A musical milestone at Carnegie Hall

We’ve happily noted a few 50-year anniversaries in pop culture lately, but today marks the 80th anniversary of a legendary Carnegie Hall concert by the great Benny Goodman big band, on January 16, 1938.

The big bands and their leaders were the rock stars of their day, generating a growing excitement for swing music among young people all over the country, ever since the style took over the genre, largely credited to the Goodman band’s three-week run at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1935.  Dance halls and jazz clubs found themselves stuffed to capacity whenever big names like Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and dozens of others appeared.

To make a long story short, by late ’37 swing bands were the national craze in music, and enjoying tremendous popularity. Goodman’s band in particular favored high-energy arrangements by the likes of Fletcher Henderson and Edgar Sampson that had music mavens dancing in the aisles at concerts. This led to the unprecedented step of booking the band in the prestigious Carnegie Hall–the first jazz concert ever to be performed there. Goodman himself was only 28 at the time, but didn’t seemed unduly fazed by the prospect of performing in the Mecca of classical music. When asked how long an intermission he wanted for the concert, his reply was, “I don’t know. How long does Toscanini have?” Trumpeter Harry James sounded considerably more awed by the circumstances when, before the concert began, confessed “I feel like a whore in church.”


There was no telling how the music would be received, or even how a big a crowd would turn up for the occasion. The answer lies in both the recording made that night, and the fact that rows of overflow seats were set up right on the stage itself, within reach of the musicians. The band was at its peak, having spent the previous few years touring constantly, and trying out new numbers and arrangements, always gauging audience reactions. By January of ’38, the set list was about as reliable as Goodman could make it.

The Benny Goodman Quartet (Teddy Wilson obscured at piano).

The program for the evening presented a mix of numbers by the full band with those featuring Goodman’s trio (with Teddy Wilson on piano, Gene Krupa on drums), and Lionel Hampton joining in on vibes for the quartet. It should be noted that, at a time of segregation among virtually all aspects of American culture, Goodman welcomed black musicians in his band as well as those he brought on as guests that particular night. The concert was greatly enhanced with appearances by Count Basie, along with a few members of his band, including tenor sax god Lester Young, plus a few members of Duke Ellington’s band, most notably the awesome Johnny Hodges on alto sax.

As for the performance itself, the concert was recorded for posterity, with an edited version not released until 1950 by Columbia Records. An unedited version was released in 1999, with the true running order intact. Full band numbers such as “One O’clock Jump,” “Life Goes to A Party,” and

“Swingtime in the Rockies” provide thrilling moments, with “Swingtime in the Rockies” in particular featuring a wild, climactic trumpet solo by Ziggy Elman that fairly blows the roof off of Carnegie Hall. To this day, it’s one of the most frenetic trumpet solos I’ve ever heard.  Another point of interest, the improvised jam session, uses the standard “Honeysuckle Rose” as its starting point, and which includes exquisite sax solos by Young and Hodges. After a bit of meandering, the group follows Harry James’ dramatic lead-out to a satisfying conclusion.

Lester Young.

There were quieter, slower-paced numbers scattered throughout, including a few by the trio and quartet, but the grand finale came with the granddaddy of all swing arrangements, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” originally written by trumpeter and all-around showman Louis Prima, and expanded over time into the gargantuan arrangement Goodman’s fans always anticipated at his appearances. The main section of the piece gives way to a series of solos, and on this particular night, a surprise solo by band pianist Jess Stacy. Accounts seem to differ on whether it was Goodman who unexpectedly gestured to Stacy to take his solo, or if Stacy himself found a split-second opening in the beat to jump in with an improvised creation of its own.

Either way, his sudden, plaintive, quiet solo set a sharp contrast to the band’s musical adrenaline rush that had just preceded it, and, once his 96-bar solo hit its soft, final note, the audience erupted into tremendous applause. It’s a moment that has been discussed and written about by music historians ever since.

A few encores followed, the crowd went wild, and the swing era had reached an early peak. Swing music wouldn’t begin to lose its mass popularity until the end of World War II (and the coming of bebop jazz).  But as of January of 1938, the music–and Benny Goodman’s band–were the talk of the music world.

Until next time…