"At any given time, day or night, somebody, somewhere in the world, is telling a Benny Goodman story."
That was how the cornetist Ruby Braff, who worked with Benny Goodman in the mid-1950s, described the celebrated clarinetist. Braff knew that musicians like to gossip, particularly about the people they work for. Indeed, Goodman, whose music will be celebrated this week at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola by the virtuoso clarinetist Ken Peplowski, has been increasingly recast in passing years by anecdotage concerning certain rather extreme personality traits, specifically his penuriousness, his callousness to the people around him, and his insensitivity to everything but music.
Mr. Peplowski has certainly heard all the stories — and tells a few of them himself. He worked with Goodman in the late legend's band, a group of mostly 20-something players that proved conclusively that Goodman's music belonged not just to a particular era but to the ages. When I first heard Mr. Peplowski 25 years ago, I thought he sounded too much like Goodman, his obvious role model, but it begged the question: Which Benny Goodman sound? Was it the hot-and-throaty, New Orleans-influenced timbre that Goodman used at the beginning of his career in Red Hot Chicago, or the smooth, supple sound he sported at the height of the swing era?
Mr. Peplowski has long since internalized his influences and established himself as one of the most distinctive stylists of the last few generations, but he still has more than a little Goodman in his horn (in fact, it's the purified, classically influenced sound that Goodman perfected at the end of his life). How could he not? When he shares the stage at Dizzy's with another fellow Goodmanite, the veteran guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, the duo will surely do justice to the great clarinetist's considerable legacy.
It remains to be seen if Messrs. Peplowski and Pizzarelli will be able to resist the temptation to tell Benny Goodman stories in between numbers — those tales that have been told so often that they are no less a part of that legacy than "King Porter Stomp,""Avalon," or "Stealin' Apples."
There's the time the absent-minded Goodman got into a cab, sat there silently for a few minutes, and then asked the driver, who had yet to drive anywhere, how much he owed him; the way he called everybody "Pops," even his girl singers, as if he couldn't be bothered to remember anyone's name; the time he dropped a ketchup-bottle cap into a plate of scrambled eggs and proceeded to eat around it.
Goodman's cheapness was legendary — according to these stories — but that seems beside the point. If Goodman had only been the greatest clarinetist in jazz history (no arguments, please),that would have been enough. If he had only led one of the greatest big bands of all time, on a par with his peers Duke Ellington and Count Basie, that would have been enough. If he had only been the single most significant force in the birth of the swing era in 1935, that would have been enough. If he had only inspired and launched the careers of hundreds of other great instrumentalists, leaders, and singers, it would have been enough. If he had only done more than any other individual to break down the barriers of racial prejudice in the music business, that would have been more than enough.
If anything, Goodman's contributions to American music have been severely under-appreciated. There are zillions of Goodman CDs out on the market, but the great bulk are produced by European labels that work with recordings in excess of the local 50-year copyright limit. Incredibly, the best way to hear his single most famous performance, the legendary Carnegie Hall concert of 1938, is on a French import.
Mr. Peplowski's tribute will be the first notable Goodman-centric performance in New York since Jazz at Lincoln Center's concert of almost four years ago. Yet Goodman, like Ellington, Basie, Louis Armstrong, and Charlie Parker, is one of those essential American musicians whose work deserves to be constantly celebrated, re-examined, reissued, performed, and experienced anew.
Like those icons, Goodman left the world more great music to absorb than almost any other jazz figure, but I'll just select a couple of remarkable performances. In July of 1935, shortly before the famous "breakthrough" appearance at the Los Angeles Palomar Ballroom (at which the world went swing crazy for the first time and an era was officially born) a relatively young Goodman band recorded a hot arrangement of "Jingle Bells," which was considered ancient even then. The orchestration, by staff arranger Lyle "Spud" Murphy, injected some swing into an old chestnut — a perfect way of introducing a new musical style. The song is recognizably "Jingle Bells," but swings from the start, with the three notes of the title phrased entirely differently than anything most of America had heard before 1935 — with syncopations, triplets, dotted eighth notes, and much of the other vocabulary inspired by Louis Armstrong, whose innovations Goodman thoroughly absorbed early on.
"Sing, Sing, Sing" is the Goodman classic that most contemporary listeners know; although not a hit record in its day, it was a knockout in concert (most famously at Carnegie). Arranger Jimmy Mundy began by combining themes by two other musicians — the trumpeter Louis Prima and the tenor saxist Chu Berry — though where Berry had written his song "Christopher Columbus" in major, Mundy put it into a minor key. As originally recorded on a two-sided single, the piece was already a doublelength extravaganza, but by the time of the Carnegie performance, it had grown into a 13-minute magnum opus. The Prima and the Berry themes were only the beginning; the second part had the band playing a descending, cascading sequence of notes in round harmony that sounded positively frightening, as if Benny and the boys were trying to scare away the Great Depression and the Nazis at the same time. Whereas the entire ensemble plays with turn-on-a-dime precision in the first half, the second represents complete freedom of the most primal sort, with trumpeter Harry James and then Goodman soloing with just Gene Krupa's drums for accompaniment, both contrasting soaringly pure high notes with blue growls and other "freak" effects. In bringing jazz to Carnegie, they were, in effect, smuggling American contraband into the halls of European high culture, and Goodman and his 15 men pull it off with the audacity and precision of Ocean's Eleven.
Benny Goodman not a generous man? The thought is absurd. Goodman achieved immortality long before he was 30, but refused to do what his contemporary Artie Shaw had done, which was to retire at age 40 and deny the world the rapturous beauty of his music. As a commentator once said about Frank Sinatra, what Goodman gave us was better than anything we could have asked for.