the outcome: a measure of tolerance and mutual respect, and at least a step toward a colour-blind creative world. Being white, he was able to translate his prodigious talent into economic power: the very power to which black musicians, however successful, were always denied access. But Goodman used his power to break the race barrier. Though his mixed small groups existed mainly in the recording studios and rarely on stage—the Carnegie Hall appearance with Count Basie was strictly an interlude—the music they made was the emblem of a political future, and in the aesthetic present it was a revelation.” --Clive James, Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts (2007)

All hail Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing,” born 100 years ago today in Chicago, one of 12 siblings in a dirt-poor Russian emigrant family.

The Clive James quote above refers to Goodman’s integration of jazz, what is often called America’s unique contribution to culture—a full decade before Branch Rickey did the same thing for America’s pastime by hiring Jackie Robinson. The big-band leader had already recorded with the African-American pianist Teddy Wilson as part of a trio (along with regular Goodman drummer Gene Krupa; the three are pictured in the image accompanying this post) when he was convinced by Helen Oakley, a young jazz writer, to have the small group play in concert.

The chemistry on that Easter Sunday in 1936 was perfect—“The three of us,” Goodman recalled, “worked together as if were had been born to play that way”—and the audience in the Urban Room of Chicago’s Congress Hotel clapped and roared approvingly. The later addition of virtuouso vibraphonist Lionel Hampton made it a quartet.

At this point, it becomes necessary to interject with what, to his contemporaries in the music world, was the obvious: Goodman was a driven, excellence-demanding professional entertainer, but not a saint. In a PBS “American Masters” documentary on his life broadcast some years ago, his daughter remembered how, brusquely, even brutally, he had discouraged her from a career as a musician by saying point-blank that she had no talent.

Gary Giddins’ “The Mirror of Swing” essay in the great anthology Reading Jazz, while celebrating his musical achievements, also depicted an ironic juxtaposition: a galaxy of jazzmen, gathered together for a tribute in Goodman’s honor, yet overwhelmingly carping about his “legendary cheapness, absentmindedness, mandarin discipline, rudeness to musicians, and various eccentricities.”

That’s not the end of it, by any means. Dan Morgenstern’s essay in Living With Jazz: A Reader puts the matter within a larger framework by quoting another musician, Mel Powell, that Goodman was “one of the very, very few white people I’ve known who had not a single fiber of racism in him. He was absolutely, authentically color-blind….One of the real giveaways to his outlook was that he could be as rude to a black man as to a white man. He did not get patronizing or suddenly gentle. Not at all. And I always found that admirable.”

Longtime devotees of professional football will recognize the same attitude in a man four years Goodman’s junior, Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. “He treats us all alike,” one of his players supposedly said, “like dogs.”

Scions of immigrant families, the two men also burned to succeed, driving themselves perhaps more mercilessly than anyone else. Professional triumph came at something of a price in both cases. Goodman, as we’ve seen, was more admired than loved, while Lombardi’s ferocious, inward-turning anxiety probably fed the cancer that killed him at age 57.

Two last aspects of the James quote are left for me to remark on. The first is race. James was reacting to several critics and musicians who have downgraded Goodman in comparison with black musicians and band leaders. This seems to me churlish. Just as it is inconceivable to deny the central African-American contribution to jazz, it is also impossible to deny Goodman’s part in the story. He excelled on the clarinet in the jazz, pop and classical realms—something that few other musicians of any race could match.

Second, though the occasion for this post is Goodman’s birth, I’d like to close by going full-circle: to his death. His daughter, hurt as she was by her father’s thoughtlessness, could also only marvel at his perseverance in the face of cancer, making sure to practice every day, no matter how awful he felt. Goodman died, in fact, rehearsing for a Mostly Mozart festival in June 1986.

Fans of the jazz legend might want to listen to WKCR, the radio station of my alma mater, Columbia University, as they air, through June, a tribute to Goodman in celebration of his centennial.

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