Goodman Begins His Broadcasts

Benny Goodman’s Let’s Dance broadcasts on network radio led to the launching of the “swing era,” in which big band music achieved huge popularity.

Summary of Event

Benny Goodman’s prodigious talent as a clarinetist freed him from an early life of poverty in a Jewish ghetto in Chicago; by the age of thirteen, he was a member of the American Musicians Union, and he became a full-time professional within the following year. He quickly combined his traditional European classical training with an interest in the New Orleans-style jazz that was flourishing in Chicago and paid special attention to important players such as Jimmy Noone, Albert Nicholas, Johnny Dodds, and Barney Bigard. Goodman played with various dance bands, and at the age of sixteen he joined drummer Ben Pollack’s Chicago-based band, which was working in California at the time. [kw]Goodman Begins His Let’s Dance Broadcasts (Dec. 1, 1934)
[kw]Let’s Dance Broadcasts, Goodman Begins His (Dec. 1, 1934)[Lets Dance Broadcasts, Goodman Begins His (Dec. 1, 1934)]
Let’s Dance (radio program)[Lets Dance]
Jazz;big band
Swing music
[g]United States;Dec. 1, 1934: Goodman Begins His Let’s Dance Broadcasts[08760]
[c]Music;Dec. 1, 1934: Goodman Begins His Let’s Dance Broadcasts[08760]
[c]Radio and television;Dec. 1, 1934: Goodman Begins His Let’s Dance Broadcasts[08760]
[c]Entertainment;Dec. 1, 1934: Goodman Begins His Let’s Dance Broadcasts[08760]
Goodman, Benny
Henderson, Fletcher “Smack”
Hammond, John
Krupa, Gene
Wilson, Teddy
Hampton, Lionel

In 1926, Goodman made his first recordings with Pollack, and he had recorded under his own name by 1928. He played with most of the promising white jazz players in Chicago, including Dave Tough, Bud Freeman, Gene Krupa, and the visiting Bix Beiderbecke, before moving with Pollack to New York, where he continued to record and broaden his experience. As economic times became increasingly difficult, the talented Goodman found work in a variety of dance bands and as a freelance musician playing in theater-pit bands, film sound-track studios, and radio-studio orchestras. His first love was jazz, and in 1934 he decided to form a big band that would satisfy both his taste in music and his need for stable employment.

On a shoestring budget, Goodman assembled a band, and with the encouragement of his future brother-in-law John Hammond, he landed an engagement at the new Billy Rose Music Hall. After four months, the management changed and the band was fired. During this period, Goodman struggled to give his undistinguished band a musical identity. Plans to take an all-star, racially mixed band to England fell through, and Goodman hung all his hopes on being hired for an exciting new radio program sponsored by the National Biscuit Company (later Nabisco) to advertise its new product, Ritz crackers. The program, called Let’s Dance, was to feature a “sweet” band, a Latin band, and a “hot” or jazz band in a three-hour program broadcast on Saturday nights to fifty-three stations nationwide on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) network. Goodman narrowly won the audition in the hot band category, in which he played a brassy and rhythmic jazz-oriented dance music that became known as swing.

On December 1, 1934, the Benny Goodman Band made its first broadcast in the Let’s Dance series before a large studio audience. Goodman’s contract provided for generous salaries and the purchase of the musical arrangements necessary to supply a band of fourteen musicians with fresh material for each program. These written arrangements were essential to the establishment of the band’s identifying and distinctive sound, and Goodman, who was not an arranger, set about commissioning writers who could work to his specifications. Goodman’s ideal was to assemble a band that featured ample room for improvised solos, a disciplined yet swinging ensemble, and an inspiring rhythm section. As his career progressed, Goodman made frequent personnel changes in an attempt to find better musicians, and this contributed to his reputation as a difficult employer. The most significant of the early additions were the flamboyant drummer Gene Krupa and the gifted trumpet player Bunny Berigan, who would both become famous musicians in their own right.

Goodman had long been an admirer of Fletcher “Smack” Henderson’s orchestra, an aggregation of African American musicians that had been well known among other musicians since the mid-1920’s. Henderson and his collaborators are usually credited with perfecting the basic formulas used by most large jazz-oriented bands in their written orchestrations. Unfortunately, Henderson’s abilities as a leader did not match his musical talent; by 1934 his influential band was disintegrating and the Depression was exacerbating his financial problems. John Hammond, a member of the Vanderbilt family and one of the most important nonmusicians in American musical history, was a lifelong supporter and promoter of African American artists. Hammond encouraged Goodman to buy some of Henderson’s arrangements for his own band. In effect, this meant adopting the Henderson sound.

Henderson’s influence strengthened when he agreed to write orchestrations especially for Goodman, whose well-trained band executed them with a flawless rhythmic drive seldom heard in white bands of the day. Although Goodman continued to use a number of talented arrangers, the bulk of his band’s repertoire (including important pieces such as “King Porter Stomp” and “Down South Camp Meetin’”) and much of its fundamental style originated with Fletcher Henderson. Goodman put his own stamp on the band through his insistence on excellence and his meticulous attention to nuance and musical detail. His virtuoso clarinet playing became a trademark that appealed to a wide audience while remaining true to its jazz roots.

The national exposure afforded by the Let’s Dance broadcasts started Goodman on the road to stardom if not immediate popular success. However, when the Let’s Dance series was canceled after twenty-six broadcasts as a result of the sponsor’s labor troubles, Goodman found himself out of work. Hired to replace Guy Lombardo and his orchestra at New York’s prestigious Hotel Roosevelt, Goodman’s band was abruptly fired as too loud and jazzy. In a desperate attempt to save the band, Goodman embarked on a long cross-country tour. Audiences ranged from mildly enthusiastic to indifferent, and the dispirited Goodman expected that he would be forced to disband in California. When the band appeared at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, however, it was greeted by excited crowds of mainly young people who came not only to dance but also to listen. The way had been prepared by the Let’s Dance live broadcasts, the local disc jockeys who often featured Goodman’s recorded music, and the increased availability and sales of the records Goodman had made during and after the period of his network broadcasts. Crowds grew in size and enthusiasm, and the Palomar engagement was extended from one month to two. Public taste was shifting and Goodman, soon to be dubbed the “King of Swing” by a press agent, had caught the crest of the wave.


After his triumph at the Palomar, Goodman’s next major appearance was at Chicago’s Congress Hotel, where an engagement of one month was extended to six. During this period, the popular press joined jazz journalists in paying increasing attention to Goodman’s music. Goodman’s success allowed him, with the encouragement of some Chicago socialites, to confront the de facto racial segregation that existed in American entertainment. At a specially arranged benefit performance, both Goodman and Krupa played on stage with a group of black musicians in what Goodman believed was the first integrated performance before a paying audience in the United States.

Jazz is essentially the product of African American culture, and most white jazz musicians had taken outstanding black musicians as their models. Interracial performances were common at informal jam sessions and had occurred from time to time in public, but they seldom took place at important venues. Goodman himself was one of many who had played with racially mixed groups on recordings, where color could be ignored, but those who controlled the music industry were convinced that the public would not accept black and white musicians who openly performed together as equals. Despite his own concern about the financial and other consequences, Goodman decided to use his growing popularity to publicly challenge prevailing racism.

Goodman already had made several popular trio recordings with Gene Krupa and the impressive young black pianist Teddy Wilson. With the urging of John Hammond and others, he introduced his trio as part of a special concert. When the feared adverse reaction did not materialize, Goodman made trio appearances a part of his regular band performances, but he did not yet dare to actually integrate his band. Instead, he presented the trio as a unit by itself. Despite the tentative nature of Goodman’s initial actions, he showed considerable courage in breaking the color barrier, and his success was well publicized. When Goodman expanded his trio to a quartet in 1936, he hired another black musician, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. Wilson and Hampton’s association with Goodman made both famous, and Hampton credited Goodman’s example with opening up opportunities for African Americans not only in music but also eventually in baseball and other fields. Although notoriously parsimonious, Goodman accepted the financial and social problems that threatened integrated groups. He wanted the best musicians he could find and continued to employ African Americans throughout the rest of his career.

Goodman’s small groups also had an influence on American culture. He often set up his trio or quartet on the dance floor so that audiences were enticed to pay close attention to these exciting ensembles. This chamber music approach introduced a broad audience to the conventions and delights of superior small-group jazz performance and presented jazz as both an accompaniment to dancing and socializing and as music worthy of serious attention. Goodman’s example was copied frequently by other big band leaders, including his rival clarinetist Artie Shaw, who formed a small group called the Gramercy Five. Some critics who found Goodman’s big band performances artistically uneven point to his trio, quartet, and sextet recordings as examples of his highest musical achievements.

As Goodman’s fame and success increased, the jazz that his band and others like it played became the popular music of the day. For about a decade, commercial success accompanied a significant elevation in the public’s musical taste. Not only leaders but also sidemen such as Goodman’s outstanding trumpet soloist Harry James became celebrities on a par with the most famous film stars. Goodman’s band itself appeared in a number of Hollywood films, as did other swing bands such as those of Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller.

Goodman’s success in presenting jazz as a respectable music purely for listening was demonstrated triumphantly in 1938 by his historic concert at Carnegie Hall, a hallowed venue previously reserved largely for classical music. The absentminded Goodman discovered twelve years later that he had recordings of the concert, and these records went on to sell more than one million copies and became some of the most popular jazz recordings of all time. As Goodman sought to make jazz more respected, his classical music performances enhanced his own credibility as well as that of other jazz musicians. Many who had disparaged jazz and its players came to see that the boundaries between genres were fundamentally artificial as Goodman commissioned and performed music by such composers as Béla Bartók, Aaron Copland, and Paul Hindemith.

During the height of swing music’s popularity in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, there were at least fifty dance bands with national reputations and significant followings and hundreds of lesser-known and local professional orchestras. Dance styles such as the jitterbug were based on swing music, fan clubs boosted individual bands, and thousands of high school and college students, especially young women, flocked to performances, where they often mobbed the bandstands and drowned out the music in their enthusiasm (this occurred in 1937 at Goodman’s legendary Paramount Theater appearances in New York City). Radio broadcasts, record sales, public dances and performances, and extensive media coverage all confirmed that swing was the period’s dominant form of American musical entertainment, and Goodman had played a central role in its development. Radio;programming
Let’s Dance (radio program)[Lets Dance]
Jazz;big band
Swing music

Further Reading

  • Baron, Stanley. “Introduction.” In Benny, King of Swing: A Pictorial Biography Based on Benny Goodman’s Personal Archives, by Benny Goodman. New York: William Morrow, 1979. The handsome coffee-table book has more than two hundred photographs and Baron’s long introduction, replete with interesting anecdotes and biographical details but little musical commentary. No index.
  • Collier, James Lincoln. Benny Goodman and the Swing Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. A comprehensive and detailed study of Goodman, his many sidemen, and their music within the musical, social, and historical context of the swing period. Its scholarly method and personal opinion make this a lively if at times quirky approach to the subject. An attempt is made to debunk many popular myths. Photographs, a selected discography, and index.
  • Connor, D. Russell, and Warren W. Hicks. BG on the Record: A Bio-Discography of Benny Goodman. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1969. A standard and highly detailed reference for the study of most of Goodman’s recordings, including dates, locations, and personnel. Biographical details and anecdotes place the recordings in context. Photographs and a variety of indexes, including song titles, artists, and arrangers.
  • Douglas, George H. The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting. 1987. Reprint. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. Provides excellent coverage of the start of networking and the rise of announcers, news, and sportscasting. An admiring and sympathetic—although not uncritical—view of the subjects. Includes photographs, bibliography, and index.
  • Douglas, Susan J. Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination. New York: Crown, 1999. Focuses on the effects of radio listening on Americans’ social, political, and economic attitudes and beliefs. Covers the period from radio’s golden age in the 1930’s to the end of the twentieth century.
  • Goodman, Benny, and Irving Kolodin. The Kingdom of Swing. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1939. Goodman’s autobiography, written near the height of his success. Highly readable. A few photographs, no index.
  • Hammond, John, with Irving Townsend. John Hammond on Record: An Autobiography. New York: Penguin Books, 1981. By the man who discovered and first recorded performers ranging from Billie Holiday and Count Basie to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Hammond, associated with Goodman through common interests and family ties (Goodman married his sister several years after the men had first met), provides an insider’s view of Goodman’s career. Photographs, a selective discography, and index.
  • Schuller, Gunther. “The ’King’ of Swing: Benny Goodman.” In The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. A valuable and at times technical evaluation of Goodman’s musical achievements by one of the foremost experts in the field. Transcribed musical illustrations, a selected discography, glossaries, and indexes.
  • Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3d ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. Excellent scholarly account of the subject provides both background and important detail. Includes critical bibliography and discography as well as numerous selections from scores and an extensive index.

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