14. 1938: Jazz at Carnegie Hall

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“With a quick roll and flash onto the rest of his kit, Gene Krupa creates space for Harry James to work in a trumpet solo with just the drums and piano in accompaniment. In just over a minute, James performs a solo that flourishes with such virtuosity that, arguably, he can claim the right of achieving the pinnacle moment in the whole concert. His musical brilliance and sense of feeling are both at their peak as he allows his supreme talent to let loose his genius.”

Sunday, January 16, 1938, is etched into Jazz history. On this momentous day Benny Goodman brought his swing orchestra and several guest soloists in front of a capacity audience of 3,800 expectant Jazz enthusiasts to the concert venue in New York City: Carnegie Hall. Jazz was a relatively new introduction to this ‘Holy of Holies’ of classical music. Having had a few jazz try-outs, ‘swing music’ had never made an appearance until Benny Goodman’s band played that Sunday night in mid-January.

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The event is especially remembered for the racial harmony in performers and audience that were present in the hall. Black performers from both Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s orchestra, such as Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Count Basie, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney and Cootie Williams sat side by side with Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Harry Goodman, Vernon Brown, Jess Stacey and the other white members of Goodman’s own orchestra. Goodman himself also employed black performers who appeared on the Carnegie Hall roster, such as Lionel Hampton. Numbers and names of the audience members are lost to history, save to say that there was no segregation and not one single problem caused by such integration. Racial discrimination was held in abeyance in New York City for those historic two and a half hours.

Gene Krupka, Benny Goodman, Cootie Williams, Vernon Brown, Johnny Hodges

The importance of the concert for us, though, is in the manner that it allows a multitude of ways to grapple with Gadamer’s idea on the experience of play. We’ll look at the audience of the time and also what one can expect listening to the concert over three-quarters of a century later, but first we shall start with the artists themselves who produced the music.

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Hard-wired into Jazz is a deep respect and insistence upon improvisation and going with the flow of the music so as not to be rigidly confined by compositional scores. Musicians are positively encouraged to give free reign to on-the-spot creative outbursts within the framework of the song they are performing. However, the degree and overall direction of the latitude for such open creativity is given and judged by the bandleader, in this case Benny Goodman. Catherine Tackley, who examined the 1938 concert inside out, quotes Goodman from 1939:

“The most important element is still improvisation, the liberty a soloist has to stand up and play a chorus in the way he feels – sometimes good, sometimes bad, but as an expression of himself, rather than somebody else who wrote something for him. If you want to put it this way, it’s something that is genuinely American, because it’s the expression of an individual – a kind of free speech in music.”1

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Casting aside the pro-American rhetoric, one can sense in Goodman’s words the personal connection that an improvising performer can reach with their art form if they are allowed to play with it. Two perfect instances of such play come out in the iconographic number by Louis Prima called ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ Both Harry James’ impassioned trumpet solo work and Jess Stacey’s cool hand over his piano solo demonstrate the artistic summits which can be reached when play is allowed to occur.

From the outset of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ there is Gene Krupa’s rumbling fast and loud jungle beat on his floor tom, with accompanying bass drum, plus accentuated snare and hi-tom strikes, to set the rhythm alongside his hi-hat pulses and cymbal crashes. Then, after a few seconds, in comes the brass. First, the trombones play a steady triplet hook, and then the trumpets arrive after a couple of seconds with a blaring and deliciously dirty counter line. Next it’s the saxophones, with a swinging melody that works a smoother phrase to Krupa’s pounding tempo. Goodman’s clarinet, after a minute of pace setting rhythm from Krupa and the brass section, enters the fray with punchy high notes interspersed with space for the drums to get highlighted in brief breathing spaces where the wind players catch their breath before ploughing through the routine again and again.

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Goodman split this show stopping tune into two parts. The first delivered the theme, as drawn up by Louis Prima, which in its own right stands as an unforgettable swing standard. However, Goodman’s genius is made apparent in the second section. There is a musical return to the main theme that culminates in a surging groundswell in the trumpets and brass, which broods alongside his clarinet to crank up the tempo and work up the scale to produce a musical invocation of monsters threatening to descend from the shadows in ecstatic dance. Suddenly, a tension release appears when everything pares back leaving Krupa’s hypnotising floor tom work. However, with a quick roll and flash onto the rest of his kit, Krupa creates space for Harry James to work in a trumpet solo with just the drums and piano in accompaniment. In just over a minute, James performs a solo that flourishes with such virtuosity that, arguably, he can claim the right of achieving the pinnacle moment in the whole concert. His musical brilliance and sense of feeling are both at their peak as he allows his supreme talent to let loose his genius. The phrases are punched out in harmony with Krupa in such a way that one can almost feel the confidence within James swelling. After scene-setting his command over this section, he slides effortlessly into a pseudo Rimsky-Korsokov moment, where shades of Bumblebees flight are aired, just before belting out a declaration of intent through staccato bursts, that climb ever upwards in an unstoppable run to triumphantly smash through to a new, as yet, unreached level of powerhouse swing that brings the rest of the orchestra back into play. The sensation’s cast in that extended minute are guaranteed never to leave the attentive listener. James reigns majestically and performs to such a level that his life would never be the same again. Less than a year later he would leave Goodman’s orchestra and create his own orchestra on the back of the heights reached at Carnegie Hall.

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However, there is a darker side to his performance, which touches on Gadamer’s ideas around play. Tackley quotes James from the Jazz writer George T. Simon’s tomb The Big Bands and shows the after-effect that the Carnegie Hall ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ solo had on James:

“I don’t think I ever told anybody this, but I was going through a real mental thing, and it was all built around ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ I’d been sick; they gave me some experimental pills… Well, they wigged me out… as I was supposed to get up and play my chorus on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ I just couldn’t make it. I fell back on my chair… It happened again another time, too, so that every time the band played ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ I’d get bugged and scared it would start all over again… I tried to explain it to Benny and I’d even ask him to play ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ earlier in the evening, so I could relax for the rest of the night. But of course that was his big number, and so I couldn’t blame him for wanting to hold off. Finally I just left the band. I couldn’t trust myself anymore. At least with my own band I could play the tunes I wanted to play.”2

Tackley interprets James’ obvious psychological problem as “the negative effects of a piece that initially represented collective creativity but had become a standardized arrangement.”3 Thinking this through Gadamer’s idea of play; James in the Carnegie Hall concert had got himself to a pitch where he was in ‘play’ with ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. The techniques and craftsmanship that he had diligently learned over the years of studentship with the trumpet were now matured and absorbed sufficiently so that he could now stop thinking about how to play and could focus wholly, instead, on giving over his fingers and breathing to the music so as to unleash the art. The extent to which he was responding, there and then, to the rhythm and themes of the song, taking risks and improvising on the hoof, allowed him to reach the heights of creative genius. The flow of his talent with the trumpet combined with the energy and raw power of the tune seem to vibrate in his performance giving a whole greater than the sum of their parts. However, subsequently, being asked to capture and repeat such a unique rendition every time the orchestra played ‘Sing Sing, Sing’ – sometimes a daily task – filled him with trepidation. One just can’t be brilliant on demand, and each time he played the solo and tried to take similar risks to those he took when in ‘play’ at Carnegie Hall, he would always have the pressure of living up to that one spotlight performance, which was actually given only a few weeks after he joined Goodman’s band. The arrogance of ignorance would have helped him play at Carnegie Hall in a way that he could never emulate again, because that performance would forever be cast in stone as a crowning achievement never to be duplicated or bettered.

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Jess Stacey’s piano solo in ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ is also the epitome of Gadamer’s sense of play, it is wrought with risk too, but has an understated wisdom to it in a way that James’s spectacular solo doesn’t. Which is not to diminish James’s solo but to realise that Stacey brings another dimension entirely to ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. Tackley draws out the difference in a wider comparison of the four major performers:

“Stacy’s approach to ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ is completely different from many of the other solos in the concert, being reflective not only in mood but in content… Krupa and James use the piece as a vehicle for projecting their Jazz personas, but Goodman and Stacy’s improvisations instead draw the audience in and encourage them to listen.”4

Stacey ‘plays’, though, just as much as James, in his piano solo. Starting with a jaunty bounce, he soon starts weave different melodic lines which ebb and flow from each other and lead into high octave watery drops splashing softly and delicately, all within a few bars. Drawing in the audience, as Tackley describes, by gently rolling notes in a high register, Stacy effortlessly shifts gears once more and riffs in the mid-range but drops in low minor chords which he then uses to form the next improvised bars before ascending up the piano deftly to return to the high octave once more. It’s a beautiful performance that leaves Goosebumps where James left racing heartbeats.

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Rather interestingly, from a Gadamerian perspective, Tackley spends some time covering the birth pangs of swing before Goodman brought it to Carnegie Hall and identifies a critical element to its reception by audience members. The issue at stake being whether music like Goodman’s was for dancing or listening to.

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In 1934 Goodman began broadcasting on a radio programme entitled Let’s Dance,which obviously swayed the balance at the start towards dance. However, when playing at the Chicago Rhythm Club in 1935 Goodman stated “there was tremendous enthusiasm all through the programme – the few people that tried to dance were booed off the floor.”5 Tackley notes that there was also a shift taking place at this time in preferred venues. Jazz in its swing variation started to wander from ballrooms and set up shop in theatres and in doing so physically communicated to audiences that Jazz was to be listened to. No more was it background music for dancers. The ‘play’ when the audience experienced swing, by the time of the Carnegie Hall concert, was one that happened aurally not bodily. Notes, melodies, rhythm, riffs and phrases were there to be heard by their audiences who, in turn, gave their full attention and appreciation by listening and allowing the music to ‘play’ with them and take them where they knew not.

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Even today, over three-quarters of a century later, one can listen in the comfort of one’s own Ikea Poäng and be irresistibly carried away. The brilliance of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’s’ composition in the hands of Goodman, Krupa, James, Stacey and friends is there to be felt, to be heard, but most of all to be played with by every new pair of ears that comes across it. The ‘once in a lifetime’ performance is caught, but not preserved. It is given life. It is given an infinity that it deserves, as it is eternally performed again and again. The ‘play’ engaged by the main orchestra members is forever as fresh as when it was given at Carnegie Hall. Their skill and dexterity when they played with Louis Prima melody and rhythm all those years ago, as they swung and improvised under Goodman’s watchful eye taking risks and yearning to forget all the technicalities of their performance in the pursuit of merging themselves absolutely with the music, will always be there. As individuals they gave themselves up completely to achieving the very best jazz they could that night and that only happened when they let go of the logic in the printed notes on the pages in front of them and started to explore where their fingers, breath and talent could take them. Harry James might have felt that he could never reach the great heights again of his performance whilst he was alive, but in the eternity provided by the recording his ‘never-to-be-repeated’ play has been given immortality. The only question that remains, of course, is whether we, as listeners, can give that same dedication and really listen and play with their unique creation so as to give justice to their combined achievement. Maybe its time, if you haven’t done so already, to switch on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, close your eyes and allow your ears, mind and body to become filled with the music. Just make sure it’s the Carnegie Hall version though!

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References

  1. Tackley, C., Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert, 150.
  2. Ibid., 153.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 100.
  5. Ibid., 10.

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