Writing about Benny Goodman in the past tense somehow feels incongruous. Goodman, who died Friday at age 77, had always seemed to be a permanent, ineradicable presence: playing magnificently, leading a vastly influential orchestra, or recording, with the likes of Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton and later Count Basie, Cootie Williams, Charlie Christian and Georgie Auld, what were arguably the most durable small group sessions aside from Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives.
Later he would be variously retiring or returning, playing the occasional jazz tour or classical concert, showing up (as he did last summer in New York) to play with undimmed brilliance at the tribute to John Hammond, the man who helped organize Goodman's original 1935 orchestra (and whose sister, Alice, became Mrs. Goodman in 1942).
Everyone has his own image of Goodman. Yes, there were those who resented his critical, steely-eyed "ray," but for every embittered musician there would be another for whom a pattern of mutual respect emerged.
It says something about the Goodman mystique that so many returned to work for him time and again. Sure, he demanded dedication and at least a measure of the artistry he brought to his own work; when it was given, he appreciated it, because nobody was ever more wrapped up in his music, and more concerned with creativity, than Benjamin David Goodman.
To some, the image is that of a catalyst, the man who made the Swing Era happen; but that was never a part of his game plan. His ambition was simply to organize a fine orchestra, with good soloists and the best arrangers, and to play in front of it as well as he could. He never foresaw becoming the king of anything, nor did he particularly care about wearing the crown that was symbolically thrust upon him.
To others, the Goodman image was that of an anti-segregationist, and in effect that is certainly what he was. But Goodman hired Wilson and Hampton and Fletcher Henderson and all the others simply because he related to them musically; he was not very political, not a social crusader by desire but rather by force of circumstances. Nevertheless, it would have been easy for him to refuse, out of fear, to hire black musicians when the pressure was on him to exercise that sort of pusillanimity.
What too many observers failed to take into account is that none of his activities as band leader or integrator could have developed had it not been for his primary gift as a supremely accomplished virtuoso.
In my collection are records he made in 1926, with Ben Pollack's orchestra, revealing that at 16 he was an exceptional jazz soloist. Other recordings, with his own groups or with Red Nichols, Joe Venuti, Adrian Rollini, all made during his late teens or early 20s, confirm the unique level of achievement he had reached long before the world learned about him.
My own special memories go back to a date at New York's RCA Studios when, as a young jazz fan from London, I had been invited to a Goodman Quartet session. A few nights earlier, Goodman had told me, "This is going to be the greatest thing we've ever done!" Gene Krupa had just left, and Dave Tough, a superlative drummer, had taken over, joining Goodman, Wilson and Hampton as they first ran through a tune the name of which Goodman couldn't recall. (It was "Sweet Lorraine.")
Next, Hampton began ad-libbing on the blues.
"Hey," Goodman said, "that's a thought. Why not make a blues?" Wilson pushed his hat back a little farther on his head and played gently, as if to himself. When the buzzer gave the cue to start, Goodman leaned back on his chair, which remained tilted up in that position throughout the take.
Then Hampton said, "Yeah, yeah! I could play the blues all day long!"--as a result of which they extended it to two 78 rpm sides, with a vocal by Hampton. Goodman was so inspired by Tough's gentle beat that he burst into a profusion of untypical compliments.
Benny Goodman was often characterized as a difficult and eccentric man; that is how he was seen by certain music publishers, song pluggers and assorted sycophants who courted his good will. Yet on a record session, particularly in such compatible company, he seemed warm, human and completely relaxed.
Another special memory for me is the Moscow opening. No real American jazz orchestra had played in the Soviet Union since the birth of swing, and one night in the spring of 1962, with Premier Nikita Khrushchev and his wife in attendance, Goodman presented a concert by an orchestra specially assembled for the tour. I had flown over for the occasion.
There were complaints from some quarters: Why was Goodman the first jazz musician chosen for such an event, rather than Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong or Count Basie? The answer was simply that Goodman had gone after this assignment deliberately and eagerly; moreover, the orchestra was a genuine collection of the best and the brightest--Joe Newman and Joe Wilder in the trumpet section, Phil Woods and Zoot Sims and Tommy Newsom among the saxes, pianist Wilson and drummer Mel Lewis and Victor Feldman on vibes and the former Ellington vocalist Joya Sherrill.
That tour, like so many events during Benny Goodman's extraordinary life, showed the extent to which he had come to symbolize all that was and is best in American music, and the degree to which that impression had made its mark wherever the sound of jazz had penetrated.
First, last and always, he was a nonpareil performer whose artistry is our legacy and our legend.