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Celebrating Jazz’s ‘Coming Out’ Party

Kevin Le Gendre looks at the wider cultural and political significance of Benny Goodman’s momentous 1938 concert.

In Jazz lore 1959 looms large. This was the year when Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, among others, made what are by common consent game-changer recordings. Understandably the stature of Kind Of Blue et al makes that period, on the cusp of the ‘60s, a key turning point in creative music. Yet the preceding decades of innovative thinking should not be sidestepped. In the studio and on stage artists took risks and broke barriers from a cultural and political as well as musical point of view.

The concert came to be seen as a symbol, if not ideal, of a society in harmony

In Jazz lore 1938 is also a milestone. In January of that year Benny Goodman performed a concert at the Carnegie Hall in New York that made waves in many different ways. The programming of a genre of music that was still in its infancy and whose legitimacy had been the subject of intense debate, in a venue as prestigious as the above, was perceived as a breakthrough of sorts, another step along the road to respectability. Furthermore, the music called Jazz had been pioneered by African-Americans, who were still referred to as Negroes in a segregated society. There was a perceptible divide between black and white musicians. Integration was relatively scarce. Goodman, a white clarinetist, who had become one of the key entertainers of the age, presented a racially mixed ensemble on the night in question that featured black players such as the pianist Teddy Hill and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. The concert came to be seen as a symbol, if not ideal, of a society in harmony, a united front beyond the trenches of endemic discrimination and second-class citizenship.

As part of The Art of Change, the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO) and special guests revisit and celebrate that pivotal moment in American musical history with the kind of verve that has charmed audiences the world over since its inception in 1988. Led by the formidable trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis, the 15-piece ensemble has come to vividly embody the principles that were instrumental to Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert, which imbues Jazz with a dignity that stands on a par with European Classical music. Diversity is also in JLCO’s identity. This is a multi-generation and multi-cultural band that has comprised members drawn from America, Latin America and Britain.

Equally important though is JLCO’s supreme command of ‘swing’, the rousing, energizing, danceable strain of Jazz that placed it at the forefront of mainstream culture in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and was synonymous with groups led by Goodman as well as his peers, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. By way of the flawless precision and dynamism of its rhythm section, the seamless interlocking of its brass and reeds, and the finely judged light and shade of the arrangements in which these elements are deployed, JLCO upholds the legacy of the aforementioned like few other large ensembles working today. Perhaps most importantly it has deftly trodden a fine line between populism and high art, retaining a communicative warmth and artistic ambition that flows from Marsalis’s deep understanding of Jazz pioneers such as Jellyroll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Basie and Ellington.

The Carnegie Hall concert was notable for the spotlight that it placed on a repertoire of anthems by such as Basie [‘One O’ Clock Jump’], Fats Waller [‘Honeysuckle Rose’], George Gershwin [‘I Got Rhythm’] and Goodman and Chick Webb [‘Stompin’ At The Savoy’]. However, what was equally important was the license the musicians gave themselves to do something that is taken for granted these days at the bulk of jazz concerts – stretch out or use the themes for extended improvisations in which the virtuosity of the soloists comes into play. There was a jam session halfway through the concert that is said to have astounded members of the audience unaccustomed to such live wire, ex-tempo licks.

It would be naïve if not inaccurate to argue that the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert led to definitive and sweeping improvements in race relations in America. One only has to look at the police brutality meted out against African-Americans today as well as the favour President Trump has curried with the Far Right to know that the road to real equality in the land of the free and the home of the brave is still long. Moments, such as the Goodman concert and this celebration thereof, where music is able to unite across the racial divide, are perhaps more precious than ever, especially if it encourages a blues march as well as a sophisticated strut into the 21st century.

Part of  The Art of Change.

Benny Goodman: King of Swing with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra & Wynton Marsalis is performed on 27 February.

Part of The Art of Change, our 2018 annual theme which explores how the arts respond to, reflect and potentially effect change in the social and political landscape.