Jazz history is strewn with paradigm-shifting live performances that alter how we view the medium. Duke Ellington and his orchestra removed the roof from a Fargo, North Dakota dance hall in 1940, showing us just how well, and how kinetically, swing music traveled. Charlie Parker performed airshots at the Royal Roost in the late 1940s, disseminating his blazing bebop genius to the masses. John Coltrane and Miles Davis pitched a horn battle in Stockholm in 1960 that both cemented their symbiosis and attested as to why the tenor man had to part from the trumpet man.
But everything might have been different were it not for the gig Benny Goodman and his orchestra—with assorted helpers—gave at Carnegie Hall 80 years ago, on Sunday, January 16.
The white clarinetist, who led one of the most powerful swing bands—and an integrated one at that—was already wildly popular. But jazz musicians simply didn’t play Carnegie Hall, the hallowed space of allegedly more refined artists. Indeed, when Goodman breached the ramparts on that January evening, one jazz musician present for the show claimed that he felt like a whore in church. But this was a period when the fires of swing were first starting to be stoked; the name itself was less than three years old. Louis Armstrong was no longer innovating, bebop was still a few years away, but eight years into and starting to come out of the Depression the country wanted to dance. The swing orchestras, with an economy able (if barely) to support them, were ideal for a big night out on the town. That set the stage for the great Goodman gig—the brainchild of impresario Sol Hurok—and its eventual legacy in vinyl.
The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert (Columbia Records SL-160) is probably the greatest jazz gateway albums ever recorded. It is, notably, the first double album, which speaks to that January night’s success. Until that point, jazz was something experienced on the proverbial other side of the track of town, which was always how it was portrayed in film, it seemed. You’d be watching a mystery picture, and the professor who was going to solve the crime, who had an “edge” to him, would sneak out from the case to sit in a dump of a bar where some jazz combo was cooking, and everyone but our investigating professor was black. The suggestion was that here was someone, more or less moral, experiencing something very nearly verboten, like he was sneak-reading porn on a bus, but couldn’t help himself because what he was witnessing was just so irresistibly wonderful.
Which is a shame, because the various jazz movements from the 1920s through the late 1960s represent some of the best anything this society has ever produced, and it was swing-era music that kicked the stakes up a notch. Goodman’s crew provided a huge assist, with the Carnegie Hall gig being akin to a debutante ball, without the classism and pretense, jazz getting its first turn out in the world on a stage that might as well have had lettered bunting over it reading, “You have made it.”
Of course, LPs didn’t exist in 1938, and that aforementioned double album didn’t arrive until 1950. But a set of nine 45-rpm discs were released shortly after the gig, so that those not among the audience of about 3,000 at the rocking, raucous event got a chance to be musically transported as if they had been.
Sometimes the historical significance of a gig can outstrip its musical quality. The Who, for instance, broke themselves out in America after playing Monterey Pop in June 1967, but if you listen to their set, performed on borrowed instruments, you’ll hear just how dreadful they were that night. Not so the Goodman Carnegie Hall recordings. Not only was jazz breaking out, crossing those train track lines, as it were; this was a unit that knew no racial divisions. Jazz has always been a little like basketball: If you can play, no one cares what color you are. But mainstream, successful ensembles, at the time, tended not to have a mix of black and white. I’m not suggesting Goodman was necessarily a Branch Rickey figure, but as a child (the ninth of 12!) of poor Jewish immigrants from Poland, he had a keen sense of what being on the wrong end of prejudice felt like. More important, perhaps his brand was so formidable that he could do as he wished, which meant featuring the likes of Teddy Wilson on piano and Lionel Hampton on vibes during the small group portions of his Carnegie Hall date.
These were black musicians who were all but untouchable during this era on their respective instruments, Hampton especially. The vibes are somewhat like the trombone in that you wouldn’t expect them to have the necessary range to stand forward in importance with more familiar jazz instruments like the trumpet, sax, and drums; but Hampton put the lie to that notion at this gig.
Not all the standouts aside from Goodman were black. The Goodman ensemble represented a kind of proto-rock and roll, and, insofar as it did, it spoke through percussion. So speaking of The Who, Gene Krupa was to jazz drumming what Keith Moon was to the rock version. He was a human maelstrom at his kit, providing an enormous backbeat to the orchestra’s surging rhythms, and fills that were mini-chamber pieces unto themselves.
The sound engineer, as it happened, got lucky. The recording seems to have been a late thought, but somehow the single ceiling microphone managed to capture the ambiance of the night—the acoustics were, after all, Carnegie Hall acoustics—just like the camera could sometimes capture the ambiance of those early jazz shacks in those sweetly off-kilter mystery films. It’s not hard for a live jazz recording to feel “dry”—as if it were taking place on a soundstage, with intermittent bits of polite applause filtering into the mix at the close of each number, hanging around the front edge of the aural spectrum. Not so with the Carnegie Hall reels; you’re seated front and center, awash in crowd noise that blends nicely with the sound we’ve all come to experience. This was a jazz recording that had no problem rolling up its sleeves and mixing with the people, and it turned out all the better for it.
If you’ve ever dismissed jazz as old-fogey music (and I get that swing receives that label maybe more than any other jazz idiom), do yourself a favor and listen to the live 1938 Goodman version of “Sing Sing Sing (With a Swing).” Is it among the most exciting pieces of music ever recorded? If you’re already savvy with swing you’ll probably agree that it is. If not, it may well strike you as the first rock and roll recording ever, something downright thrilling that vies to thrust you out of your seat as though a jackhammer had just been turned on a few inches from your heels.
If it’s possible for a piece of music to be too rhythmically intense, this might be the piece. It’s crescendo upon crescendo upon crescendo, a test of your human capacity for handling more rhythm in one place than you’ve likely ever heard before. Krupa must have been on the verge of passing out with his tsunami-sized waves of massive polyrhythms, and if you don’t think a piano can act like an adrenaline shot to the heart, you’re going to want to listen closely to Jess Stacy’s famed solo.
What a night it must have been to walk back into after a gig like that, the cold evaporating off of your cheeks and back of your neck as soon as it hit them. That jazz shack had become peripatetic, and thanks to Goodman and his virtuosic allies, long, long would it roam.