Life And Times Of Benny Goodman Part Two
Yes I know, it’s been awhile since I did Benny Goodman, but I didn’t want you to think that I’m only doing the 1930’s as I started with. I’m going back to my other blogs and start doing something that I started with and that is to continue doing my blogs in parts. I’m now doing the Life And Times Of Benny Goodman Part Two which I should have done earlier than now, but seeing that it’s my website, I’ll make up the rules.
The Maxwell street ghetto where Benny Goodman grew up
Benny Goodman was born in Chicago, the ninth of twelve children of poor Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire. His father, David Goodman (1873–1926), came to America in 1892 from Warsaw in partitioned Poland, and became a tailor. His mother, Dora (née Grisinsky,1873–1964), came from Kaunas, Lithuania. His parents met in Baltimore, Maryland, and moved to Chicago before Benny was born. With little income and a large family, they moved to the low-rent Maxwell Street neighborhood, an overcrowded slum near the railroad yards and surrounding factories, populated mostly by Irish, German, Scandinavian, Polish, Italian and Jewish immigrants. The Chicago social activist Jane Addams described the surroundings:
The streets are inexpressibly dirty, the number of schools inadequate, sanitary legislation unenforced, the street lighting bad, the paving miserable and altogether lacking in the alleys and smaller streets, and the stables foul beyond description. Hundreds of houses are unconnected with the street sewer.”
Money was a constant problem in the family. Benny’s father earned at most $20 per week. On Sundays, his father took the children to free band concerts in Douglas Park, which was the first time Benny experienced live professional performances. To give his children some skills and an appreciation for music, his father enrolled ten-year-old Benny and two of his brothers in music lessons at the Kehelah Jacob Synagogue, which charged his father only 25¢ per lesson, including the use of the synagogue’s instruments.
“Playing music was a great escape for me from the poverty. I wanted to do something with myself. And the music was a great form for me. I was absolutely fascinated by it. So I set out at an early age to do what I could—and devote my efforts to it, and enjoy it.”
Benny Goodman, in a 1975 interview
The following year Benny joined the boys club band at Jane Addams’s Hull House, where he received lessons from the director James Sylvester for a small cost. By joining the band, he was entitled to spend two weeks at a summer camp about fifty miles from Chicago. It was the only time he was able to get away from the bleak environment of his urban neighborhood.
He also received two years of instruction from the classically trained clarinetist Franz Schoepp. His early influences were New Orleans jazz clarinetists working in Chicago, notably Johnny Dodds, Leon Roppolo and Jimmie Noone. Goodman learned quickly, becoming a strong player at an early age and soon playing professionally in various bands.
Goodman made his professional debut in 1921 at the Central Park Theater on Chicago’s West Side. He entered Harrison High School in Chicago in 1922. He joined the musicians’ union in 1923 and by the age of 14 was in a band featuring Bix Beiderbecke. Goodman attended Lewis Institute (now Illinois Institute of Technology) in 1924 as a high-school sophomore, while also playing the clarinet in a dance hall band. (He was awarded an honorary LL.D. from IIT in 1968.)
When Goodman was 16, he joined one of Chicago’s top bands, the Ben PollackOrchestra, with which he made his first recordings in 1926. When he was 17, his father was killed by a passing car after stepping off a streetcar. His father’s death was “the saddest thing that ever happened in our family,” Goodman said.
Benny Goodman made his first record under his own name for Vocalion two years later. He recorded with the regular Pollack band and smaller groups drawn from the orchestra through 1929. The side sessions produced scores of sides recorded for the various dimestore record labels under an array of group names, including Mills’ Musical Clowns, Goody’s Good Timers, the Hotsy Totsy Gang, Jimmy Backen’s Toe Ticklers, Dixie Daisies, and Kentucky Grasshoppers.
Benny Goodman moved to New York City and became a successful session musician in the late 1920s and early 1930s, mostly with Ben Pollack’s band between 1926 and 1929. In a notable Victor recording session on March 21, 1928, Goodman played alongside Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Joe Venuti in the All-Star Orchestra, directed by Nathaniel Shilkret. He played with the nationally known studio and performing bands of Ben Selvin, Red Nichols, Ted Lewis and Isham Jones, although he is not on any of Jones’s records. He recorded sides for Brunswick under the name Benny Goodman’s Boys, a band that featured Glenn Miller. In 1928, Goodman and Miller wrote the instrumental tune “Room 1411”, which was released as a Brunswick 78. He also recorded musical soundtracks for movie shorts; fans believe that his clarinet can be heard on the soundtrack of One A.M., a Charlie Chaplin comedy re-released to theaters in 1934.