Benny Goodman: Biography, Songs & Music

Instructor: Laura Armstrong

Laura is a freelance musician and has taught college Music courses and holds a D.M.A. in Music Performance.

In this lesson, you will learn about Benny Goodman, one of the most famous jazz clarinetists and bandleaders of all time. You'll learn about his life, songs and achievements before testing your new knowledge with a brief quiz.

King of Swing

Benny Goodman

Benjamin David Goodman was born on May 30, 1909 in Chicago. His parents, David and Dora Goodman were Russian immigrants who fled anit-Semitism in Russia. David was a tailor and together he and his wife raised 12 children, of which Benny was the ninth. Needless to say, on a tailor's income, funds were tight for the whole family.

At age 10, Benny began taking clarinet lessons at the Kehelah Jacob Synagogue with Franz Schoepp, a Chicago Symphony member. He was soon skilled enough to join the band at Hull-House, a social settlement. Benny began performing as a professional musician not long after and at age 14, became a member of the American Federation of Musicians. Sadly, Benny's father passed away a year later, but the money he made performing helped support the family.

As a young man, Benny moved to to Los Angeles to play with the Ben Pollack band and was a member of the band for four years and one of the star performers of the group. In 1934, Benny Goodman created his first big band, the Benny Goodman Orchestra, a 12-piece ensemble that included three saxophones, three trumpets, two trombones, and four rhythm instruments. He conducted, made arrangements, and also played clarinet. The group successfully auditioned for Billy Rose's Music Hall, began recording for Columbia Records, and later that year also began playing for 'Let's Dance,' an NBC radio series. With arrangements by Fletcher Henderson, like Jelly Roll Morton's "King Porter Stomp," and their first hit, an instrumental, "Moonglow," Benny Goodman and his band were on the rise.

Benny Goodman Trio
Benny Goodman Trio

Benny Goodman and Jazz Music

During the following year, 1935, the Benny Goodman Trio was formed after jam sessions with Teddy Wilson on piano and Gene Krupa on drums. Lionel Hampton joined the group on vibraphone in 1936 and it became the Benny Goodman Quartet. This became one of the first nationally prominent inter-racial musical groups, and many credit Goodman as helping to make these groups more accepted.

By now, the Swing Era was at its peak and the Benny Goodman Orchestra was successfully touring the country. The music was so popular that Time Magazine hailed Benny Goodman as "The King of Swing" in 1937. His group joined musicians from Count Basie's and Duke Ellington's bands in a historic performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1938. Goodman's was one of the first jazz groups to perform in this famous venue, helping to legitimize jazz as an art form.

Benny Goodman with Leonard Bernstein around 1946
Goodman with Bernstein

Benny Goodman and Classical Music

In addition to being an exceptional jazz musician, Benny Goodman was also a highly regarded classical musician who commissioned many leading composers of his day to write new works for the clarinet. Among these composers were Aaron Copland, Bela Bartok, and Paul Hindemith. Goodman was also the first to play and record many of these works himself. He frequently performed and recorded standard works of the classical clarinet repertoire including those by Mozart, Brahms, Debussy, and Stravinsky. This parallel career was a first for a well-known jazz musician, proving that one could perform successfully in both styles.

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