A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Benny Goodman
Benny Goodman                                               Charles Peterson©2009
(courtesy of Don Peterson and Mosaic Records)

Though often ridiculed for the “King of Swing” albatross which enormous popularity in the 1930s hung around his neck, Benny Goodman’s prowess as a clarinetist is undeniable – especially as a hot soloist, he displayed amazing technique, spirit, daring, and poise in a wide variety of settings over the decades. It’s ironic that if he had been a nomadic sideman-for-hire, or even his recordings limited to informal small band sessions, his critical reputation as a jazz player might be greater today than it is. But ambition, and success, required he carry a lot of baggage throughout a nearly 60-year career, and that meant sustaining a big band during times of huge acclaim as well as general disinterest. The big band brought him to the peak of popularity, but big band popularity in the Swing Era was primarily the result of personality and material; flashy solos wow the public, but substance is seldom recognized in the moment. Although his playing had charisma and heat, Goodman cut a restrained figure onstage and had something less than matinee idol looks – which is why the volatile, swashbuckling Gene Krupa and romantic Harry James were crucial to his band’s initial explosion. As for material, pop songs, whether sung by good vocalists or poor ones, always drew more attention than an instrumental – unless it was eminently danceable, when in effect it became background music – even if the chart was by the great Fletcher Henderson.

Goodman’s early hits were waxed for RCA Victor and its subsidiary, Bluebird. Arguably, by August 1939, when the Classic Columbia and Okeh Orchestra Sessions (Mosaic 7-240) pick up the story, he was already beginning a barely noticeable, gradual, but inevitable decline. Krupa and James and important others (like trumpeter Ziggy Elman and pianist Jess Stacy) had left his employ. From this point forward, he was in competition not only with his established peers (Ellington, Basie, Lunceford, Shaw, the Dorseys) and those on the rise (Woody Herman and Stan Kenton), but with the always-looming shadow of his own past. By choosing not to include any small band dates or pop vocals (between them, a sizeable chunk of Goodman’s voluminous discography), Mosaic focuses our attention on the jazziest qualities of the band(s) and the instrumentals they performed, both of which ultimately reflected on Goodman the bandleader. The former can be quickly summarized: these latter-day bands were quality ensembles, capable of executing formidable arrangements with polish and precision, but – Goodman himself notwithstanding – lacked firepower. Frequent personnel changes over the years were in part due to losing musicians to the war effort or to competing bands, but personality conflicts with the leader also often entered into the picture. Whether intentional or a consequence of these circumstances, the bands that recorded for Columbia never featured a lineup of exceptional soloists as did Basie’s or Ellington’s or even Woody Herman’s. Good soloists – like trumpeter Billy Butterfield, pianist Johnny Guarnieri, tenorist George Auld, trombonists Lou McGarity and Cutty Cutshall – came and went, but (with two brief exceptions) Goodman is the only great soloist here. The exceptions are trumpeter Cootie Williams – whose edgy intensity never blended with the orchestra’s tonal sheen or refined demeanor, to my taste – and the dazzling pianist Mel Powell. As an ensemble, the bands could muster up a powerful drive – hear them on “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” (1939), “Scarecrow” and “I’m Here” (1941), for example – but offered no tang of individuality, no special character. That was, of necessity, to be provided by the arrangements, which are the real reason for this collection.

Soloists electrify the moment, but arrangers shape the sound of an orchestra, define its identity. With jazz as the popular music of the day, and so much pressure on bands to maintain a radio presence and sell out live appearances, songs were usually chosen not for their expressive qualities, but for ear-catching hit potential and/or danceability. Music publishers plied their frequently leaden wares on the bandleaders, who passed them along to the arranger best suited to alchemize one into gold. Consider “Jersey Bounce,” attributed to five writers (Bradshaw-Bruce-Feyne-Johnson-Plater), and recorded in different guises by other bands a few times before Mel Powell made it indelible with just the right feel: tempo, swing, articulation, subtlety, all in perfect balance. In the quest for success, bandleaders weren’t above borrowing (or buying) another band’s hit. In addition to Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” during these years Goodman recorded signature pieces like Glenn Miller’s “String of Pearls,” Artie Shaw’s “Frenesi,” Frankie Carle’s ”Sunrise Serenade,” and Duke Ellington’s (and Rex Stewart’s) “Boy Meets Horn” – none of them up to par with the originals. Then they looked for novelty in unusual places. Jazzin’ the classics became commonplace during the Swing Era – for his part, Goodman covered Henderson’s versions of Ravel’s “Bolero” and Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song,” Skip Martin’s “Caprice XXIV Paganini,” Tutti Camerata’s take on Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf,” semi-classics like “Hora Staccato,” and “Nostalgia,” and even Alec Templeton’s sublimely insipid “Mozart Matriculates” (which weaves together quotes from Mozart with “From the Halls of Montezuma”) arranged by Henry Brant, whose own subsequent avant-garde compositions were to influence Anthony Braxton, among others. (Booklet annotator Loren Schoenberg errs in spelling his name Brandt and crediting him with composing “Mozart Matriculates” and “Bach Goes to Town,” both actually penned by Templeton.)

But there were occasions of genius too. As legend has it, Fletcher Henderson’s sturdy, exciting arrangements like “King Porter Stomp” and “Down South Camp Meeting” were responsible for Goodman’s breakthrough, although in truth Edgar Sampson, Jimmy Mundy, and Fletcher’s brother Horace contributed equally to the band’s 1935-39 book. Tastes change, however, and by 1940 Goodman was looking for a new, fresh, modern, streamlined style. He found it in the imagination of Eddie Sauter. Sauter, still in his twenties, had previously done radical things for Red Norvo’s big band, epitomized by his surreal 1937 arrangement of the Tin Pan Alley tune “Smoke Dreams,” where nightmarish dissonant chords and kinky ensemble textures accompanied Mildred Bailey’s sober-as-a-schoolmarm vocal – akin to Margret Dumont being accosted by Groucho Marx in a Salvador Dali dreamscape. For Goodman, Sauter devised strikingly unconventional backgrounds for the pop tunes; those with vocals aren’t included here, but non-vocal samples like “Love Walked In” and “Moonlight On the Ganges” feature curious segues, surprising harmonies, and quirky, cross-sectional scoring. Even more so, there’s a tone poem quality to the acute dynamics, vivid colors, counterpoint, and atmosphere of “The Hour of Parting” and “Nostalgia” (the latter, morose and not really jazzy, must have been studied by Ennio Morricone), which are taken to extremes in Goodman’s “Clarinet a la King” and Sauter’s own “Benny Rides Again” and “Superman” – where chamber music concepts of proportion, contrast, and construction dramatize the sheer excitement of swing. Sauter was a master of detail.

Nearly his equal, Mel Powell contributed brilliant pieces that combined familiar jazz devices with episodes of wit and finesse, like “Oh Baby,” “Clarinade,” the aforementioned “Jersey Bounce,” and his piano showpiece, “The Earl.”  These were the first stirrings of a mind that sought ever more complex challenges, and Powell went on to study with Paul Hindemith, eventually putting a personal spin on post-Schönberg compositional strategies that resulted in his being awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Duplicates: Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in 1990.Between them, Sauter and Powell established an adventurous style of big band arranging that prepared listeners to appreciate iconoclasts like George Handy, Ralph Burns, Gil Evans, and Bob Graettinger. Nevertheless, Goodman apparently had his doubts, and relied heavily on the reliable, if conservative, Henderson and Sampson charts well into the ‘50s. After a brief flirtation with bebop while recording for Capitol in the late ‘40s, he returned to Columbia, but by 1951 it appeared as if he were sleepwalking; he recorded a redundant homage to Henderson, cut a harmless commercial album with strings, and issued some odds and ends. Health issues and simple ennui may account for the lackluster quality of these – although they offered glimpses of a teenaged Stan Getz, his pickup bands sounded so clean they were nearly antiseptic. Schoenberg calls them “respectable” – a deadly adjective when applied to jazz. Fortunately, through it all Goodman remained a tantalizing soloist. Like many musicians with an exceptional technique, he sometimes coasted on skill alone, yet he could raise the temperature of the unlikeliest, lukewarm tune if inspiration struck. It strikes often enough throughout these 177 performances (72 of which are alternate takes) to justify Mosaic’s use of the word classic

Art Lange©2008

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