(I’m often asked about Benny Goodman when I’m interviewed, and I bristle when people only want to hear the negative Benny Goodman stories or the funny stories where he forgot people’s names. When people focus on those aspects of who he was, they are overlooking the fact that he was one of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century. This may not be my final interview about Benny, but it is an edited and condensed version of one I did with fellow musician Jesse Cloninger in 2013.)
When I moved to New York in 1980, there were a lot of rehearsal big bands around that had incredibly good musicians—ex-studio guys and excellent jazz players who just wanted to play good arrangements. One of these bands was led by a guy named Loren Schoenberg. He was working as Benny Goodman’s secretary and somehow had acquired all of Benny’s original charts. The band included people like Scott Hamilton, Warren Vache, Dan Barrett, and Howard Alden, and I was a fairly regular member. It was a fun band to play in, and we worked a little bit around town.
It was at this time that Benny decided to come out of retirement and start working again with a regular big band. He was very serious about it, so Loren said, “Why don’t you audition my band?” and that is exactly what happened. We all showed up at the rehearsal studio, and Benny was late. We were scared to death because he had a reputation of being a really tough bandleader in terms of being very demanding of what he wanted. We were in awe of him.
He hadn’t shown up for some time, and we figured he had forgotten the rehearsal or changed his mind, as he could do. He was quite the absent-minded professor. So Loren said to me, “Can you play Benny’s part? Instead of going home, let’s use the time at the rehearsal studio and play for four hours.” So I end up playing Benny’s part in front of the band.
I’ve told this story many times where I say that as we were playing, I knew Benny had entered the room because I heard the sound of 13 pairs of buttcheeks clenching! That may be a mild exaggeration, but I could feel the whole band tense up. Just the electricity he had. He had a real presence. I’ve met very few people who had that kind of magnetism. Frank Sinatra had it, maybe Ella Fitzgerald, but very few.
He rehearsed the band, and he really liked us. I think he liked that we were younger guys who were into his music, and it wasn’t just a job. We took him seriously and treated him with respect. After a few rehearsals, he did wind up firing most of the band except for me and Jack Stuckey, the only two to survive the run of the band. However, most of those he fired were rehired.
To witness him rehearsing a band was a real lesson for me. We could go through a four-hour rehearsal and not even get through one chart. He was so demanding. He developed a technique where he would have the wind instruments play not just passages, but sometimes the entire chart without the aid of the rhythm section. I believe he was the first guy to do this.
If you didn’t have a strong sense of time, you either developed one very quickly, or you were out of the band. All those Fletcher Henderson and Jimmy Mundy charts—stuff that he loved—were all about having a really strong internal sense of time. Those charts had call-and-response elements that often had certain sections performing the functions of a rhythm section. There were rhythmic hits you would normally hear from the piano or drums, but were written for the saxophones or brass. He really sharpened us up and turned us into a Benny Goodman band. It was phenomenal to be part of it and to witness him doing this.
There are certain musicians who talk about him as an evil guy who would have seemingly random acts of cruel behavior. He was a mercurial guy, and there was a part of him you couldn’t figure out. It made you wonder why he did certain things. But I think there was a method to much of his madness. All he cared about was the music.
Unfortunately, he did suffer in the personality department a little bit. You’ve heard about minor incidents of social awkwardness, his absent-mindedness, and the Benny Goodman “ray,” but his focus was entirely on the music all the time. Say what you will, the guys who loved him and respected him knew he was as tough on himself as he was on the band members. He did perform many acts of kindness that were never recognized, and he became a much mellower guy in his later years.
He practiced all the time. He never stopped thinking about those arrangements; arrangements he played for almost 50 years. He was still trying to find exactly the right tempo or would tinker with little changes. Watching him helped me become a really good editor on the fly and to be able to look at a chart and decide what is going to work and what isn’t.
You ask what I may have drawn from Benny. I guess it was his unbelievable rhythmic drive, his great sense of melody, and his warmth as a player. The fact that the guy played “Poor Butterfly” for 40 years, and every time he played it, it sounded like he was presenting it for the first time, still with all the love for the song. He had a way of playing a melody with a sense of forward motion and making it sound fresh.
He would actually say to the audience: “This is not nostalgia for me. I choose to play the Fletcher Henderson charts because he is my Mozart. I think he is a genius, so why not continue to play his charts.”
As a testament to Benny’s abilities as an editor and bandleader, and if you perform an A/B listening test of the same chart played by Henderson’s band and Benny’s band, you will hear vast changes in the arrangements—big differences in the way the bands played the rhythmic figures and in the phrasing. That is all Benny. He kept hiring Fletcher to write charts into the ’40s, even for the larger band after adding extra instruments. Fletcher’s charts are deceptively simple and still hold up. If a chart swings, you can play it in any era.
Benny Goodman was a very complex guy, and I don’t think anybody will ever completely figure him out, nor is there any reason why they should. To this day, his shadow is over all of us. That is a testament of how strong and influential he was as a player and a bandleader. He was a great artist, and that is what counts.
(Edited by Lew Shaw)
The unabridged version of this interview may be found at kenpeplowski.com.
Related: Ken Peplowski: Beyond Benny’s Footsteps, Good News: Ken Peplowski Back on the Road