As the King of Swing, clarinet virtuoso Benny Goodman wore his crown comfortably for more than half a century.
In his late seventies, at an age when many players would have packed up their instruments and rested on their laurels -- and Goodman's were unsurpassed -- he was still playing, both the hard-charging swing that had made him one of American popular music's first media stars and the classical music that had brought him to the clarinet in the first place.
Goodman, who died of cardiac arrest in New York yesterday at age 77, had given a concert IL,5.6P at Wolf Trap just last Saturday, continuing a comeback of sorts after a two-year absence from the concert stage following a nearly fatal aneurysm. Goodman dropped back into activity almost as quietly as he had dropped out, appearing at the final Kool Jazz Festival last fall, taping a PBS special, "Let's Dance," and accelerating his concert schedule.
"I just don't think I ever lost my enthusiasm for music," he said in February, while preparing for a Kennedy Center appearance. "I tell you one thing . . .I wouldn't be out there if I couldn't play."
For countless fans, that was never an issue. To them the bespectacled Goodmanxl would always be the Pied Piper of swing, his clarinet lines symbolizing the vibrant pulse of the '30s and '40s. His playing remained fluid, free and graceful, whether riding above a big band, a small combo or a string quartet. He was, after all, the first musician to bridge successfully the jazz/classical dichotomy.
Like most giants, Benny Goodman enjoyed looking down as much as looking back. It was obvious he had nothing to prove and Goodman, whose grin sometimes made him look like an owl that had just swallowed a field mouse, could be wonderfully garrulous, totally at ease with his pronouncements as the senior statesman of jazz. "At my age, why the hell not?" he said.
He thrived on the little shocks of language -- including expletives in his appraisals of young musicians -- and shrugged off the praise that inevitably accumulated after 60 years as an entertainer. Goodman's career was, after all, one of the longest: He'd been on the road from the age of 14, playing in knee pants.
At times feisty and rude, Goodman was simply sure of his place in the history of American popular music, though he managed to remember the past without being enveloped by it.
"I guess those days were romantic, weren't they?" he said a few years back. "The music is good, when you go back and listen to it, the good music. There was a real quality -- Dorsey, Berrigan, Ellington, Armstrong. It wasn't just somebody dreaming."
Looking back at the '30s, with America strapped by both the Depression and Prohibition, it now seems apparent that Goodman was the right man in the right place at the right time. He'd had his years of struggle for identity and voice, but by the time he and his compatriots arrived at Los Angeles' Palomar club in 1935, they were blending fast and fascinating dance rhythms with a happy, joyous sound on such standards as "Sing, Sing, Sing," "Honeysuckle Rose," "Stompin' at the Savoy" and his concert-closing "Goodbye."
Little wonder that America came out swinging, fully realizing the Goodman theme song, "Let's Dance."
The resulting mania, with hysterical fans lining up at dawn to get into the dance halls, would start a phenomenon of pandemonium that has been repeated cyclically in American pop ever since.
But Goodman was not only setting records; he was also breaking down barriers, particularly those that existed on stage between black and white musicians. Though black and white musicians had jammed and recorded together, the issue of a racially mixed band was still volatile in the late '30s, when Goodman invited Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton to play with his band. At the time, he recalled, "I didn't think it was courageous. Maybe it was, looking back. It's like being heroic in the army. I don't think they look upon it that way, do you? You just do it."
The '30s and '40s would be Goodman's Golden Age, when he would sell more than 50 million records. But even with the demise of the big bands, he kept working: in smaller combos, in classical chamber groups. He raised a family, made a series of investments that ensured he'd never be wanting. From there, he did no more, no less than he wanted to do.
Goodman could be a stern taskmaster, one with a less-than-flattering reputation for single-mindedness. Throughout his days as a bandleader, the "Goodman Ray," an ice-cold stare over his glasses, was feared by musicians, though Goodman was quick to point out, "I wasn't any harder on them than I was on myself."
"See, I've always been rather hard-working, dedicated to what I'm doing," he said a couple of years ago. "I still feel bad if I don't do it right. I am probably a little more philosophical about it now. I can understand where it might be just plain tiredness; but in the early days, there was no excuse for being tired."
*Because his career encompassed so many years, because those who had played with him constituted a virtual Who's Who of Jazz, because there was an undercurrent of intense pride in everything he did, Benny Goodman had to endure the most stringent of comparisons: to Benny Goodman. He never lost much in terms of technique, though at times his inspiration seemed to wane.
That may have explained why Benny Goodman relearned the clarinet at age 40, taking lessons from a leading classical player, radically changing his lip technique to conform to classical practice. For new fingering, Goodman grew a new set of calluses after having the old ones shaved off by a surgeon.
It also explained why Benny Goodman would still practice every day, for hours at a time, 70 years after picking up the clarinet in his hometown of Chicago. When Goodman was interviewed in February in his New York penthouse (he was preparing at the time for his Kennedy Center concert), his natural instinct was to reach into his time- and travel-battered instrument case for a clarinet that seemed as unfulfilled in its disassembled state as Goodman was without it in his hands.
*Look at almost any picture of Benny Goodman from the last 50 years: The clarinet was both his sun and his shadow.
That February morning, asked about his short-lived retirement, Goodman had smiled that slightly crooked smile shaped by years of clarinet positioning, and spoke softly, as if there was no other answer.
"If I'm going to go, I'm going to go playing."