James Lincoln Collier likes to paint 'em dark: In earlier books, he portrayed Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in less than flattering terms, to the distress of their friends and admirers. Clarinetist Benny Goodman was more widely acknowledged as a prickly fellow, so Collier would seem to be on steadier ground for this round.
As usual, however, he indulges in slapdash, at times parodistic psychoanalysis: "Benny does not seem to have been very close to his mother." Collier's revisionist bent is his strength as well as his weakness. At his best, he picks apart the oft-cited myths surrounding Goodman's swing band. The band hit the big time in a Los Angeles ballroom in 1935 at the end of a disastrous cross-country tour. Legend has it the band succeeded in Los Angeles because Goodman's live coast-to-coast broadcasts from New York were aired in prime time in California but ran too late in the rest of the country to cultivate a broad audience for his new dance music. Collier discloses that the tour was not an unmitigated flop and that Goodman's broadcast schedule actually gave the whole country access to his music at a decent hour.
The author sensibly underscores the connections between the playing of the swing king from Chicago's Jewish ghetto and urban Jewish klezmer music with its keening clarinets. But Collier's lengthy analyses of particular recordings are pedestrian. (Gunther Schuller covered them better in his recent "The Swing Era.") Finally, the author fails to paint a vivid picture of the elusive Goodman himself.