Tales from the Kingdom of Swing

Tale Number One: “Hey Eugene, take the gum out of your mouth.”

The swing era was not only a time when wonderful music was being made, it was a time when interesting personalities were very often at the center of the music making. One of the most interesting and colorful personalities of the swing era was Benny Goodman. Although Benny Goodman, also known as “BG,” and The King of Swing, a monicker attached to him by his booking agent, Music Corporation of America (MCA), was unquestionably one of the greatest musicians of the swing era, his development in other areas, particularly interpersonal relations, was sometimes seemingly far less. Goodman has been called many things. Ego-centric, self-absorbed, insensitive, and arrogant are words that have frequently been used to describe his behavior. Nevertheless, In my study of Benny Goodman, I have found that most people who have recalled his foibles have done so without rancor. Their attitude about him was/is basically, yes Benny’s behavior was sometimes irritating; yes he was often obtuse; certainly he was almost always oblivious to the feelings of others. B6d1acf674f57f6324cac7865a8e0672cut he was such a superb musician that these faults could be overlooked. Usually after relating a story about BG that could involved someone’s feelings being hurt, the story-teller said something like “I was extremely aggravated by him doing/saying that….but that was just Benny.”

Benny Goodman was notoriously bad about remembering peoples’ names. Whenever he couldn’t remember someone’s name, he would invariably call that person “Pops,” no matter if he was a man or she was a woman. He once convulsed his band with laughter when in the 1940s his lovely wife Alice Hammond, (sister of jazz producer and impresario John Hammond), who had come into the room where where the download (4)Goodman band was playing, walked up to a ringside table and sat down. Benny, who was busy leading the band, didn’t see her at first. When he finally did, he said rather blankly to her, “Oh hi Pops.”

Other family members were not immune. This story about BG comes from the wonderful trumpeter Gordon “Chris” Griffin, who was a part of the great trumpet section of BG’s late 1930s band, which also included Harry James and Ziggy Elman. (Those three trumpeters are pictured at right: L-R James, Elman, Griffin.) His book of reminiscences Sittin’ In with Chris Griffin with Warren W. Vache’ (2005) Scarecrow Press, page 48, is my source:

“Whenever one of the trumpet players would leave the band–whoever it might be–Benny would bring in his brother Irving, who was a great guy and fine trumpet player.We could never understand why he didn’t continue to use Irving on a permanent basis, but he just used him until he could get the person he had in mind. During one such period, Irving was sitting inimages (11) his chair between numbers chewing gum. Now Benny had a thing about gum-chewers. He could barely tolerate the way Gene Krupa used to chew a wad, but with Gene it was a part of his public image. Besides he was a great drummer and rated special treatment. Irving was in another category, just another brother, and Benny grew up surrounded by them. (Goodman was one of twelve children.) His brother Harry played bass in the band, and his brother Eugene (helped out with a number of tasks with the band).

So brother Benny, standing in front of the band, glared at brother Irving who was back in the trumpet section, and growled: ‘Hey Eugene, take the gum out of your mouth.” Irving paid no attention to this, so Benny repeated his order and Irving still ignored him. Things were getting a little tense, so I said to Irving who was sitting next to me in the trumpet section, ‘Hey Irving, big brother is calling you.’ ‘To hell with him,’ Irving said calmly, ‘if he doesn’t know his own brother’s name by now, I’m not going to help him out.'”

6 comments on “Tales from the Kingdom of Swing”

  1. Richard Claar says:

    That’s a new one on me, and humorous, too. Thanks, Mike. There are some nasty, shameful tales as well, which we needn’t get into, such as the way BG treated Wardell Gray at a gig in Las Vegas. But let’s keep it light for now.

  2. Mike Zirpolo says:

    Yes, the Wardell story was told by trombonist Milt Bernhart, who must have had a really bad relationship with BG.

    1. Richard Claar says:

      Yes, Mike. I sometimes forget that there may be some exaggeration involved or an ax to grind. But, at this far remove, who knows, really. Not a very good reflection on BG, in any case. BUT…what matters is the music. And much of it is sublime.

      1. Mike Zirpolo says:

        Amen to that Richard. Benny, despite his many peccadilloes, was a great musician who contributed immensely to the music of the swing era. I will be posting a lot of that music here at swingandbeyond.com and will eagerly await the comments of listeners about it.

  3. Mark Cantor says:

    I agree with both Richard and Mike that so many musicians had axes to grind, and they often allowed exaggerations to creep into their recollections after many years. But I knew Milt Bernhart pretty well, and he was an historically-minded fellow. I think you can take most of what he says as accurate.

  4. Tom Haas says:

    Great website, Mike . The BG story about he and his gum-chewing brother was priceless. I look forward to these posts every month.
    Tom “Pops” Haas

Leave a Reply