JAZZ: Scott DeVeaux, W.W. Norton & Company


Why was Benny Goodman at one point advised to look up Harlem arrangements for his swing band?

The whole problem here was how to negotiate, um, what was commercial and also what jazz musicians really liked. The fact is that white jazz musicians of the time period knew that what they were most interested in came from an African American cultural framework. They knew that the people that they really looked up to were African American masters. They knew at the same time that they could not necessarily openly admit this. And they also couldn't record with them or perform with them in public or any of that kind of thing – in jam sessions backstage there was a lot more interaction, and there is a sense in which jazz is one of the ways that segregation, within the jazz world, the idea of segregation really is something that is dying off much faster than [in] the world at large.

So Benny Goodman, I think when he was putting together his big band, he probably thought it had to be a much straighter kind of dance band, one that was not playing the swing tunes if it was going to be commercially successful. But he was advised by, I think it was Mildred Bailey, to get himself a good book of arrangements so that he could in fact participate in the kind of momentum that was already happening by 1934. So he hired people like Jimmy Mundy and Fletcher Henderson to write arrangements for him and, of course, the Benny Goodman band could play it as well as any band of the time. And it's more a matter at that point of whether this kind of music was going to hit with the general public.

The whole thing with Benny Goodman's trip across the country, of course, was that the radio show that he was doing it on was happening late at night, like I think he went on, his portion went on say after midnight but on the West Coast, of course, that was prime time. Because this is being broadcast across the country – so that it was really in California that he made his first connection with his audience. It's one of those pat explanations for why it happened at that point. It was not happening for example in the Rockies, where I think he was really ready to just give up this band and go home. But in like Oakland, California, I think, and Los Angeles is where it really hit. Once he had proven that this kind of music worked then he more or less established the commercial format that drove the entire Swing Era. Everybody listened to those Fletcher Henderson arrangements, which are straight, call and response, swing tunes, you know, you have swings that are arranged in block chords in call and response with each other, and once you've devised a tune that works that way then that is the formula that everybody gets a hold of as they're putting together a swing band.