By Jon Hancock
That 1938 concert is the stuff of legend and is probably the most widely talked about event in the history of Carnegie Hall. Immortalized for us all to enjoy on a set of scratchy acetate discs which turned up 12 years after the concert, jazz fans world-wide have a special affection for this concert which has come to define a special era of Big Band and Swing music. Those records, recorded remotely in a studio not far from Carnegie Hall, were made on the evening of January 16 1938 and have been retained in the Columbia Records catalog since their release in 1950.
In 1937, when plans for the Carnegie Hall concert were announced, Benny and the band were in the middle of a 15-week residency at the Madhattan Room, an after-theatre rendezvous, were the jitterbugging debutante set flocked to dine and dance into the wee small hours. Located in the basement of the Pennsylvania Hotel, then the biggest hotel in the world, the Madhattan Room was the venue from which the Benny Goodman Orchestra broadcasted countless radio shows. A long residency gig at somewhere like the Hotel Pennsylvania was a welcome break from the band’s incredibly intense touring schedule, a schedule which had them playing several shows a day at movie theatres like the Paramount. By the winter of ’37, Benny’s band had been touring and broadcasting up and down the country for four years.
LIFE Magazine published a lavish photo story covering a typical evening with BG at the Madhattan Room in November ’37, a story that caught the eye of the renowned impresario, Sol Hurok, he of The Russian Ballet fame. Benny’s publicity agency, Tom Fizdale Inc, suggested that Sol take a walk down to the Hotel Pennsylvania to see and hear Benny for himself. The sight of 375 dancing couples packed around the small stage and the sound of those young virtuosi playing at the peak of their abilities, was enough to convince Sol that he should take them to Carnegie Hall at once.
Arrangements were made and contracts were signed in very short order and on December 7, 1937 notice was given that Benny Goodman, The King of Swing and his ‘Swing School’ radio show band, was going to play Carnegie Hall. The story hit the front pages of newspapers nationwide. It was a crazy idea greeted by crazy headlines: “BG INVADES SANCTUM OF LONG-HAIRS!” and “GOODMAN FILLS CARNEGIE WITH 3000 JITTERERS,” which sent shivers down the spines of the regular Carnegie concert-goers.
After a month of planning and rehearsing, concert night came and the scene outside of Carnegie Hall was chaotic. Police were there in force checking tickets, queues of fans had been growing all day in the faint hope of securing a standing room ticket. Backstage it was busy, photographers, journalists, friends and family had all come to witness and be part of this historic occasion. Benny, dressed in his elegantly-tailored tails and white tie with a blue carnation, was nervous and pacing up and down, Gene Krupa joked “Is there anybody in the house?” and grinned. Whilst getting ready to go on stage that night, Benny’s young and gifted trumpeter, Harry James came up with the much quoted, immortal line “I feel like a whore in church.”
The concert was a rip-roaring success! Whoever devised that programme certainly knew how to push our buttons, because there was something for everyone that night. A couple of old folk tunes, some sizzling trio and quartet work, those ‘Biting Brass’ and the delicious saxophone section, playing wonderful Fletcher Henderson and Jimmy Mundy arrangements. The first half included a stellar guest list, which today reads like a who’s who of jazz greats. Think of it like the improbable result of a game of ‘Fantasy Jazz Combos”: Lester Young, Goodman, Johnny Hodges, Count Basie, Cootie Williams, Freddie Green, Gene Krupa, Harry James and others all on stage in a jam session which jelled beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
For many, the high point of the evening was the mesmerising drumming and the delightfully unexpected piano solo by Jess Stacy on Sing, Sing, Sing. For others it was the fab four, Gene, Lionel, Teddy and Benny, finishing the first half of the concert with an absolute storming version of ‘I Got Rhythm’.
We are fortunate that the concert was so skillfully recorded, for that was the very pinnacle of swing music in the 1930’s. Within a few months, key members of the Carnegie Hall band started to peel-off from the Goodman camp to launch their own careers as big band leaders. Meanwhile, Benny’s band continued to grow and evolve as musical styles waxed and waned. Within about eighteen months of the concert, Benny was back at Carnegie Hall with his new guitarist Charlie Christian, who heralded the start of the Bebop era. In all, Benny Goodman played concerts, both classical and jazz, at Carnegie no less than twenty-three times. The names of BG and Carnegie together always drew a full house.
It is now 80 years since that cold and spectacular night in January 1938, when the Benny Goodman Orchestra nervously walked out onto the Carnegie Hall stage and played a set that has gone down in history as one of the greatest jazz concerts ever. Who better than Ken Peplowski to showcase the Carnegie Hall concert tonight? Ken was a stalwart of Benny’s last touring band in 1985-86, playing alto sax in that band which lovingly looked back at Benny’s favorite Fletcher Henderson arrangements. Phoebe Jacobs, Benny’s long-time publicity agent, told me that Benny loved Ken’s playing, it is easy to see why.
I had a lot of fun writing a book about that landmark Carnegie Hall concert and I am really looking forward to coming over from England and celebrating with you, here in the Sacramento area, with this eightieth anniversary salute to Benny Goodman. Have a great evening everyone, and the warmest of welcomes to the Sacramento Jazz Orchestra and their guest soloist Ken Peplowski.
Jon Hancock is the author of Benny Goodman – The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert.