For the first time in his 50-year career, Benny Goodman played the White House last night.
"Well, Frank Sinatra called me about a month ago and asked me if I would play tonight at the White House," said Goodman, a devilish smile cropping up, "and first of all, I had to see if I was available."
Sinatra, who has been helping to plan entertainment in the Reagan White House, also asked powerhouse band leader and jazz drummer Buddy Rich to join Goodman at the state dinner for King Hussein and Queen Noor.
"King Hussein is a jazz buff, and Goodman is terrific," said Sinatra yesterday when asked about his choice. "I thought Benny Goodman and his little group would be better than a full-blown jazz group. We didn't want to blow everyone out of the room."
Yesterday, the two jazz legends practiced at the White House as the late afternoon sun dappled the potted plants and reflected off Goodman's clarinet.
"When Frank Sinatra called me and asked me to play with Benny, I didn't give it a second thought," said Rich. "He's the genius of them all. I just listen to him play and I'm happy."
The 72-year-old Goodman and his clarinet can still enrapture an audience. About 30 White House staffers and press sat tapping their feet in the East Room as Goodman squinted his eyes, leaned back and blew out "So Easy to Remember."
"I've loved you for years," said one middle-aged woman, putting pen and paper in his hand for an autograph. "You've brought much happiness . . ."
The younger fans just sat and smiled. "The resurgence of interest in this type of music has been going on for a while now in this country," said Goodman. "They graduate to these things." He smiled broadly.
The last time Benny Goodman was in the White House was when Lyndon Johnson invited him 15 years ago, but he did not play for the guests.
"I really don't think he was a fan," said Goodman of Johnson. "But his guest of honor was Helmut Schmidt and he loved jazz."
And so do Ronald Reagan and King Hussein, Goodman hears. "I've heard tell-tales of such a thing," he said to a bevy of reporters, who were hanging on every word. "I hear the king is a great jazz fan."
Goodman said he will play most of his "standard material," opening with "I Want to Be Happy."
"I'll probably do numbers like 'Stompin' at the Savoy' and 'Lady Be Good,' " he said, adding that he was not at all nervous.
"I'll probably get charged up right before the show. I'm just going to have fun and enjoy myself," he said. "I express the hope that the wind will blow in the right direction and everything will go well. I just want people to enjoy themselves."
Goodman said he first met the Reagans "years ago" in California, but hasn't seen them since. He will be seated next to the president during the state dinner.
"I wonder if Mrs. Reagan's new china is in yet?" he asked no one in particular. When told he would be using the old china, he smiled and said, "Oh, that's too bad."