CMG Worldwide Welcomes You to the Official Website of Benny Goodman


Early Life

Benjamin David Goodman was born on May 30, 1909 in Chicago, Illinois. He was the ninth child of immigrants David Goodman and Dora Grisinsky Goodman, who left Russia to escape anti-Semitism. Benny’s mother never learned to speak English. His father worked for a tailor to support his large family, which eventually grew to include a total of 12 children and had trouble making ends meet.

When Benny was 10 years old, his father sent him to study music at Kehelah Jacob Synagogue in Chicago. There, Benny learned the clarinet under the tutelage of Chicago Symphony member Franz Schoepp, while two of his brothers learned tuba and trumpet. He also played in the band at Jane Addams’ famous social settlement, Hull-House.

Talent and Success

Benny’s aptitude on the clarinet was immediately apparent. While he was still very young, he became a professional musician and played in several bands in Chicago. He played with his first pit band at the age of 11, and became a member of the American Federation of Musicians when he was 14, when he quit school to pursue his career in music. When his father died, 15-year-old Benny used the money he made to help support his family. During these early years in Chicago, he played with many musicians who would later become nationally renowned, such as Frank Teschemacher and Dave Tough.

When Benny was 16, he was hired by the Ben Pollack Band and moved to Los Angeles. He remained with the band for four years and became a featured soloist. In 1929, the year that marked the onset of the Great Depression and a time of distress for America, Benny left the Ben Pollack Band to participate in recording sessions and radio shows in New York City.

Then, in 1933, Benny began to work with John Hammond, a jazz promoter who would later help to launch the recording careers of Billie Holiday and Count Basie, among many others. Hammond wanted Benny to record with drummer Gene Krupa and trombonist Jack Teagarden, and the result of this recording session was the onset of Benny’s national popularity. Later, in 1942, Benny would marry Alice Hammond Duckworth, John Hammond’s sister, and have two daughters: Rachel, who became a concert pianist, and Benji, who became a cellist.

Benny led his first band in 1934 and began a few-month stint at Billy Rose’s Music Hall, playing Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements along with band members Bunny Berigan, Gene Krupa, and Jess Stacy. The music they played had its roots in the southern jazz forms of ragtime and Dixieland, while its structure adhered more to arranged music than its more improvisational jazz counterparts. This gave it an accessibility that appealed to American audiences on a wide scale. America began to hear Benny‘s band when he secured a weekly engagement for his band on NBC’s radio show Let’s Dance, which was taped with a live studio audience.

The King of Swing

The new swing music had the kids dancing when, on August 21, 1935, Benny’s band played the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. The gig was sensational and marked the beginning of the years that Benny would reign as King: the Swing Era.

Teenagers and college students invented new dance steps to accompany the new music sensation. Benny’s band, along with many others, became hugely successful among listeners from many different backgrounds all over the country.

During this period, Benny also became famous for being colorblind when it came to racial segregation and prejudice. Pianist Teddy Wilson, an African American, first appeared in the Benny Goodman Trio at the Congress Hotel in 1935. Benny added Lionel Hampton, who would later form his own band, to his Benny Goodman Quartet the next year. While these groups were not the first bands to feature both white and black musicians, Benny’s national popularity helped to make racially mixed groups more accepted in the mainstream. Benny once said, “If a guy’s got it, let him give it. I’m selling music, not prejudice.”

Benny’s success as an icon of the Swing Era prompted Time magazine in 1937 to call him the “King of Swing.” The next year, at the pinnacle of the Swing Era, the Benny Goodman band, along with musicians from the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands, made history as the first jazz band ever to play in New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall.

Following the concert at Carnegie Hall, the Benny Goodman Band had many different lineup changes. Gene Krupa left the band, among others, and subsequent versions of the band included Cootie Williams and Charlie Christian, as well as Jimmy Maxwell and Mel Powell, among others.

Enduring Icon of the Swing Era

The Swing Era began to come to a close as America got more involved in World War II. Several factors contributed to its waning success, including the loss of musicians to the draft and the limits that gas rationing put on touring bands. However, though the big band days were drawing to a close and new forms of music were emerging, Benny continued to play music in the swing style. He dabbled in the “bop” movement of the 1940s, but never succumbed, as the rest of the world did, to the allure of rock and roll influences in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead, Benny tried his hand at classical music, doing solos with major orchestras, and studying with internationally acclaimed classical clarinetist Reginald Kell.

These appearances further demonstrated Benny’s range as a musician. His talent was unquestionable from the time he was 10 years old, and in recording sessions throughout his career, he very rarely made mistakes. Krell had helped him to improve some of his techniques, making Benny’s playing even stronger.

In 1953, Benny’s band planned to join Louis Armstrong and his All Stars in a tour together, but the two band leaders argued and the tour never opened at Carnegie Hall, as had been planned. It is not certain whether the tour was canceled due to Benny’s illness or the conflict between the band leaders. The rest of the decade marked the spread of Benny’s music to new audiences around the world. The Benny Goodman Story, a film chronicling his life, was released in 1955, exposing new and younger audiences to his music. Benny also toured the world, bringing his music to Asia and Europe. When he traveled to the USSR, one writer observed that “the swing music that had once set the jitterbugs dancing in the Paramount aisles almost blew down the Iron Curtain.”

During the late 1960s and 1970s, Benny appeared in reunions with the other members of his quartet: Teddy Wilson, Gene Krupa, and Lionel Hampton. In 1978, the Benny Goodman band also appeared at Carnegie Hall again to mark the 30th Anniversary of when they appeared in the venue’s first jazz concert.

In 1982, Benny was honored by the Kennedy Center for his lifetime achievements in swing music. In 1986, he received both an honorary doctorate degree in music from Columbia University and the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. He continued to play the music that defined his lifetime in occasional concert dates until his death in June 1986 of cardiac arrest. He was laid to rest after a short nonsectarian service with around 40 family members and friends in attendance on June 15, 1986 at Long Ridge Cemetery in Stamford, Connecticut. Through his amazing career, Benny Goodman did not change his style to conform to the latest trends, but retained the original sound that defined the Swing Era and made him the world renowned King of Swing.


1909 Benjamin David Goodman born Chicago on May 30, the ninth of twelve children.
1919 Given his first clarinet by a local synagogue. Studies with Franz Schoepp of Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
1921 Professional debut in Chicago theatre, performing an imitation of Ted Lewis.
1923 Leaves school to play with local bands, including riverboat orchestra with Bix Beiderbecke.
1926 Makes record debut in Chicago and first New York appearance, both with Ben Pollack.
1934 Organizes big band for successful audition for Billy Rose’s Music Hall in New York City. After Music Hall engagement reorganizes the band for a regular spot on coast-to-coast NBC radio program, “Let’s Dance.” Follows up six-month series by taking the band on a cross-country tour.
1935 Scores first big success when band opens at Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles on August 21, marking the beginning of the swing era.
1936 The Goodman Trio, with Teddy Wilson on piano and Gene Krupa on drums, first performs in public. Begins CBS “Camel Caravan” radio program, acclaimed by critics as best-ever swing series. Program continues through 1939. Goodman Quartet formed in August with addition of Lionel Hampton on vibraphone.
1937 Band’s power, precision, and varied talents stun audiences at New York’s Paramount Theatre. Star performer in Warner Brothers’ “Hollywood Hotel” – film still shown on TV as best of its kind.
1938 Goodman Orchestra performs unprecedented Carnegie Hall jazz concert, January 16. Makes his first classical recording with Budapest String Quartet.
1939 Switches from Victor to Columbia record label. New Sextet formed on west coast, featuring Lionel Hampton, Fletcher Henderson, Charlie Christian, Art Bernstein and Nick Fatool. Performs a second Carnegie Hall concert.
1940 Classical recording of “Contrasts” with Bela Bartok and Joseph Szigeti, composed for Goodman by Bartok.
1942 Appears with all-star band in RKO’s “Syncopation.” Married Alice Hammond Duckworth March 21. Begins series of Hollywood films (1942-1944): “The Powers Girl,” “Stage Door Canteen,” “The Gang’s All Here,” “Sweet and Lowdown,” “Make Mine Music.” Records V-Discs and Armed Forces transcriptions throughout World War II.
1944 New Benny Goodman Quintet opens in Billy Rose stage show “The Seven Lively Arts,” also featuring Beatrice Lillie and Bert Lahr.
1947 Disbands big band and begins to work primarily with small groups.
1948 Appears in RKO-Samuel Goldwyn film “A Song Is Born” with Charlie Barnet, Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and others.
1950 Tours Europe with new Sextet.
1951 Makes classical recordings with American Art Quartet and with Leonard Bernstein. Original 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert recording rediscovered and released by Columbia with phenomenal success.
1955 Records soundtrack for Universal-International film biography “The Benny Goodman Story” starring Steve Allen.
1956 Makes tour of Far East for U.S. State Department and ANTA, with concerts in Japan, Burma, Cambodia, Malaya, Hong Kong and Thailand. Command performances for King of Cambodia, King of Thailand; palace jam sessions with alto saxophonist and jazz buff King of Thailand.
1957 Readers of Down Beat magazine elect Benny Goodman to All-Time Jazz Hall of Fame.
1958 Engagement at Brussels World’s Fair makes American Pavilion the fair’s most popular exhibit.
1959 Tours Europe with 10-piece group; returns with group to New York’s Basin Street to break all attendance records. Russian composers Shostakovich, Kabalevsky and Khrennikov visit Basin Street and praise Goodman’s virtuosity.
1961 First tour of South America, where big band plays to SRO crowds in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay.
1962 Unprecedented jazz tour of Soviet Union under auspices of U.S. State Department Cultural Exchange Program. Six-week visit highlighted by celebrated “debate” with Nikita Khrushchev, with Benny defending modern art and music. Their meeting is memorialized by NBC-TV in “The World of Benny Goodman.”
1964 Tours Japan with a small group; all concerts oversubscribed.
1966 New Sextet plays Rainbow Grill in Rockefeller Center – Goodman’s first engagement there. Sextet is star attraction at the Comblain-la-Tour, Belgium, Jazz Festival. Highlights of this concert are broadcast as a one-hour Bell Telephone TV special.
1969 A bio-discography, Benny Goodman – On the Record, by D.R. Conner is published. It is described by a leading critic as “the most comprehensive work ever published on any jazz figure.” King Phumiphu of Thailand visits Goodman.
1970 Tours Europe with 16-piece band of English musicians. Their Stockholm concert is recorded live and released as a London Records album.
1972 Time/Life publishes handsomely illustrated three-record album titled “The King in Person.”
1973 The Benny Goodman Sextet makes a two-week tour of Australia. The original Quartet gives three memorable performances at Carnegie Hall and in Chicago and Saratoga.
1974 An hour-long TV special features both big band and all-star small group, with guests Cleo Laine and Mel Torme. In another TV program Goodman is soloist with the Boston Pops, under Arthur Fiedler. A concert in Helsinki is televised throughout Scandinavia.
1975 Performs Copland Clarinet Concerto in San Salvador, with the composer conducting the Brazil Symphony. Grammy Award for “Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert” (1938).
1976 Penetrates the “Iron Curtain” again, this time to give jazz concerts in Warsaw, Prague and Budapest. Receives Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Union College and Southern Illinois University.
1977 Profiled by Whitney Balliett in The New Yorker.
1978 The first State of California Jazz Award is presented to Benny Goodman by Governor Brown in the State Senate.
1979 In October William Morrow & Company published a pictorial volume spanning his life, Benny – King of Swing.
1981 David Brinkley’s “NBC Magazine” tribute to Goodman was televised in April. In February, Benny recorded the soundtrack of the feature film, “Fantasma D’Amore,” starring Marcello Mastroianni and Romy Schneider, in Rome. A November White House reception for King Hussein and Queen Noor of Jordan featured the Benny Goodman Quintet. President Reagan told the assembled guests, “You’ve just heard the best there is.”
1982 Stereo magazine’s Certificate of Merit was awarded to the renowned clarinetist in January; All Hirschfeld’s new caricature of Benny was its February issue’s cover. Yale University conferred an Honorary Doctor of Music upon Benny in May. Goodman was signally honored in December with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Art’s annual award for “ . . . significant contributions to American Culture.” NBC televised the ceremony on Christmas Day. Goodman also received a Grammy Award for “Sing Sing Sing” (1937).
1984 In April the National Academy of Popular Music honored Benny with its “Lifetime Achievement Award” at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. Harvard University conferred an honorary doctorate of music degree upon Mr. Goodman in June.
1985 In the just-opened Marriott Marquis hotel in Manhattan Benny in October videotaped a 90 minute television program for release in March 1986 via PBS. Frank Sinatra, Morton Gould and Bobby Short were three of the program’s hosts; Red Norvo, Teddy Wilson, Slam Stewart and Louis Bellson were featured musicians.
1985 Receives First Annual Distinguished Service Award from Hull House, Chicago. Awarded Doctorate of Music from University of Hartford.
1986 Receives Lifetime Achievement Award from NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences). Receives Doctorates from Columbia University, Brandeis University and Bard College.
1986 Several days after performing in his final concert at Wolf Trap, Benny died on June 13 in his Manhattan apartment from cardiac arrest.


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