Goodman was born in Chicago, the son of poor Jewish immigrants who lived on Chicago's Maxwell Street neighborhood. He learned to play clarinet in a charity-run boy's band. He became a strong player at an early age and began playing professionally in bands while still 'in short pants'.
Goodman left for New York City and became a good session musician during the late 1920s and early 1930s. He made a reputation as a solid player who was prepared and reliable. He played with the nationally known bands of Red Nichols, Isham Jones, and Ted Lewis before forming his own band in 1932. In 1934 he auditioned for the "Let's Dance" radio program. Since he needed new charts every week for the show, his friend John Hammond suggested that he purchase some Jazz charts from Fletcher Henderson, who had New York's most popular African-American band in the 1920s and early 1930s.
The combination of the Henderson charts, his solid clarinet playing, and his well rehearsed band made him a rising star in the mid-1930s. However, it was not until after his fabled appearance at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles on August 21, 1935 that Goodman became a nationally known star. His radio broadcasts from New York had been too late to attract a large audience on the East Coast, but had an avid following in California, and a wildly enthusiastic crowd for the first time greeted Goodman. This received national publicity and turned the Goodman Band into an overnight sensation. Some writers have declared this date to be the start of the Swing Era.
Many suggest that Goodman achieved the same success with Jazz and Swing that Elvis Presley did for Rock and Roll. Both popularized black music to a young white audience. It is true that many of Goodman's arrangements had been played for years before by Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra. While Goodman publicly acknowledged his debt to Henderson, many young white swing fans had never heard Henderson's band. It should be noted, however, that Goodman himself was no mere imitator; he was an astonishingly virtuosic and creative clarinetist, and one of the most of innovative jazz musicians of the pre-Bebop era.
Goodman is also responsible for a significant step in racial integration in America. In the early 1930s, black and white jazz musicians could not play together in most clubs or concerts. In the Southern states, racial segregation was enforced by the Jim Crow laws. Benny Goodman broke with tradition by hiring Teddy Wilson to play with him and drummer Gene Krupa in the Benny Goodman Trio. In 1936, he added Lionel Hampton on vibes to form the Benny Goodman Quartette; in 1940 he added pioneering jazz guitarist Charlie Christian to his band and small ensembles, who played with him until his untimely death from tuberculosis less than two years later. Goodman's fame was great enough that his band had no financial need to tour in the southern states, where his lineup would have been subject to arrest. The integration of popular music happened 10 years before Jackie Robinson entered Major League Baseball.
Depending on who you talk to, Goodman was a demanding taskmaster, or an arrogant martinet. Many musicians spoke of "The Ray", Goodman's trademark glare that he bestowed on a musician that failed to perform to his demanding standards. Musicians also told stories of Goodman's notorious cheapness, continuing to pinch pennies as he had in his poverty stricken youth long after he had attained fame and fortune.
Goodman continued his meteoric rise throughout the late 1930s with his big band, his trio and quartette, and a sextet. On January 16, 1938, his band made a famous appearance at Carnegie Hall. By the mid-1940s, big bands lost a lot of their popularity. Reasons include: talented musicians were entering the service, or getting better-paying factory jobs; gasoline and rubber rationing during WWII; two long musician recording strikes; the rise of popular singers like Frank Sinatra; the restriction of agents' commissions to 15%, which made promoting small groups more profitable for them.
Goodman continued to play on records and in small groups. Periodically he would organize a new band and play a Jazz festival or go on an international tour. He continued to play the clarinet until his death in New York City at the age of 77.
Benny Goodman is interred in the Long Ridge Cemetery, Stamford, Connecticut.
- Download sample of "And the Angels Sing" by Benny Goodman and Martha Tilton, a legendary swing recording that helped keep Goodman's career afloat as band members departed