Benny Goodman broke down racial barriers through jazz

This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.


Benjamin David Goodman (“Benny” Goodman) was born on May 30, 1909, in Chicago, Ill. Goodman was the ninth of 12 children born to poor Jewish emigrants from Russia. On Sundays, Goodman’s father took the children to free band concerts in Douglas Park, which was the first time Goodman experienced live professional performances. To provide his children with an appreciation for music, his father enrolled 10-year-old Goodman and two of his brothers in music lessons at the Kehelah Jacob Synagogue. During the next year Goodman joined the boys club band at Hull House, where he received lessons from director James Sylvester.

Goodman’s early influences were New Orleans jazz clarinetists who worked in Chicago, such as Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds and Leon Roppolo. He learned quickly, becoming a strong player at an early age, and soon performing with bands. He made his professional debut in 1921 at the Central Park Theater on the West Side of Chicago, then entered Harrison Technical High School in Chicago in 1922. At the mere age of fourteen Goodman became a member of the musicians’ union and worked in a band featuring Bix Beiderbecke. Two years later he joined the Ben Pollack Orchestra and made his first recordings in 1926.

By age 20, Goodman was swept up by swing music. He heard the likes of Paul Whiteman and the Duke Ellington Orchestra and dreamed of creating his own big band. After several successful years as a “session” musician, Goodman formed his own group in 1934. The band was “featured on the radio” and a nationwide tour was soon underway. By the time the group reached California, their fame and popularity had grown significantly, and an “eager crowd went crazy for the swing sound of Benny Goodman.”

Goodman’s playing has been described as being “full of wit and surprise.” He was technically very skilled and he “rocked the house with his magnificent performances.” Yet, in conjunction with the theme of women’s rights, it is important to note that Goodman created significant relationships with other leading Black female artists of the time, most notably, Mary Lou Williams. According to historian Thom Holmes, “Goodman was aware that being white gave him opportunities that evaded many of the best Black artists of the time. He was one of the first white bandleaders to add Black musicians to his orchestra.” Goodman used jazz to “help break down racial barriers in society.”

By establishing close relationships with female artists such as Williams, Goodman was able to set an example to the rest of America about empowering not only Black artists, but Black female artists. Goodman was, in every form, a white ally.


Roll Em’ (1937)

The song Roll ‘Em by Benny Goodman was composed by his close friend Mary Lou Williams in 1937. The song has been described as an iconic example of “boogie-woogie blues.” Williams wrote this song specifically for the Benny Goodman Orchestra, and it remained a part of his repertory for many years. (The song is now part of the Essentially Ellington: Jazz at Lincoln Centre Library series).


References:

ejazzlines.com. “Roll ‘Em: Composed by Mary Lou Williams.” https://www.ejazzlines.com/roll-em-composed-and-arranged-by-mary-lou-williams.

Thom Holmes. American Popular Music: Jazz. Facts on File, Inc. (New York, 2006)