“Sometimes I’m Happy”
Composed by Vincent Youmans; arranged by Fletcher Henderson.
Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra for Victor in New York on July 1, 1935.
Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Bunny Berigan, first and solo trumpet; Ralph Muzzillo and Nate Kazebier, trumpets; Jack Lacey, first trombone; Sterling “Red” Ballard, trombone; Nuncio “Toots” Mondello, first alto saxophone; Hymie Shertzer, alto saxophone; Arthur Rollini and Dick Clark, tenor saxophones; Frank Froeba, piano; George Van Eps, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Gene Krupa, drums.
We here at swingandbeyond.com have recently hosted our 200,000th visitor. We can’t think of a better way to celebrate that than to delve into the music and story involving the King of Swing Benny Goodman, and his first great band. This post will untangle the confusion between swing, as a musical phenomenon, and the Swing Era, as a cultural phenomenon.
The birth of Swing Era versus the birth of swing. Many commentators for the last eighty-plus years have conflated these two historical phenomena, treating them as though they were the same thing that took place at the same time. In reality, the Swing Era was a cultural phenomenon having numerous component parts, many of which have nothing to do with music, but do have a lot to do with mass media as it existed in the mid-1930s. The birth of swing was a musical trend that began roughly a decade before that in jazz and dance bands, both black and white, and continued to evolve until a new jazz development began in the mid-1940s, bop or bebop. The evolution of swing was centered around the trumpet playing and singing of Louis Armstrong. As has been discussed in another post here at swingandbeyond.com, the cornetist Bix Beiderbecke was also one of the earliest fountainheads of swing. Unfortunately, because of his death at age twenty-nine, his influence on musicians in matters of swing was less than Armstrong’s, though he influenced and indeed continues to influence many musicians when it comes to jazz. (There is a link to that post entitled “Birth of Swing” at the bottom of this post.)
Benny Goodman’s role in the development of swing was certainly an important one. He was one of the few musicians, white or black, who in the mid and late 1920s, was playing jazz in a manner that reflected the lessons in swing that Armstrong and Beiderbecke had been imparting through that decade. But in terms of overall musicianship, Goodman went beyond both of those jazz pioneers in that he also possessed superior all-around skills as a musician. Specifically, he was a crack reader of music, could transpose music at sight, and had developed, in the early 1930s as a free-lance studio musician in Manhattan, the flexibility and versatility to be able to fit into almost any musical situation, and perform well. That experience also broadened his scope as a performer and interpreter of popular music. In other words, Benny Goodman was much more than a jazz musician, although he was certainly a great jazz musician. (Above left: Benny Goodman in a Manhattan recording studio -1934, with bassist Arthur Bernstein.)
In addition, Goodman, being the ninth child in a brood of twelve, learned early in life how to survive in a rough-and-tumble family that included many older brothers, and lived in a tough Chicago neighborhood where protecting one’s self was a basic tool of survival. Add to this that Benny began working as a professional dance band musician in his early teens, was knocked around in that profession every bit as much as all of his musical colleagues, and one begins to understand the hard edge BG had on his personality. When it came to interacting with the musicians who would work for him in his various bands starting in the mid-1930s, Benny Goodman could and often was a tough and sometimes astonishingly insensitive customer.
Often, at the root of BG’s toughness, was his intolerance for substandard musicianship from anyone in his band. Although he was one of the most spectacular instrumental virtuosos of the swing era, Benny Goodman, in addition to often working, that is playing his clarinet, for eight or more hours a day for weeks on end, still found time to practice. He set an incredibly high bar of performance for himself, and expected his musical associates to perform on a similarly high level. Very few were able to please Benny consistently with their quality of performance, fewer still were able to excite him musically, no matter how well they played. In this highly exclusive group of musicians whose playing consistently stimulated BG was trumpeter Bunny Berigan.
In terms of musicianship and jazz ability, Goodman and Berigan were very similar. But in terms of personality, they were very different. Although both men wanted to get ahead in the music business, and worked as hard as humanly possible to do so, Goodman would and did willfully and at times cruelly dominate those around him to get ahead. Berigan never did that willfully, though at times, when under the influence of alcohol, could be mulishly stubborn. Another major difference between them was that by the mid-1930s, Bunny’s heavy drinking had passed the tipping point into alcoholism. The time he spent drinking was time Benny Goodman spent meeting with his agents, monitoring how they were handling his career, taking elocution lessons so his speech would be clearer on radio, and of course, practicing. The cumulative and corrosive effects of alcoholism on Berigan made him less likely to care about such things, though his determination to play well and work hard never waned. Tragically, though Berigan was able to learn how to function despite his alcoholism on a high level as far as his performance on trumpet was concerned, by the end of the 1930s, another far more deadly illness had begun to destroy his health – cirrhosis of the liver. His continuing alcoholism, and he did struggle, unsuccessfully, to overcome that addiction, meant literally that every drink he took brought him closer to death. By June 2, 1942 the last note had sounded: Bunny Berigan died on that date at the age of 33.
But in the summer of 1935, the future was unknown for both Benny Goodman and Bunny Berigan. At that time they were both in their mid twenties, and they both were supremely gifted musicians and jazz performers. They were in the right place at the right time with the right tools for success. They sensed that there might be an opportunity for a dance band to deliver performances that were informed by both jazz and swing that were not only rewarding and exciting for both the musicians involved, but for some segment of the dancing public as well. Goodman, iron willed and ambitious, was greatly assisted in his career advancement by his older bass-playing brother Harry. Harry Goodman was a canny businessman who had learned the band business inside-out at the elbow of Gil Rodin, the man who ran Ben Pollack’s band in the 1920s well into the 1930s. (Another of Gil Rodin’s prize pupils was Glenn Miller.) Berigan, also iron willed, but perhaps less ambitious, did not have such an advisor in his family. But he would eventually come under the guidance of an aggressive personal manager, Arthur Michaud, who did an excellent job of getting Bunny’s career as a bandleader off to a good start through the year 1937 and into 1938. That relationship unfortunately became fraught for a number of reasons, and the result for Berigan was serious damage to his career as a bandleader at the very time his band was moving toward national recognition. But these are the stories of what made up the Swing Era. The story of swing is told eloquently in the music.
The music: Fletcher Henderson’s arrangement on “Sometimes I’m Happy” is one that Benny Goodman loved, and played throughout his career. It is a masterpiece of its kind, a lovely refashioning of a very good popular song (vintage 1927) that captured perfectly what Goodman was trying to accomplish as a bandleader in 1935. The arrangement contains abundant jazz-like melodic paraphrases played expertly by the Goodman band, and two excellent jazz solos, by Bunny Berigan on trumpet and Arthur Rollini on tenor saxophone. Curiously, the space allotted for BG’s clarinet solo is rather limited. Nevertheless, that solo plays a role in the perfectly balanced, paced and musical Henderson’s chart. Of overarching importance is that the entire Goodman ensemble plays this music, which is great for dancing or just listening, sensitively and with beguiling swing.
The performance begins with an introduction spotting the Berigan-led brass, in cup mutes, playing a snippet of the main melody of “Sometimes I’m Happy,” with the saxophones playing gentle riffs. The muted brass carry the melody through the first chorus, being gently answered by continuing soft saxophone asides. The music evokes dancers gliding over a highly polished ballroom floor.
The two bar transition into the second chorus, which is essentially a break (the rhythm section is tacit) is lovely. Notice how Henderson used the reeds and trombones to cushion Berigan’s cup-muted trumpet notes. Then Bunny skillfully (and quickly) removed the mute so that he could play his jazz solo with an open horn. The contrast with what has gone before is striking. Not only do we hear a completely different sonority (Berigan’s massive open trumpet sound), but in place of the melody is a stirring improvisation that is the quintessence of jazz – a compelling musical picture painted in broad brush strokes.
Tenor saxophonist Arthur Rollini had the unenviable task of following this, and he does so cleverly. He plays his first eight bars of improvisation with utter simplicity, then he plays the second eight bars in a fluid double-time. Rollini’s solo is thus a contrast with what Berigan had played, and a contrast within itself. Rollini was a master musician who had complete command of his instrument, read music like a fox, was a superb section player, and played satisfying jazz. (Arthur Rollini is shown at right.) The ultra-critical Benny Goodman noticed. Rollini was a member of the Goodman band for almost five years.
The next chorus presents the saxophone quartet, led by Nuncio “Toots” Mondello, singing the melodic abstractions Fletcher Henderson had written, for sixteen bars. Henderson’s use of syncopation in this sequence is the essence of gentle but persuasive swing. The open brass (also beautifully syncopated) are heard on the bridge, with Berigan’s expressive lead prominent.
Then there is an abrupt break, filled momentarily by Goodman’s clarinet, then a repeat of the brass sequence, with Berigan’s lead a bit hotter. Benny’s solo at this point is really only a brief transitional and dynamically contrasting phrase from the climax into the melodic reprise and the tag ending.
Fletcher Henderson led one of the pioneering bands in the 1920s into the early 1930s, and then led bands sporadically in the late 1930s and through the 1940s. He came to arranging somewhat late in his first band’s existence, as other arrangers were the ones who initially wrote for that band. However, by the late 1920s, he and his brother Horace began writing many classic arrangements that eventually, largely through Fletcher’s work with Benny Goodman starting in 1934, codified the early swing development that had occurred in his band, and then extended that codification through many of the new arrangements he wrote for Goodman in 1935. An apotheosis of this trend is his arrangement on “Sometimes I’m Happy.” (Henderson is shown above left in 1939, when he temporarily played piano with Benny Goodman’s band. At right is BG. The man in the middle is a radio announcer.) NOTE: See the comment below written by Elizabeth regarding the contribution of Fletcher Henderson’s younger brother Horace to this arrangement.
Goodman was seeking, successfully in this performance, to insinuate jazz into the music being consumed by mainstream record buyers. He had done the same thing on the Let’s Dance NBC radio program for 26 weeks from late 1934 into 1935. He would continue doing this in his other radio shows, including the very successful CBS Camel Caravan radio show (1936 through 1939), and in two Hollywood feature films. Goodman’s success in moving swing into the American mass media mainstream in the late 1930s is why he is remembered today as the King of Swing.
This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
Here is a link to the post here at swingandbeyond.com that discusses the birth of swing:
Here are other great examples of some of Benny Goodman’s classic mid-1930s recordings: