Anniversary of a history-making jazz concert

Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman’s jazz concert at Carnegie Hall, January 16, 1938, was the first jazz concert to be held in that esteemed venue. It was historic in a number of ways. It was the first time the band had performed in a strictly concert setting; that is, no dancing and no alcohol. It also was an integrated band when the custom was that bands were not integrated.

In January 1988, the New Jersey Jazz Society (NJJS) put on a 50th anniversary concert in Carnegie Hall. My wife Betty and I were privileged to attend. Clarinetist Bob Wilber was to perform Goodman’s part.

Permit me some observations about the concert:

There were chairs set up on the stage behind the band. Explanation for this was that Goodman had about 30 persons he had invited to the concert but had forgotten to ask for tickets. When told that the concert had been sold out, chairs were set on stage to accommodate his guests.

Before the band began to perform, audience members who had been at the original concert were invited to stand. There must have been 60 or so in the audience who stood.

The gentleman sitting beside me was Edmund Anderson, co-composer of the 1940s song, Flamingo, first recorded by Ellington with vocalist Herb Jeffries. In conversation Anderson, a white man, told me that he had sat with Ellington at the original concert. He reported, also, that he and others had urged Ellington to perform at Carnegie Hall but that Ellington had little enthusiasm for that. Anderson also reported that when Ellington died, he, Anderson, got the care of Ellington’s little dog.

At a later time, I had opportunity to talk with another attendee who also had been at the original concert. He reported that he and friends had gone to the Carnegie Hall concert and didn’t think it was extraordinary and that he and his young friends had all gone to Harlem after the concert to hear music at the Apollo theatre.

Hal Davis had been Goodman’s publicist for many years, a remarkable feat in that Goodman was notoriously difficult to get along with. After Davis retired, he moved from New York to Sarasota, Fla., with the express desire to start a Jazz Society. Our paths crossed frequently in the’ 80s and ‘90s when we were both active with the American Federation of Jazz Societies. Davis confirmed the story about the recording of the concert. Goodman was unaware that the concert was being recorded. Davis got a copy for his own use and Goodman was given a copy. It turns out that Goodman, notoriously forgetful, put the copy in the closet and forgot about it for a number of years. It was only later that it was put on LP and became a hit.

Bassist Bill Crow posted on the internet, after Goodman’s death, a piece about Goodman leading a U.S. State Department tour to Russia. True to form about Goodman’s being a difficult person, there was a near revolt of the performers during which Hal Davis was called upon to mediate. The tour was completed and was a musical success. It’s a long read but worth it. Search: To Russia Without Love by Bill Crow.

Here’s a link and commentary about the original and the recent, 80th anniversary concert. There is an approximate 6 minute clip also including some of the music.

How Benny Goodman Orchestrated ‘The Most Important Concert In Jazz History’

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