Loud Music and Quiet Decency
His father came from Poland, and his mother from Lithuania. He was the ninth of twelve children, born and raised in an impoverished neighborhood in Chicago crammed with Jewish immigrants’ children just like him. Music was a means of advancement, grasped by parents for their children, and the boy heard the message, not just for himself, but for others left behind by American society. And when he had a chance to challenge the order of things in the name of civil rights, he did. By the age of ten, he was the member of a band that practiced at a local synagogue. His hands were still too small for any of the larger instruments, so they gave him a clarinet. His name was Benny Goodman, and he went on to become one of the great jazz musicians of the first half of the twentieth century, and without a doubt its greatest clarinetist.
Goodman was touring in the mid-1930s with a staid form of jazz—polite music for polite people. Late nights, after the performances were over, he and his band would cut loose with some swing tunes for their own enjoyment—looser, louder, and more raucous than their regular material. One night, toward the end of a dismal tour of the West Coast of the United States, Goodman got fed up and had his band play the swing numbers during a show. The result was near-instantaneous acclaim, and a decade-long run as the King of Swing.
Goodman would go on to have not only the most successful big-band group of the swing era, but also the first racially integrated one. Previously, African-American jazz musicians had played their own clubs, in their own groups, kept out of the most glamorous establishments by the entrenched racism of the era. Goodman hired brilliant performers like guitarist Charlie Christian and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, first as part of a smaller group that would play during intervals in the big band’s show, and then as full members of the band. If concert bookers wanted Goodman, they’d have to take it as it was. What Goodman quietly instituted for his band in the 1940s eventually became the standard in jazz, and eventually, after the full impact of the civil rights movement, everywhere in the United States.