Celebration honors 100th birthday of clarinetist and composer Goodman

Sharp, joyous notes bounced out of Chad Burrow’s MUS ’01 clarinet, filling Morse Recital Hall with the tunes of legendary clarinetist Benny Goodman, who received his an honorary Doctor of Music from Yale in 1982. One minute later, Burrow bopped his head to the quick tempo, and the next minute, he swayed to the mournful sounds.

Burrow was paying homage to Goodman, a prominent jazz bandleader and classical musician who was known as the “King of Swing,” as part of this week’s 100th birthday celebration for the musician, which began last night at the Yale School of Music. The Benny Goodman centenary week-long event, featuring guest artists, faculty and students, showcases the wide range of Goodman’s repertoire, from his Big Band compositions to clarinet concertos he commissioned.

“It’s a great opportunity to highlight his different contribution to music,” David Shifrin, the director of the Yale Chamber Music Society, said. “[Goodman] crossed over between the popular music and the classical idiom. You could compare him to the people in the MTV music awards or the Beatles or even Michael Jackson — he was that famous. He was that iconic.”

The festival began last night with a concert of Goodman’s classical repertoire performed by faculty and students from the School of Music at Morse Recital Hall. Maureen Hurd, a clarinet professor at Rutgers University who has published several articles about Goodman, spoke about the relationship between Goodman and other composers before the performance.

On Thursday night in Morse Recital Hall, Yale professor Willie Ruff ’53 MUS ’54, a longtime friend of Goodman’s, will direct clarinetist and saxophonist Don Byron and his jazz quartet as part of the Ellington Jazz Series. As an undergraduate at Yale in the 1950s, Ruff said he was a fan of Goodman and recalled playing the double bass with the clarinetist in a concert during his sophomore year.

Ruff was introduced to Goodman through his friend and classmate Mel Powell, an established musician who had played in Goodman’s band. During a summer concert at the Yale Bowl, Powell invited him to come onstage.

“In the second half of the program, Goodman was to play a jazz trio with Mel Powell,” Ruff said. “Mel knew I played the bass and said, ‘Let’s call him up.’ So I did. And I established a relationship with [Goodman] for the rest of his life.”

In the final concert of the series Sept. 29, the Yale Jazz Ensemble and clarinetist Vincent Oneppo, director of the concert and media office at the School of Music, will play Goodman’s most popular Big Band arrangements, such as “Let’s Dance” and “Don’t Be That Way.”

Abe-Melek Belkele ’13, a trumpet player in the Jazz Ensemble, said he first heard Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” in a Chips Ahoy! commercial but grew to appreciate the musician’s vintage style. He added that he hopes undergraduate students will attend the concert.

“Not a lot of people play jazz clarinet anymore,” Belkele said. “So it’s refreshing to hear the clarinet in jazz.”

To complement the concert series, the Gilmore Music Library has put on an exhibition called “Benny Goodman: A Century of Swing,” featuring rare photographs and musical arrangements. Goodman donated almost all of his materials to Yale shortly before he passed away in 1986.

Richard Boursy, the Special Collections archivist, said he made many interesting discoveries in Goodman’s papers. One of his favorites, he said, is a photograph of the musician in Thailand.

“He’s this American guy in a suit and tie and he’s surrounded by these young women in traditional Thai dresses,” he said laughingly. “You can tell he didn’t have a clue what’s going on but he’s hamming it up just to fit in.”

Tickets for the Sept. 29 concert “Bigger Than Life: The Big Band Music of Benny Goodman” are on sale at $10 for the general public and $5 for students.

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