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Benny Goodman Launches Swing Era in Chicago - by George Spink
Benny Goodman - Playlist 1
Benny Goodman - Playlist 2

This article appeared in the Sunday Show section of The Chicago Sun-Times on Nov.10, 1985.

Benny Goodman on the air.

As you listen to Benny Goodman, you'll understand why Anton Myrer wrote the following passage:

"But the band we could all agree on, for a long evening of dancing in all moods and tempos–jump and shag and glide–was Benny Goodman's. Year in, year out, it remained for most of us the band–full of invention and vitality and sheer overpowering musicianship; the sound that most vividly recalled an evening, a moment in time…. In a galaxy of jazz nobility, of Dukes and Counts and Earls, the proudest title was Goodman's. He was the King and there was no more to be said."

Anton Myrer, The Last Convertible
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Chicago in the 1920s

"It 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.

"By 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 scene.

"But 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 sad."

Benny 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.

Initially 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 their stay.

No 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.

For the next decade, Benny Goodman and his orchestra set the style and the standards for the big bands that dominated America’s popular music.

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 East Coast.

Other 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.

Goodman’s 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.

Between 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.

Willard 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.

"The band was first-rate, and Goodman was in a class by himself," Alexander said. "But my bosses at MCAJules Stein, the president, and Billy Goodheart, who ran the New York officehad 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."

From 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

The Palomar Ballroom at Third and Vermont in Hollywood.
The Palomar Ballroom at Third and Vermont in Hollywood.

The 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."

At 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.

Radio 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 hometown, Chicago.

Some 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.

These 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 Engagement

The 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.

"It 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 band's popularity."

Benny Goodman And His Orchestra, Congress Hotel, Chicago, 1935
Benny Goodman And His Orchestra, Congress Hotel, Chicago, 1935

The 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 band vocalists.

Recordings 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.

During 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, Sing, Sing.

The Rhythm Club

Sunday 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.

The 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.

Oakley 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.

On 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.

The Benny Goodman Trio:  Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson. and Benny Goodman
The Benny Goodman Trio
Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson. and Benny Goodman

NBC Radio Broadcasts

By 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.

The 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."

The 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 Goodman.

A 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 Chicago.

In 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.

The Benny Goodman Quartet:  Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Gene Krupa
The Benny Goodman Quartet
Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Gene Krupa

Paramount Theater

In 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 the aisles.

In 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 the aisles.
Benny Goodman at New York's Paramount Theater (March 1937)

The Swing Era was in full swing!

George Spink
Los Angeles
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"Roll'Em" - Benny Goodman - The Powers Girl (1942)
Source: You Tube
"Why Don't You Do Right" - Benny Goodman, Peggy Lee - (1943)
Source: You Tube
Benny Goodman: Adventures in the Kingdom of Swing
Source: You Tube
"All the Cats Join In" - Benny Goodman - Walt Disney Cartoon (1946)
Source: You Tube
© George Spink, Los Angeles, California, United States of America (2011-2012)