Remembering Benny Goodman's Epochal Carnegie Hall Concert

Benny Goodman

News | Jan, 3rd 2018

It's been nearly 80 years since Benny Goodman’s legendary 1938 debut at Carnegie Hall, a milestone that the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis will celebrate with a series of concerts Jan 11-13. (You can alsowatch a live, free webcast of the Jan 13 concert!) To discuss the concert's historical import, we brought together Gino Francesconi, Director of the Archives and Rose Museum at Carnegie Hall, and Loren Schoenberg, who in addition to being a Swing University teacher is the founding director of The National Jazz Museum in Harlem and creator of the last Benny Goodman Orchestra. Schoenberg will teach The Life and Legacy of Benny Goodman at Swing University beginning January 31. Click hereto learn more.

Gino Francesconi: Of all of Carnegie Hall’s 50,000 concerts, there are a handful that stand out as “legendary.” Certainly the January 16, 1938 Benny Goodman concert is one of those. Our history of jazz goes back to James Reese Europe. The Benny Goodman concert stands out because it was one of the first times that people bought tickets to actually sit and listen to swing and not dance to it. It was one of the first times blacks and whites played together on a concert stage. The recording that Benny put in a closet and forgot about for 20 years—at the time of its release, it was one of the bestselling LP sets of all time. It helped cement the live recording.

Loren Schoenberg: When I was working for Benny he was lobbying Teo Macero very hard... who at that time was at CBS. Benny wanted the Carnegie Hall album to come out as one of the first CDs. We had many lunches with Teo, who at the time was producing. We couldn’t get any traction. One day Benny called me and said, “On your way into work today"—I was his personal manager at the time—"I want you to pick up something at Murray's Sturgeon Shop.” It’s kind of like a version of Zabar’s. He said, “Go to Murray’s Sturgeon Shop and they will tell you what to do.” I had no idea what was going to happen. So, I go to Murray’s Sturgeon Shop and I pick up two heavy bags full of lox and white fish and all this kind of stuff and there’s a note on it: “To be delivered to William S. Paley.” William S. Paley was the founder of CBS. I take it down to that Black Rock building and it says: “From Benny Goodman”—and I’m actually put into a private elevator that was only for Mr. Paley and people who work on the top floor. I take it up and deliver 20 pounds' worth of Murray’s food to Paley’s office. I didn’t see him. But about a week later we found out the album was coming out on CD. [Laughs]

One of the things that make the concert so important was because the same night as the Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall concert, Count Basie’s band was going to battle Chick Webb up at the Savoy. And Goodman had just reached the pinnacle of his commercial success right in the year of 1937. All these radio executives that were producing the Camel Caravan got together with this idea which is: “How do we play Benny Goodman?”

GF: They weren’t sure how the audience was going to react [to Benny playing Carnegie Hall] or if anybody was even going to show up.

LS: Well he wasn’t sure. Benny wasn’t sure. 

GF: And then the story was that they hired a well-known comedian from the time, Beatrice Lillie, to just sort of hang out and wait in case the audience got unruly... she’d go out and tame them down. But it never got that far. The concert sold out. We only had two box-office windows at the time and people lined up. It was incredible. Tickets were gone in about two and a half hours and the story I’ve been told is that Benny had to buy tickets for his family members from scalpers outside.

LS: I think with Bea Lillie it was Benny's concern that he didn’t think the band in and of itself playing music that was primarily dance music would suffice, so he wanted to have some entertainment there. He thought they should have a comedian because they were on stage.

Jazz at Lincoln Center: What made this show so different?

LS: The words: “Carnegie Hall.”

GF: It was funny because the audience showed up—they were all classical music-goers—and they just wanted to see what all of this was about. But there were a lot of Benny followers around. It’s one of the rarest recordings we have in the archives. We only have one copy [of the program].

LS: Which is funny because "4 million people were there." (Laughs)


Watch the JLCO's performance of Benny Goodman: King of Swing live this Jan 13 at 8pm EST!


All images by William P. Gottlieb. Courtesy of the William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

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