Marilyn and Peter were dancing. Swaying to the blare of brass and the rich timbre of the clarinet, the elderly couple revolved in the center of the floor. They were surrounded by a semicircle of about thirty people, all crammed into an overflow room and listening to music piped in from the adjacent Sprague Hall. All of them had assumed that a jazz concert, even one honoring Benny Goodman, would never sell out. But here they were, listening over a speaker.
Marilyn, who was in her seventies, introduced me to Peter during the intermission (both of them declined to tell me their last names); she had seen my Italian textbook and insisted that I meet him. A World War II veteran in his nineties, Peter had spent his time in the service playing guitar and traveling with various bands and performers (including Bob Hope), entertaining the troops. In the same years, he learned Italian, his family’s native language, and acted as an interpreter. The sound of Benny Goodman had followed him and his fellow soldiers to North Africa and Italy. As Peter explained, the music “was always on, it was always played.” Tonight, he had come to Sprague Hall to reminisce.
The concert rounded out “Celebrating the King of Swing,” a Yale School of Music and Yale Bands joint venture honoring the 100th anniversary of Goodman’s birth. It featured the Yale Jazz Band playing such standards as “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “Stomping at the Savoy,” and “Goodbye.” But the concert series had opened in New York a week earlier with a lesser-known side of Goodman’s work. The Yale Chamber Music Society, led by clarinetist and Music School professor David Shifrin, had presented “The Classical Legacy of Benny Goodman,” an evening of music devoted to classical pieces commissioned by or written for the jazz great. Including works by Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, and Morton Gould, this concert emphasized Goodman’s support of the 20th century’s brightest composing talents.
I was already familiar with Goodman’s jazz (if only from the Chips Ahoy! commercials), but this was a side of the clarinetist I had never encountered. As I later learned from Rutgers music professor Maureen Hurd, Goodman is recognized as “the first successful jazz-to-classical crossover artist.”
On January 16, 1938, he and his band played New York’s Carnegie Hall, a beacon of the conservative classical tradition. To bring jazz to this hallowed space, Hurd explained, had seemed an unspeakable affront at the time. But the night had been a huge success. Goodman and his band became a household name in jazz in 1938, but that night, the clarinetist secured his reputation with America’s most exacting classical audience.
In 2009, with Goodman’s reputation not merely established but enduring, David Shifrin and his fellow musicians were playing at Carnegie too, though this time in a smaller venue called Zankel Hall. As I rode the train to New York to see the concert, a sense of history intensified the excitement of the night. Not only was I leaving New Haven for the evening, but I was also returning to the very place Goodman had legitimized Big Band jazz and put his foot in the door of the classical world. I got to Zankel and settled into my high-legged stool, peering over the balcony. The place, again, was sold out.
Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano opened the program, and was followed by Gould’s 1964 piece, Benny’s Gig. In the third and final piece prior to intermission, the Atria Ensemble sparred in Bartók’s combative Contrasts. The group’s performance felt like a carefully-coordinated catfight. On stage, the clarinetist and violinist faced each other, and with expressive sways physically mimicked the bellicose spirit of Bartók’s work. Though the musi¬cians seemed to argue, it was clear both in their body language and the joint musical flourishes that these two opponents were really of one mind. After intermission, Gould’s Recovery Music, Alan Shulman’s Rendezvous, and Aaron Copland’s Concerto for Clarinet and String Orchestra concluded the program.
As I walked out of Zankel Hall, I was left pondering Goodman’s legacy. Though he supported composers, played with symphonies, and recorded classics, the clarinetist continues to be known primarily for his jazz. Marilyn and Peter, my friends from the Sprague overflow room, knew the racing, syncopated runs of Goodman’s popular songs by heart — but they had never danced to his performance of the Copland concerto. A soldier in World War II was more likely to hear “Sing, Sing, Sing” than Bartók’s Contrasts. Still, the artist’s influence on both genres is undeniable.
Fortunately, Goodman’s papers — classical and jazz alike — now lie side by side. Arrangements, scores, letters, photographs, and other archives that cover nearly all of Goodman’s 77 years sit in 129 boxes, in the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library here at Yale. He produced a handful of enduring pieces in the classical world, and his compositions continue to define the history of jazz. Most importantly, Benny Goodman proved that a talented artist could straddle both musical genres.