Sunday, January 16, 2011

Pop History Moment: Jazz Comes To Carnegie Hall


On this day in 1938 Benny Goodman - one of the foremost practitioners of that most American musical genre, jazz - brought what was then the most vibrant element of American culture to what was then a stultified American bastion of European culture, Carnegie Hall. Buoyed by the wild success of his film Hollywood Hotel, Goodman staged the concert mainly at the behest of his publicist, Wynn Nathanson, and in its single night was as instrumental in ushering in the Swing Era as Goodman's three-week-long August 1935 engagement at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles.

Now considered the single most important jazz concert ever, the best American players in the game on that evening treated a capacity crowd of 2,760* - some of whom paid as much as $2.75 for their tickets, a sum then considered astronomical** - to the highlights not just of their own catalogue but to some of the genre's die-hard standards as well. The Benny Goodman Orchestra - which the bandleader had taken off the road early so as to rehearse within the challenging acoustics of Carnegie Hall itself - was aided in their performance by vocalist Martha Tilton, who sang Loch Lomond.

Despite a somewhat slow start, with a musical history of the form covering the previous twenty years and an awkward jam session featuring members of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras sitting in, by the time the distinctive opening tympani solo of Sing, Sing, Sing began to make its thundering way through the hall from the stage to the rafters the crowd was really jumping - literally! - going so far as filling the aisles with dancers. With tenor saxophonist Babe Russin, trumpeter Harry James, pianist Jess Stacy, and drummer Gene Krupa tearing through the number Goodman himself handled its clarinet solos with his signature elegant style.

The concert was not, however, an unmitigated success at the time; it actually lost money, thanks largely to the cost of rehearsals, and of course the more staid critics rubbished Goodman for his efforts. The venue was picketed by Roman Catholic pro-Franco supporters, since Goodman had recently played a benefit for Loyalists fighting the Spanish Civil War. The recording made that night wouldn't be released for almost a dozen years, despite the fact that it captures all of its participants at the peak of their abilities, and then when it finally was it was mastered from its acetate reels rather than its higher quality aluminum discs, which themselves remained undiscovered until 1998. In fact, much of the concert has been lost, ill-served by the technology and recording methods of the day. And so on...

Of course, it is often in retrospect that we first recognize our greatest moments, and the same can be said to be true for geniuses like Benny Goodman as for mere mortals such as myself. Despite what was described as an 'electrical current' in the air that night, and despite the fact that Goodman and his audacious concert had succeeded in elevating jazz from mere entertainment*** to an art form where others had failed, it's likely Goodman thereafter considered his greatest moment as just another show, albeit one well-played.

*As many as a hundred of whom sat in overflow seating onstage with the band! Goodman himself had to buy tickets for his out-of-town family from scalpers!
**Something above $50 in today's money.
***As if anything as important as entertainment ought to be saddled with such a passive-aggressive modifier as 'mere'.

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