Reads and Re-reads-Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert

“Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert”

by Catherine Tackley

I recently finished reading this wonderful book, which was published in 2012 as a part of Oxford University Press’s “Studies in Recorded Jazz” series. For those who have a serious interest in the music of the late-1930s Benny Goodman band, thtackley-book-001is book will be highly informative and insightful. Although Ms. Tackley’s analysis is at times rather technical, it is never pedantic or boring. She has a keen sense of musical observation, an excellent ear, and a solid musical background. (She is or was a senior lecturer in music at the Open University in London, England.) Moreover, she has done her homework: she cites to many different sources, but then does her own analysis, often referring to the ultimate primary sources–the actual recordings she is talking about. Last but certainly not least, the book is very well written.

As a historian, I am constantly wondering what it was like to have been present at this historical event or that one. While most historians (myself included), are endlessly fascinated by what really might have happened at Valley Forge, or Gettysburg, or on Omaha Beach, my fixation with great American music also has led me to find out as much possible about what really happened at Aeolian Hall on January 14, 1924 (the debut of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”); and what really happened when Kern and Hammerstein’s “Show Boat” debuted in 1927; and what really happened as George Gershwin and several collaborators labored to create and then stage Porgy and Bess. Catherine Tackley’s book is heaven-sent for those who want to know what really happened before, during and after Benny Goodman’s now legendary concert at Carnegie Hall on January 16,

Her analysis, which covers 197 pages of text and notes, is both thorough and concise. The way the book is organized (Part One: Context; Part Two: Performance; and Part Three: Representation), allows the reader to trace the entire history of the concert from its planning stages and promotion, through the actual performance on January 16, 1938, through the many repercussions of the event soon after it, culminating with the discovery and then release of semi-forgotten recordings of the event almost thirteen years after it happened. There is even analysis of the various commercial issues and reissues of the recordings made at the concert. (At right, a view of Benny Goodman and his band on the stage at Carnegie Hall on January 16, 1938. There was an overflow audience there that night. Notice the audience members seated on the stage on both sides of the Goodman band.)

The central character in the story of the famous Benny Goodman 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, not surprisingly, is Benny Goodman himself. This Benny Goodman story, unlike almost every other story about the brilliant but often vexing clarinetist, reports his total involvement with the concert, from the planning stages through the performance, all the way kingdom-of-swing-001through production and issuance of the landmark Columbia set of LP records in late 1950, without recounting any disturbing personal incidents.That is certainly not because Ms. Tackley is indulging in hagiography. Her focus, rather, is on what actually happened before, during and after the famous concert,and BG was responsible for most of what happened.

Ms. Tackley drew on a number of sources to gather the information that she wove into this story, including contemporaneous newspaper and magazine articles, program notes for the concert (written by Irving Kolodin), and the autobiographical book Benny Goodman began preparing soon after the event, with Kolodin, called The Kingdom of Swing.(*) But the main sources of her information were the recordings of the concert itself, and other recordings made by the Goodman band of many of the selections that were played at the concert. Her analyses of these recordings are always interesting and informative.

Ms. Tackley also traces the history of concert events presenting jazz musicians (including from the stages of theaters as a part of vaudeville reviews), which predated the 1938 Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert. Although there were many of these events, the lifeblood of swing era bands was undoubtedly provided in large measure by dancers in hundreds of ballrooms across the country where bands played fifty and more weeks a year. Indeed, dance rhythms largely defined swing music itself.

The idea to present Benny Goodman’s swing band and small groups in concert at Carnegie Hall originated with Wynn Nathanson, a publicist for the Camel Caravan CBS network radio show on which Goodman was then being presented, in late 1937. The basic idea had to be “sold” to impressario Sol Hurok, the man in charge of what was presented at Carnegie Hall. Once the concert was green-lighted by Hurok, its content had to be decided upon. As one might expect, there was a good bit of to-ing and fro-ing throughout the planning stages of the concert. Eventually, the format of the concert mostly included music played by the Goodman band and small groups, presented as it would be at any other venue where they appeared. There would be no specially commissioned long-form work premiered to commemorate this special event. This reflected the opinion of BG that he and his musicians were best at what they normally did day-to-day.

But many other people had different opinions, and sought to make this special event more reflective of the evolution of jazz up to that moment. Indeed, they wanted to make the event more historic. These ideas ultimately evolved into the segments of the concert called “Twenty Years of Jazz,” and the “Jam Session.” It was most certainly historic that Afro-American musicians would and did appear onstage together with whites that night. The chill of Jim Crow in Manhattan that cold January evening was warmed a bit as jazz musicians of all colors performed together in the hallowed space of Carnegie Hall. The two Afro-American members of the Goodman bg-carnegie-rehearsal-001entourage who were regularly presented by BG, pianist Teddy Wilson and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, were joined by musicians from Duke Ellington’s band (alto/soprano saxist Johnny Hodges; trumpeter Cootie Williams; baritone saxist Harry Carney); and from Count Basie’s band (including Basie himself on pianoWalter Page on bass; Freddie Green on guitar; Lester Young on tenor sax; and Buck Clayton on trumpet).(At left, L-R: Benny Goodman; BG trombonist Vernon Brown; trumpeter Cootie Williams; soprano saxophonist Johnny Hodges rehearsing at Carnegie Hall. At far left in the background at the piano is Jess Stacy.)(**)

The eventual content and sequence of musical selections presented at the concert was arrived at by generally following certain traditions. Ms. Tackley cites to a source that compared the order of presentation followed by Goodman to that followed by Paul Whiteman in his famous !924 Aeolian Hall Concert, which in turn followed “standard variety (vaudeville) practice.” This resulted in Benny programming the “Twenty Years of Jazz” and the “Jam Session” segments in the first half of the concert. Also BG followed tradition by playing his blockbuster, the raucous “Sing, Sing, Sing,” including pianist Jess Stacy’s marvelous (and decidedly un-raucous) improvisation, as the last selection. He then played two encores: a rather quiet version of a rather quiet tune, “When Dreams Come True,” followed by “an unusually restrained rendition of “Big John Special.”

I have included the voice introduction recorded in 1950 by Benny Goodman with the first selection performed at the legendary concert, “Don’t Be That Way,” presented below. The introduction was done especially for (and included in) the first (and subsequent) LP releases of the BG Carnegie Hall Concert by Columbia Records. (One of which is pictured at right. Oddly, the photo on this particular reissue was of an older BG. At the time of the concert, Benny was 28 years old.) BG’s “story” about the provenance of those original source recordings told in his introductory remarks, was termed “malarkey” in the liner notes for the wonderful 1999 Columbia CD reissue by the producer of that re-release, jazz historian Phil Schaap. (The 1999 reissue, unlike previous issues, includes all material recorded that night.) This created questions in my mind about the actual provenance of the disks on which the concert had been recorded.

I recently contacted Phil, and asked him about this. Here is a summary of what he told me:

It appears that the recording of the concert was made by Albert Marx, a wealthy young jazz enthusiast, then husband of former BG-vocalist Helen Ward, and a friend of Benny’s, using the microphones and cables that existed in Carnegie Hall at that time.The music and everything else that was recorded that night was transmitted over special high quality telephone lines to the Harry Smith Transcription Service, whose recording studios were near Times Square. Mr. Smith himself may have supervised or done the actual recording. Smith made two copies of the recording on twelve-inch 78 rpm lacquer disks. At least one of those recordings went to Benny Goodman soon after the concert. It is unknown if BG asked for the copy he received. The copy Goodman had was discovered not by Benny’s daughter Rachel, but by his sister-in-law Rachel (Hammond) Speiden, when she took over Benny’s Manhattan apartment in 1950. No contemporaneously made copy of these recordings went to the Library of Congress.(At left: liner notes booklet page from the 1999 CD reissue of BG’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.)

Phil tracked down the two copies in 1997. Essentially, the one found by Rachel Speiden in 1950 was the superior of the two soundwise, something Phil did not discover until after he had transferred and remastered the inferior copy, which he received with the assistance of BG bio-discographer supreme, Russ Connor. The superior copy materialized when a former Columbia classical producer, Howard Scott, brought it to Sony Studios later in 1997. Phil then had to scramble to do the transfers, and subsequent remastering of the superior copy, which material was used in the 1999 CD reissue.

(*) I also re-read The Kingdom of Swing as a part of my preparation for this post. (Apparently Goodman contracted Irving Kolodin to write program notes for the concert, and liked them so well that he contracted with Kolodin later in 1938 to work with him on a BG autobiography.) Although this book does contain many then fresh recollections by BG about key episodes in his early life and career to that point (he was only 30 years old when it was published), what struck me most in this re-read was how much of the “conventional wisdom” about Goodman can be traced directly to this book. Fortunately, two good BG biographies were written later, after Benny’s death in 1986, one by Ross Firestone (1993), the other by James Lincoln Collier (1989). When read together, these two biographies offer a much more complete picture of Goodman’s life and career. Yet more insights into Goodman music can be obtained by reviewing the series of bio-discographies that were written by D. Russell Connor about BG’s huge recorded legacy.

(**) BG’s regular female vocalist Martha Tilton also appeared at the concert and sang two songs with the Goodman band. Cornetist Bobby Hackett also appeared at the concert, playing in the “Twenty Years of Jazz” feature.

And now, an example of the recordings made of Benny Goodman’s famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert.

“Don’t Be That Way”

Composed and arranged by Edgar Sampson.

Recorded live at Carnegie Hall in New York on January 16, 1938.

Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Harry  H. James, first trumpet; Harry A. (Finkelman) “Ziggy” Elman and Gordon “Chris” Griffin, trumpets; Vernon Brown and Sterling “Red” Ballard, trombones; Hymie Shertzer, first alto saxophone; George Koenig, alto saxophone; Irving “Babe” Russin and Arthur Rollini, tenor saxophones; Jess Stacy, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Eugene B. “Gene” Krupa, drums.

Edgar Sampson was a saxophonist and arranger who worked in a number of Afro-American bands in the early 1930s before spending several years in the band of drummer Chick Webb from the mid to late 1930s. He composed “Don’t Be That Way” in 1933 for cornetist Rex Stewart’s short-lived band. (Stewart went on to be featured for several years with Duke Ellington.) The tune was recorded for Decca by Chick Webb’s band on November 19, 1934, and was a regularly played feature of the Webb band. (Edgar Sampson is pictured at right standing in front of the Savoy Ballroom in 1936 while he was a member of Chick Webb’s band. The marquee of Savoy Billiards is for a pool hall that was a few doors away from the Savoy Ballroom.) 

The arrangement played here by the Goodman band is a substantial revision of the one the Webb band recorded. In my opinion, the arrangement Edgar Sampson wrote for the Webb band is more intensely rhythmic, reflecting the character of the Webb band, while his revision for BG is smoother, with a slower tempo. I am sure that Goodman laid out his specifications for Sampson, and Edgar gave Benny what he wanted. (BG also picked up a partial composer credit in this process, quid pro quo for performing, broadcasting and recording “Don’t Be That Way.”) It is unclear whether Goodman commissioned this new arrangement from Sampson especially for the Carnegie Hall concert. Regardless, it was not in the Goodman “book” very long prior to the concert.(Below left: The Benny Goodman band onstage at Carnegie Hall. Visible L-R: Gene Krupa, Babe Russin, Allan Reuss, George Koenig, Red Ballard, BG, Vernon Brown, Arthur Rollini.)

“Don’t Be That Way” is one of many contrafacts of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” By this I mean “Don’t Be That Way” is based on the harmonic framework of “I Got Rhythm.” In fact, the “B” part of the melody of “Don’t Be That Way” is a paraphrase of the melody of “I Got Rhythm.”

After a bright four-bar introduction, the band plays the eight-bar A section of the tune twice with the smooth saxophones carrying the melody and the brass adding a bright, concisely syncopated background. The brass then take the bridge (the B section of the tune) against reed backgrounds. The saxes and brass then reprise the A section as before to finish the first 32 bar chorus. Goodman takes the first solo: sixteen bars, with the band taking the bridge, and then the final eight bars to finish the second chorus. The performance to this point is rather routine: professional, clean, orderly.

Then tenor saxophonist Babe Russin plays a solo. He was a fine musician, one of the top New York free-lances then. He was filling in for BG temporarily until Benny could secure the services of a “permanent” jazz tenor saxophonist. Russin could play good jazz, was able to play written music at sight, and was always able to fit into any saxophone section well. Here he plays sixteen bars of fine jazz. What is extremely unusual is what drummer Gene Krupa does behind him. Whether from a microphone being placed too close to his drums, or that he was playing too loud, Krupa executes a series of rolls and thuds that seem to overwhelm what Russin is doing. (At right, L-R: bassist Harry Goodman; drummer Gene Krupa in a typically ecstatic mood; Babe Russin; Allan Reuss; George Koenig.) Oddly, when Harry James plays the eight bar bridge, Krupa stops the rolling and thudding. But when Babe returns to finish the chorus, alas, Gene resumes the loud effects. What happens next is truly remarkable: after a short transitional passage, Krupa explodes a two-bar series of double-time rim shots and cymbal crashes that causes the audience to cheer. After this, trombonist Vernon Brown plays a solo that once again is all but buried under Krupa’s noisy back-beat effects. Knowing what I have come to know over many years about Benny Goodman, I think it reasonable to speculate that he was absolutely livid at this egregious grandstanding by Krupa. (Less than two months later, Krupa was out of the Goodman band after a three-plus year association.)

Goodman returns to play a short solo, and the band takes it out, with its dynamic level ebbing lower through a series of repeated melodic phrases. There is one more slightly less manic Krupa drum burst near the end, and then the finale.(At left: from the rear, R-L: Harry Goodman (bass); Gene Krupa (drums); guitarist Allan Reuss; and the Goodman brass section.)

Among those in the audience that night were a host of critics, Duke Ellington,a young actor named Robert Mitchum, John Hammond, and his sister Alice, who in 1942 would become Mrs. Benny Goodman.

This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

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  1. Do you feel that Krupa started his solo early near the end? He launched on beat 3 of the 6th bar of the phrase, making for a 2 1/2 bar solo instead of a standard 2 bar solo, then provides a strong thud to get the band back in. The abruptness of his entry nearly sounds like a recording flaw but it counts correctly.

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