Chicago in the 1920s
was a great time to be young," recalled Gardner Stern
in September 1985. The retired chairman of Stop and Shop
and jazz fan his entire life added, "My wife, Hanchen,
and I were married in 1927. We went to all of the 'black
and tan' clubs on the South Side: the Sunset Cafe, the
Silver Frolics and the Grand Terrace Ballroom.
the time Benny Goodman came to the Urban Room in 1935, I already
was familiar with his recordings and radio broadcasts. What
a band! The Urban Room was an elegant place; so was the hotel.
Goodman was right for it. He was, and is to this day, a great
artist, one in a million. The music he played at the Urban
Room in 1935-1936, well, that just changed the whole jazz
it wasn’t just the music, as great as it was. It was the whole
mood, everything about it. That’s what I recall most of all.
The Urban Room attracted many young couples, out for a good
evening. Everyone dressed up, men often in tuxes, women in
evening dresses. You just don’t see that anymore, and that’s
Goodman was not the King of Swing when he brought his big
band to the Congress Hotel in Chicago on Nov. 6, 1935. But
by the end of that engagement six months later, the 26-year-old,
Chicago-born bandleader had ascended to the throne.
booked for a one-month engagement in the Joseph Urban Room
of the Congress Hotel (now the Americana-Congress), Goodman
and his orchestra became so popular that the hotel kept extending
one knew that a new era of popular music had begun, of course.
In fact, not many Chicagoans had heard of Benny Goodman and
his orchestra or their new music called "swing."
By the end of the Congress engagement on May 23, 1936, however,
there was little doubt that something momentous had happened
in the Urban Room.
the next decade, Benny Goodman and his orchestra set the style
and the standards for the big bands that dominated America’s
The Rough Road
Back to Chicago
In early 1935, Goodman and
his struggling band had been one of three orchestras featured
on NBC’s Saturday night "Let’s Dance" radio program.
Xavier Cugat’s Latin orchestra and Ken Murray’s society orchestra
dominated the first two "live" hours; Goodman was
not heard until the last hour, late in the evening on the
big bands such as Guy Lombardo’s and Glen Gray’s already enjoyed
nationwide popularity. But they were patterned after the so-called
hotel bands and played a pleasant, innocuous, "sweet
style" of music.
band had been together for about a year when they came to
the Congress. The young clarinetist had become one of the
highest-paid sidemen in New York City during the early 1930s.
His own genius, nurtured by his early musical training and
experiences with young jazz groups in Chicago, enabled him
to play any style of music. But he didn’t see any future remaining
as a sideman and decided in early 1934 to start his own band.
the end of the Let's Dance series in May 1935 and
the band’s opening at the Congress, Benny Goodman and his
orchestra suffered one defeat after another.In August, however,
they scored a triumph at the Palomar in Los Angeles, a prelude
of what was to happen at the Congress.
Alexander, who died in 1984, was the band's booking agent
in 1935. He had placed his job on the line at the Music Corporation
of America (MCA) by representing Goodman. In 1978, Alexander
spent an afternoon with me at his New York office recalling
the problems Goodman faced during the summer of 1935.
band was first-rate, and Goodman was in a class by himself,"
Alexander said. "But my bosses at MCA–Jules Stein,
the president, and Billy Goodheart, who ran the New York office–had
strong doubts about Benny's band. At first. Funny thing,
the three of them were from Chicago originally, but Jules
and Billy had come up playing that society music stuff and
didn't grasp what Goodman was doing. Nor did many others
in 1935. At least not until the Palomar and later the Congress."
the band's engagement at the Roosevelt Grill in New York
in May until the Palomar in August, Alexander admitted that
his bookings for the Goodman band bombed out. "Most ballroom
operators and their customers preferred the 'sweet'
bands or those such as Kay Kyser's that gave corn a new
meaning," Alexander said. "But it wasn't long
before they all wanted Goodman back!"
The Palomar Triumph
Palomar Ballroom at Third and Vermont in Hollywood.
discouraged Goodman band opened Aug. 21 for a three-week stay
at the Palomar on Vermont and Third in Hollywood. Goodman
started the evening cautiously, playing some stock arrangements
he had purchased on the trip. The Palomar crowd seemed as
indifferent to the band as the other audiences had been that
summer. According to Alexander, Goodman's drummer, Gene
Krupa, said, "If we're gonna die, Benny, let's
die playing our own thing."
the beginning of the next set, Goodman told the band to put
aside the stock arrangements and called for charts by Fletcher
Henderson and other "swing" arrangers who were writing
for the band. When the band’s trumpeter, Bunny Berigan, played
his solos on Henderson’s versions of Sometimes I'm
Happy and King Porter Stomp, the Palomar dancers
cheered like crazy and exploded with applause! They even gathered
around the bandstand to listen to this new music.
had made the difference. Earlier that year, the crowd at the
Palomar had heard Goodman’s band on the Let's Dance
program. The coastal time difference enabled West Coast listeners
to hear Goodman beginning at 9 p.m., three hours earlier than
listeners on the East Coast heard the show. And a West Coast
disc jockey, Al Jarvis, had been playing Goodman’s recordings
on his shows. The Palomar audience had been groomed for Benny
Goodman and His Orchestra. Radio broadcasts from the Palomar
sent the excitement from coast to coast--including Goodman's
say Goodman's Palomar engagement in Los Angeles that began
Aug. 21, 1935 was the birth of the Swing Era. Others point
out that much of Goodman's "swing music" was arranged
by Fletcher Henderson himself, who had played it with
his own superb band in Harlem a couple of years earlier. Throughout
the 1930s, Chick Webb held court at the Savoy, playing swing
even before Goodman had his own band.
critics fail to point out that Benny Goodman and His Orchestra,
beginning with their Palomar engagement, brought swing to
an entire generation of fans from coast to coast, not just
to those living in Manhattan but west of the Hudson River
as well. Radio carried Goodman and swing into everyone's home
and car. Radio made Benny Goodman famous across
America while he was at The Urban Room. He was indeed the
King of Swing when he left.
The Congress Hotel
Congress was trying to establish its niche among Chicago’s
top hotels when it gambled on Goodman to enhance its reputation.
Goodman was a rising star, and he was from Chicago. Since
Goodman's spectacular success at the Palomar, swing was
sweeping the nation.
was a good booking for us," Goodman told me recently.
"You know, the band already was in fine shape, but as
the first month was extended into a second, and then into
a third and so on, we had a great opportunity to work out
lots of arrangements. And the NBC radio broadcasts from the
Congress were heard across the country and solidified the
Goodman And His Orchestra, Congress Hotel, Chicago,
band included such outstanding musicians as Krupa on drums;
Jess Stacy, piano; Nate Kabier, trumpet; Hymie Shertzer, alto
sax; Art Rollini, tenor sax; Allen Reuss, guitar; Harry Goodman
(Benny’s brother), bass; and Helen Ward, one of the best big
were then, as they are today, critical to a band's success.
Since the mid-1920s, white fans had been collecting jazz recordings,
at first by "hot" black musicians and later by the
growing number of white jazz artists. This "awakening"
prevailed in Chicago and the Northeast.
Goodman’s six-month stay at the Congress, he and his band
continued to record for RCA Victor's Bluebird label. Some
of the Goodman classics cut in Chicago at this time were If
I Could Be With You, When Buddha Smiles, It's Been So
Long, Stompin' At The Savoy, Goody, Goody, and Christopher
Columbus, a forerunner to the band's great Sing,
The Rhythm Club
afternoon jazz concerts also became an important part of Goodman’s
return to Chicago. A young Chicago socialite, Helen Oakley,
who later married jazz writer Stanley Dance, persuaded Goodman
to stage the first jazz concert at the Urban Room on Dec.
8. She headed a local jazz club, the Rhythm Club, inspired
by the Hot Clubs in France and England.
Dec. 8 concert was so successful that it received extensive
coverage by Time magazine. Impressed by the crowds
who came to hear Goodman at the Urban Room, Congress Hotel
manager Harry Kaufman extended Goodman’s engagement.
organized two other Rhythm Club concerts for Goodman during
his stay at the Congress. The second was held in early 1936
at the Grand Terrace Ballroom, where Fletcher Henderson was
appearing with his own band. Goodman played in front of the
band with Krupa sitting in on drums, perhaps the first time
that black and white jazz musicians played together before
a paying audience.
Easter Sunday, March 29, the Rhythm Club staged a third concert
for Goodman, again at the Congress. Oakley and other members
of the Rhythm Club wanted Goodman to bring in pianist Teddy
Wilson, then performing at the Famous Door in New York. In
1935, Goodman and Krupa cut a few recordings with Wilson that
became popular among Rhythm Club members and many others.
Goodman and his close friend, John Hammond, persuaded Kaufman
to allow the racially integrated trio to perform during intermissions,
something unheard of in hotels in Chicago or elsewhere at
the time. Kaufman was so impressed by the trio that he insisted
Wilson stay on. He did.
Benny Goodman Trio
Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson. and Benny Goodman
NBC Radio Broadcasts
May 1936, Goodman had become incredibly popular not only among
Chicagoans but throughout the nation, thanks to the live radio
broadcasts from the Urban Room.
NBC announcer would introduce the broadcasts by saying, "Presenting
Benny Goodman and his orchestra." Goodman and the band
would then play a chorus of their theme, Let’s Dance.
Then the announcer would return, saying "Let's dance
to a half-hour of rhythm by Benny Goodman and his orchestra,
the 'Rajah of Rhythm,' playing for you from the Joseph
Urban Room of the Congress Hotel in downtown Chicago."
announcer did not call Goodman the "King of Swing"
because at the time it was Krupa, not Goodman, who enjoyed
that title, thanks to an advertising copywriter for Slingerland
Drums, which featured Krupa in their ads. Shortly after the
Congress engagement, however, journalists gave the crown to
measure of Goodman’s rising popularity was that he and his
band spent the summer of 1936 in Hollywood making MGM’s Big
Broadcast of 1937, the first movie to give a starring
role to a big band. During the filming, Goodman discovered
a young black vibraphonist named Lionel Hampton, also from
the autumn of 1936, the band returned triumphantly to New
York. Among others, Willard Alexander had become a happier
man. Goodman and his band went into the prestigious Manhattan
Room of the Hotel Pennsylvania. Before long, Goodman sent
for Hampton, giving birth to the original Benny Goodman Quartet.
Benny Goodman Quartet
Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Gene
March 1937, while continuing their engagement at the Manhattan
Room, Benny Goodman and his Orchestra performed five shows
a day at the Paramount Theater. On opening day, thousands
of teenagers began lining up outside at 7 a.m. All of the
theater’s 3,600 seats were filled when Goodman and his band
ascended on a rising stage playing Let's Dance,
drowned out by screams of joy and cheering fans dancing in
Goodman at New York's Paramount Theater (March 1937)
Swing Era was in full swing!