Benny Goodman (May 30, 1909 - June 13, 1986)

Before the Beatles, before Elvis, before Frank Sinatra, the silver-toned clarinet of a pied piper named Benny Goodman lead America’s children into the Lindy-Hopping land of swing, and it’s a good bet some of them were smoking tea.

On March 3, 1937 the Goodman orchestra began a two-week engagement at the Paramount Theater on Times Square. On opening night, “The swing-intoxicated throng was still pleading for more as the bandstand slid out of sight and the houselights were raised,” wrote Goodman’s biographer Ross Firestone. “What started out as just a stage show had turned into a kind of celebration of the spirit, a love feast of communal frenzy that was, as Variety observed, ‘tradition-shattering in its spontaneity, its unanimity, its sincerity, its volume, in the childlike violence of its manifestations.’” (Sounds like Woodstock to me.)

That same year, when the U.S. Marijuana Tax Act all but made the jive gone, the jitterbug, an exuberant style of dancing from Harlem’s clubs, saw national exposure in the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races and soon the white kids were dancing it too. It was also the year Goodman recorded VIP Mary Lou Williams’ “Roll ‘Em,” on his When Buddha Smiles record, and, against the wishes of his producer John Hammond, began shooting William Randolph Hearst’s movie Hollywood Hotel. This set up a push and pull in Benny that had begun during the Depression years, when he felt compelled to abandon jazz and take less creative work in the studios, so that he could send money home to his widowed mother and sisters.

Born May 30, 1909, Benjamin Goodman was the 9th child of 12 born to a poor Jewish tailor in Chicago. When his father heard that young men could earn money playing music, he gave his sons lessons. Benny applied himself and began playing professionally by the age of 14, spending his evenings in Chicago’s jazz clubs, hearing the likes of VIP Bessie Smith. (“When she sang the blues, it took you right out.”)  At 16 he traveled to Los Angeles to play, around the time Louis Armstrong was popped for pot. There Goodman gigged with his orchestra’s drummer, VIP Gene Krupa, and with VIP Mezz Mezzrow, another Jewish clarinetist from Chicago who became beloved as the Vipers’ pot dealer in Harlem.

“To hard-core Chicagoans like Mezz Mezzrow and Bud Freeman…spontaneous creativity was everything,” writes Firestone. The young men had little respect for bandleaders who relied on charts and liked to get “knocked out of our minds” by other musicians, like trombonist Jack Teagarden. Jimmy McPartland recalls the time the band first heard Teagarden like this: “So we were all drinking and smoking a little pot, and we went to hear him.”

In 1933 John Hammond arranged a recording session with Goodman, Teagarden and Krupa. The result was “Texas Tea Party,” “Tea being both a play on Teagarden’s name and current slang for marijuana,” writes Firestone. (“Now Mama, Mama, Mama, Mam-oh, where did you hide my tea?…Now come on Mama, Mama, Mam-oh, and quit that holding out on me.”)

The Goodman Orchestra was the first jazz band to play Carnegie Hall in 1938, immortalized in Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz series as the night Krupa saved the band’s performance by swinging them out on the first number. Goodman started recording classical music after that, swinging back again to the straights.

In 1940 The Mighty Mezz was busted for pot and sent to Riker’s Island. Krupa was arrested in '43 in San Francisco for possession. Goodman stood by Krupa when few others did, visiting him at SF county jail in June, before Krupa was sent to San Quentin, where he remained incarcerated until August 9. “He’s a wonderful guy and a wonderful drummer," Goodman said. "Anytime, anyplace, anywhere he wants hs old job back, it’s his.”

Later in life, Goodman occasionally drank and took pills to help him over the rigors of touring with painful sciatica, for which he underwent surgery. Nowhere in Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman does Firestone go so far as to say Goodman himself smoked pot, but interestingly, the book opens with an account of a 1975 interview Goodman granted to author Ira Berkow. "I’m not a great one for remembering," a distracted and uncooperative Goodman told Berkow. Then, “[q]uite abruptly, without explanation, [Goodman] rose to his feet and disappeared into the bathroom down the hall, signaling, perhaps, that the audience had come to an end. A few minutes later he returned, all smiles and charm now, ready to bring the interview to a proper close.”

And so we close our centennial tribute to the birth of the King of Swing. Long may he blow, and may Buddha smile upon him.

Highly Recommended: Ross Firestone, Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman.

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