Where’s Benny Revisited

Maybe Benny Goodman thought the swing era would never end. For him, perhaps it didn’t, as he continued doing what we did from the 1930s onward, rather successfully, until his death in 1986.

In jazz lore, such as it is, it is said there supposedly is not a day that goes by without someone telling a story, somewhere, about the odd and off-putting behavior of “The King of Swing.” Many of the stories, as chronicled by bassist Bill Crow in his book, Jazz Anecdotes, Gene Lees’ Jazzletter and other publications, had to do with what went on during Goodman’s highly publicized tour of Russia in 1962.

There was, however, an earlier instance whereby, some say, The King couldn’t handle what may have been a certifiable career highlight.

Goodman had several triumphs throughout his long career, with the most famous being his groundbreaking jazz concert at Carnegie Hall on January 16, 1938. It was the first time jazz had been presented at that venerable hall, and, believe it or not, as everyone now knows, the darn thing was recorded.

The acetates of the night were given to Benny, but, in typical Goodman fashion, he just ignored them and put them in a closet. Around 1950, he “rediscovered” the sides, took them to engineers at Columbia Records, and no one could believe what they heard.

They were finally issued and not only became best sellers, but spawned a series of other Goodman “discoveries” that were issued on record–mainly live, radio airchecks from 1937 and 1938–that received much attention in the marketplace. They deserved the attention, as they were are fabulous.

BG became convinced that, either the swing era was back, and/or he could capitalize on the popularity of these recorded releases.

He was, by all accounts, very, very enthused. And it wasn’t easy to enthuse Benny. His idea, around 1953, was to recruit as many of the veterans of his 1937-1938 band to get together again and tour. As a special added attraction, and in order to ensure full houses, the tremendously popular Louis Armstrong and the All-stars would join the program. As a grand finale, BG and Pops would do some stuff together.

Sounded like can’t miss material.

Drummer Gene Krupa, pianist Teddy Wilson, trombonist Vernon Brown, trumpeter Ziggy Elman, vocalist Helen Ward, and from a later Goodman band, tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld joined up for the show. Others, like Harry James and Lionel Hampton did not, as they were leaders in their own rights and would not cancel lucrative bookings they had. There was a question of money, always an issue with BG, as well.

Still, it was a great crew, fleshed out by reedmen Willie Smith and Clint Neagly, trombonist Rex Peer, trumpeters Charlie Shavers and Al Stewart, and rhythm guitarist Steve Jordan.

Goodman enlisted the aid of his brother-in-law, the famed record producer and discoverer of talent, John Hammond, to help launch and promote the tour. The relationship between the two was always strained for various reasons–including Hammond being accused of taking credit for Goodman’s successes– but this particular project would bring things to a boil.

The band was assembled, programs were printed, and tickets were sold for the upcoming tour. All sellouts, by the way.

There is evidence that Goodman believed, even before the gigs began, that he didn’t need Louis Armstrong. However, Pops was contracted, and showed up dutifully to rehearse his part in the program.

Here’s where things went wrong, and everyone who was there, including Hammond’s account of it in his autobiography, Steve Jordan in his own book, Bobby Hackett and Georgie Auld who were there at rehearsals, has a different account.

The gist of it is that Goodman and Armstrong finally met for a rehearsal, only days before the tour began, to determine what Armstrong’s role would be in the program, other to serve as “opening act.”

As the story goes, Pops and the All-stars, weary from yet another one-nighter, showed up at the rehearsal hall early the next day, while Goodman was in the midst of drilling his reconstituted big band in yet another rundown of “Don’t Be That Way.”

Armstrong wanted to rehearse his piece of the show with Goodman and get out of there ASAP, as he–and the All-stars–were dead tired. Goodman indicated that Armstrong and the gang would have to wait until he was through rehearsing his own band.

Pops, rightly, was insulted and incensed, and unceremoniously split the scene.

The band had a tryout date in Boston and two, sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall.

“It was clear to observers that Goodman wasn’t himself,” according to John Hammond biographer Dunstan Prial. “Goodman acted erratically, he was drinking more than usual, and that he seemed generally distracted. Finally, barely two weeks into the tour, Goodman apparently collapsed in his hotel room. A week later, he withdrew from the tour, citing health problems.”

Prial’s version shouldn’t be accepted verbatim–his book on Hammond is rife with errors, as he identifies Helen Ward as Helen Humes–but what he described is basically what happened.

What occurred, it appears, is that Armstrong and the All-stars, doing their normal, vaudeville act at the actual show, totally upstaged the Goodman crew. And Benny, with his Mount Rushmore-sized ego, just couldn’t handle it, saw everything slipping away, and just abandoned the tour citing illness as a way of getting out of the tour. Some who were around at the time, however, do say that Goodman was actually very ill. We’ll never know for sure.

It could have been marvelous, if Benny would have just let everyone do what they did. There are thousands of folks out there who would have loved to hear just what things really sounded like.

Goodman never rejoined the tour, and Hammond and promoter Norman Granz threatened to sue BG. An immediate solution in terms of playing the dates that were already booked and sold, came in the form of Gene Krupa, who took over leadership of what remained of the tour, circa May, 1953.

It has long been believed that this band was never recorded.

It was.

A recording of one engagement, under Krupa’s leadership, on May 20, 1953, has come to light, and demonstrates what might have been and what could have been.

In all the years I’ve heard Krupa, under many conditions, I’ve never heard him the way he sounded leading this band. Multiply Buddy Rich’s energy times two, and you’ve got it. From the opening “Let’s Dance,” through “Don’t Be That Way,” some fabulous Ward vocals, through “Sing Sing Sing,” Krupa plays with more energy and sheer power than has ever been captured on record.

In many ways, this recording comes off more like a Jazz at the Philharmonic cutting session, than it does a Goodman band, mainly due to the presence of tenor saxophonist Auld, whose playing throughout veers been that of Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young. And trumpeter Charlie Shavers, always the extrovert, left nothing to the imagination as well.

Of particular interest to Goodman alumni fans, is that these recordings contain the last, great jazz solos of Ziggy Elman and Vernon Brown. Ziggy lost his lip a few years later, and Brown joined the studios.

In an effort to give everyone their money’s worth in lieu of Goodman’s absence, Krupa also threw in an unbelievable Krupa Trio version of Drum Boogie,” featuring Willie Smith and Teddy Wilson, and a drum duel with Armstrong’s Cozy Cole, and an encore of “The Saints.”

Although some are partial recordings (“Sing Sing Sing” cuts off near the end and Armstrong’s formal program has not been included), this recording shows that Benny should have never abandoned the tour.

The only thing missing from all of this is the discipline the Goodman would have demanded over the band. There would have been less showboating by Krupa, Auld and WIllie Smith, and I’m sure, less spirit.

I’ve rather have heard it this way.

What is particularly fascinating, given that Goodman was supposedly deathly ill at the time, is that “someone” decreed that, if the band were to continue without him, there would be absolutely no clarinet solos permitted. Indeed, Georgie Auld takes all the solos Goodman would have. Illness or not, Benny’s ego was evidently still pretty intact.

We, of course, have this very rare recording. It’s something to have.

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