“Basin Street Blues”
Composed by Spencer Williams; arranged by Glenn Miller.
Recorded by Benny Goodman (as “The Charleston Chasers” under direction of Bennie Goodman) for Columbia on February 9, 1931 in New York.
Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Ruby Weinstein and Charlie Teagarden, trumpets; Glenn Miller and Jack Teagarden, trombones; Sid Stoneburn, alto saxophone; Larry Binyon, tenor saxophone; Arthur Schutt, piano; Dick McDonough, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Gene Krupa, drums. Jack Teagarden, vocal.
Although Benny Goodman’s professional career as a musician started in 1922, when he joined the musicians’ union in his home town of Chicago at age 13, his first significant employment was with drummer Ben Pollack’s band, which started in late 1925. Goodman remained in Pollack’s employ, intermittently, over most of the next four years. His skill as a musician increased greatly in those years, as did his abilities as a jazz improviser. It was also during this time that with his ever-increasing proficiency as a musician, Benny’s artistic temperament began to manifest itself. The issue of artistic temperament is one that often misunderstood, especially in the music business, as it existed in the late 1920s and early 1930s in the United States, and as it applied to Benny Goodman. (At left: Benny Goodman in approximately 1930. He was a determined young man.)
By comparison with opportunities to work in the music business as it exists today, opportunities within the music business of ninety years ago are mind-boggling. The number of opportunities in New York, then the epicenter for entertainment in the U.S., for musicians with top-notch skills, was vast. In addition to being able to play in bands that were being presented in literally hundreds of venues in Manhattan for listening or dancing, there were opportunities to work in radio, which was then at the beginning of a period of exponential growth. Music for feature films, as well as short subject films featuring musical acts, were produced steadily in New York City through the 1930s. Broadway theaters bustled with musical shows, all of which required orchestras of live musicians.
The only major consumer of live, human-created music that suffered during the early 1930s was the production of recordings. Phonograph record production plummeted during the early years of the Great Depression, very much in an inverse ratio to the growth of radio. Records had to be purchased, whereas music on radio was free to listeners. This was critically important in a nation where there was widespread unemployment and underemployment. People just didn’t have a lot of extra money to buy records. It took the recording companies several years during the 1930s to adjust to Depression era economic realities. Still, pre-Depression record sales were not equaled until just before World War II.
Ben Pollack and his band visit MGM in Hollywood 1926. L-R: Ben Pollack, Gil Rodin, Al Gifford, actor Henry Wallthall (with trumpet), Benny Goodman, actor Lionel Barrymore (with trumpet), Bill Sturgess, actor Owen Moore, Al Lasker, Al Harris, Wayne Allen, Harry Greenburg, Glenn Miller.
Benny Goodman came to New York for the first time in March of 1928 with Ben Pollack’s band. The reason for this was that Pollack had secured an engagement at a place called the Little Club, which was located on West Forty-fourth Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. Their job was to support singer Lillian Roth, who was then quite popular. That gig lasted until early May. Although it had been successful, some tensions had developed when Ms. Roth became envious of the applause the band got. Moreover, dissention began to develop within the band itself because Goodman and Glenn Miller, a 24 year-old trombone-playing arranger in the band, were growing restive with Pollack’s increasingly commercial orientation for the band’s music, which didn’t always result in getting better gigs.
Goodman and Miller had met in the Pollack band in late 1925, when Benny first joined that band. Since that time, they had grown to be friends, and often discussed their hopes and aspirations as professional musicians. They shared an apartment in the Whitby, a residential building located at 325 West 45th, which catered to people who worked in show business. The period after the Pollack band left the Little Club was one of unemployment for the band’s members because, despite their considerable musical skills, they were not members of the New York musicians’ union, Local 802. Consequently, their opportunities to work in Manhattan were severely limited. Both Goodman and Miller began taking steps to become members of the union. Basically, this involved them living in New York City for six consecutive months, an absolute precondition for membership, and then joining the union after a perfunctory test of their musical skills. (At left: Glenn Miller later in the 1930s.)
During this period of meager employment, the sidemen from the Pollack band had plenty of time to move about Manhattan in the evening and listen to various bands and musicians. On one such occasion, a group of musicians were invited to a jam session at which the Texas trombonist Jack Teagarden was present. No one had ever heard of him before that. Gil Rodin, one of the Pollack musicians, and the man who then basically ran the business side of the band for Pollack, later recalled that night: “That was the first time I’d ever heard Jack Teagarden. He was playing without the bell portion of his horn, just blowing through his slide into a glass and getting that eerie sound–it was the blues–and I was so knocked out that I couldn’t see straight. And then he sang too, and that was just too much!” (1) In due course, Teagarden was asked to sit in with the Pollack band at a rehearsal, and his playing and singing deeply impressed everyone in the band, including Glenn Miller. Miller realized that a talent like Jack Teagarden’s comes along very rarely, so he quickly began make plans to leave the Pollack band and write arrangements for bandleader Paul Ash. The Pollack band then went to a summer engagement in Atlantic City, and Miller remained in New York. But all of the parties concerned remained friends. (At right: Jack Teagarden – late 1920s.)
The Ben Pollack band loll on the grass in Atlantic City, New Jersey in the summer of1928. L-R: unknown bellhop, Jack Teagarden, Dick Morgan, Ben Pollack, Al Harris, Earl Baker, Larry Binyon, Benny Goodman, Vic Briedis, Harry Goodman and Gil Rodin.
Sometime in the autumn of 1928, Benny Goodman and other members of the Pollack band, plus Glenn Miller, completed their six month residency in New York City, thus qualifying for membership in Local 802. They all joined the union as soon as possible so that they could work on a free-lance basis in Manhattan. Miller began working as an independent musician in New York, summoned his girlfriend, Helen Burger, from Colorado so they could be married, and settled into a fairly stable and remunerative life as a free-lance trombonist and arranger. The Pollack band, including Benny Goodman, picked up work wherever and whenever possible. But Goodman and several others in the Pollack band were now members of Local 802, and that provided an option for them to settle and work in New York also. (At left: Helen and Glenn Miller at the beach in 1930, with their dog Pops.)
Benny Goodman left the Ben Pollack band in late 1929 so that he could begin his career as a free-lance musician in New York. His professional skills by then were first-rate. He could read and accurately play any music, no matter how complicated, at sight. He had great control of the instruments he played. The clarinet, one of the most difficult of all woodwind instruments to control, was his principal horn, though he did double as required on various saxophones. He applied himself with great discipline to his work as a free-lance. This involved, in addition to high-level musical skills, making connections among other musicians and various bandleaders, music contractors and producers; being available, sometimes on very short notice; showing up at the right place and on time; and most important of all, playing the music as directed very well with minimal rehearsal. Soon, Benny was very busy, racing from one radio or recording studio to another. He quickly discovered that he could make hundreds of dollars each week doing this. (Multiply by 15 to get the value in today’s dollars.) That, as the Great Depression deepened, was the good news.
The bad news was that much of the music he was required to play was simplistic and unimaginative in the extreme, and that it offered him almost no opportunity to use his ever-increasing skills as a clarinet virtuoso, much less as a jazz improviser. In addition, Goodman held most of the conductors for whom he worked in the studios in very low regard musically. This situation gradually caused Benny Goodman to be subject to occasional fits of artistic temperament. These gradually began to limit some of Benny’s employment opportunities in the commercial music marketplace. But his losses were quickly turned into gains by fellow clarinet specialists like Jimmy Dorsey and Art Shaw, who were also very active as free-lance Manhattan studio musicians in the early 1930s. But what some people call artistic temperament, others call exasperation. (At right: Benny Goodman with bassist Arthur Bernstein in a recording studio – early 1930s.)
As Goodman became more deeply involved in the commercial music being made in Manhattan in the early 1930s, he became increasingly aware that almost all of that music did not engage him to any appreciable degree. Conversely, he recognized and understood more clearly than ever that playing jazz, especially with good jazz musicians, not only engaged him, it challenged and exhilarated him. He found it to be almost intoxicating. He also came to the realization that temperamentally, he was not well-suited to taking orders from other musical directors. He had his own ideas about music, and he concluded that the best way for him to realize those ideas would be through his own band. Fortunately, a number of very powerful and helpful people were ready to help him organize that band and make it a success.
The music: This 1931 recording is not by the Benny Goodman orchestra of the mid and late 1930s that swing fans remember as Benny’s first great band. It is really an ad hoc recording by a pick-up band. However, the musicians who made this recording were hardly strangers to one another. Most of them had worked together in the Ben Pollack band, and most of the others were studio musicians who had worked with either Benny Goodman and/or Glenn Miller. They were a musically congenial group.
Glenn Miller’s minimalist arrangement was intended to provide a comfortable, uncongested framework for Jack Teagarden’s singing and trombone playing, and Benny Goodman’s clarinet solos. Nevertheless, there is much to comment on: “Miller was responsible for cooking up, possibly with Jack Teagarden’s help, a verse for ‘Basin Street Blues’ which has since become a part of the tune. …(Goodman) does play interesting solos. The second of these is on the familiar main theme of the song, which is not a blues, but an ordinary sixteen measure pop song. But the first is a true blues. There was no particular reason for inserting a blues chorus into the record. (How about the tune’s title? – MZ) Goodman probably did it because that was what Louis Armstrong did with his version of the record made over two years earlier.” (2)
Teagarden’s bluesy singing is noteworthy because of its “authenticity.” It sounds particularly apt in this performance. Teagarden was a master singer (and player) of the blues, though his singing seemed to be perfectly fitting, no matter what Jack was singing. His trombone solo here is first rate. He was certainly among the pioneers of jazz trombone with a sound and style all his own, plus he had great technical skill on the instrument. He influenced many young trombonists in the 1930s, and later.
Goodman’s playing is also excellent, demonstrating his technical command of the clarinet and a genuine feeling for the blues. The rasps he used here and there were a particularly piquant feature of his style through the 1930s.
Spencer Williams wrote “Basin Street Blues” in 1928, and one of the earliest recordings of it was by Louis Armstrong. Louis’s original recorded performance of the song, which includes a wordless vocal, is quintessential Louis, but quite different from what the song became after the Miller-Teagarden verse was added. (Louis preformed and recorded “Basin Street Blues” many times throughout his career.) Indeed, Jack Teagarden had recorded “Basin Street Blues” in 1929 without the verse as a part of a group of jazz musicians led by trumpeter Red Nichols. Nichols was not a jazz musician, but he was a good self-promoter who understood jazz and often surrounded himself with first-rate jazz players.
Basin Street, by the way, was the main street of Storyville, the red-light district of New Orleans in the early 20th Century.
“Basin Street Blues”
Composed by Spencer Williams; the Glenn Miller arrangement was filled-out for all of the instruments of the Goodman band by Fletcher Henderson.
Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra live at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles on August 22, 1935.
Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Bunny Berigan, first and solo trumpet; Ralph Muzzillo and Nate Kazebier, trumpets; Jack Lacey and Red Ballard, trombones; Hymie Shertzer, first alto saxophone; Bill De Pew, alto saxophone; Dick Clark and Arthur Rollini, tenor saxophones; Jess Stacy, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Gene Krupa, drums.
The story continues: This recording is one of the few preserved from the many radio broadcasts the Benny Goodman band made from its now legendary appearance at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in the summer of 1935. The band that is heard here is the one BG had organized in September of 1934, and had been able to keep together because of its employment from December of 1934 to May of 1935 on the NBC network radio show called “Let’s Dance.” (3) After the “Let’s Dance” show ended, the band had become quite good, and had built up a small library of arrangements that reflected its skill. Many of those arrangements were recorded in a remarkable recording session for the Thesaurus Transcription Service on June 5, 1935, where an incredible 51 tunes were recorded.
Nevertheless, the band struggled to get gigs in front of live audiences. The cross-country tour organized by Benny’s booking agent was something of a risky proposition. Despite the band’s six months of Saturday night broadcasts over NBC radio, the name Benny Goodman was still far from being nationally recognized. But a good many young people who had listened to those broadcasts at least knew who Benny Goodman was. The tour, which started in mid-July and ended when the band opened at what would be an extended engagement at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, was not a great success. A particular nadir was reached at Elitch’s Gardens, a ballroom near Denver, Colorado, where the band was forced to cut its arrangements into short segments so that the dancing “hostesses” could sell more tickets to dancers.
But things perked up considerably at the Palomar. By the time the Goodman band closed there at the beginning of October, it had made a lot of converts to its music in the Los Angeles area and throughout the nation because of the many radio broadcasts it had made there. But it would be another nine months before the small successes of the Benny Goodman band would finally add up to the real beginning of large-scale success.
The music: It is fascinating to compare this performance with the earlier one. The major differences are that the band is larger and more muscular, being particularly amped-up by Bunny Berigan’s first and solo trumpet playing, and that Jack Teagarden’s vocal is taken here by Joe Harris. Harris was a Teagarden acolyte on trombone who was working at this time only as Benny’s boy vocalist. (He would move into the trombone section after Jack Lacey left the Goodman band at the end of the Palomar engagement.)
In addition to Berigan’s commanding first trumpet sound, listen to how he adds upward rips to the brass blasts that are scattered through the arrangement. His jazz solo is excellent, on a par with what Goodman played. Both men were clearly inspired in this performance before an appreciative audience of dancers.
The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo. The aircheck recording required a good bit of sonic restoration.
Notes and links:
(1) Glenn Miller and His Orchestra, by George T. Simon (1974), 45.
(2) Benny Goodman and the Swing Era, by James Lincoln Collier (1989), 118.
(3) Here is a link to a wonderful performance of the Goodman band taken from the Let’s Dance broadcasts:
Here are links to other recordings made in 1935 by Benny Goodman featuring the trumpet playing of Bunny Berigan: