Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Benny Goodman: The Centennial Collection (RCA Bluebird, 2001)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran him the bonus DVD included with the Benny Goodman Centennial Collection CD, an odd mixture of film clips from 1937 to 1966. The first one was a clip of both the Goodman full band and his quartet — himself on clarinet, Lionel Hampton on vibes, Teddy Wilson on piano and Gene Krupa on drums — miming to the soundtrack recordings they’d made for the 1937 film Hollywood Hotel, though the footage was not from the movie but a much more plainly staged film introduced by Rudy Vallée from a short called Auld Lang Syne — A Tribute to Will Rogers. The appearance of Goodman’s interracial band in Hollywood Hotel, performing a medley of “I Got Rhythm” and a song especially written for the film called “I’ve Got a Heartful of Music,” was the first time white and Black musicians were shown playing together on screen — though Mae West had appeared with Duke Ellington’s orchestra in Belle of the Nineties three years earlier (and, much to the horror of the “suits” at Paramount, had insisted on being shown with Ellington’s African-American crew on camera — she didn’t have them hide behind a curtain or have white musicians mime to their recordings) — and, not surprisingly, the sequence was excised from prints shown in the South. The cover of the Goodman CD dates this clip from 1939, but it can’t be; Harry James is clearly visible playing a trumpet solo on one of the full-band songs (“Avalon” and “House Hop”), and he left in January 1939 to start his own band.

The next three clips are from what looks like a surprisingly interesting movie, The Powers Girl, made by Charles Rogers’ independent production company in 1942 and featuring three songs, “I Know That You Know” by a new Benny Goodman Quintet (Goodman, clarinet; Dave Barbour, electric guitar; Mel Powell, piano; probably Cliff Hill, bass; and Howard “Hud” Davies, drums) and “Roll ’Em” and “One O’Clock Jump” by the full band, in arrangements quite different from the RCA Victor recordings from 1937 and 1938. The most fascinating clip from this movie is “Roll ’Em,” which is supposedly being played by the Goodman band in an outdoor dance pavilion in a driving rainstorm — the band members are sheltered by a canopy but the audience, including some quite spectacular jitterbug dancers, are getting quite wet!

Afterwards the disc includes the trailer for the 1943 film The Gang’s All Here, which reunited Goodman and director Busby Berkeley from Hollywood Hotel and is probably the best film Goodman ever made — though the color, one of the film’s major selling points, is very badly faded on this trailer. Then there are two clips from the 1942 film Stage Door Canteen, including the great one of Peggy Lee singing “Why Don’t You Do Right?” as well as an instrumental version of “Bugle Call Rag” — the camerawork is pretty plain and the instrumental gets talked over by some of the actors, but it’s great to have these scenes, especially the young Peggy Lee in full vocal cry on the song that made her a star.

The next clip is a brief newsreel of the premiere of the 1955 biopic The Benny Goodman Story — and its principal interest is getting to see Goodman posing with Steve Allen, who played him in the film; Allen is visibly taller but otherwise they look uncannily alike. Then there’s a 1960 TV clip of “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” by a Goodman small group (by then virtually all of Goodman’s live performances were with small groups — he only put together big bands for special occasions like the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958 or his tour of the Soviet Union in 1962) featuring the great Kenneth “Red” Norvo on vibes, and the show closes with clips from a documentary on the 1966 Belgian Jazz Festival that show Goodman rehearsing with an interracial band (though the footage is so badly faded color-wise that it’s all the color of café au lait and it’s virtually impossible to tell from what we see that Goodman is white and his trumpeter, Doc Cheatham, is Black — the way Cheatham has his hair processed to the point where it looks virtually lacquered onto his scalp doesn’t help either!), playing a blues to warm up and then rehearsing, and finally performing, a new original called “The Monk Swings” that — despite its Christian (or Buddhist) title — actually brings Gershwin back to his klezmer roots. (When klezmer had its brief burst of renewed popularity in the early 1980’s, I remember thinking the first time I heard any, “So that’s where Benny Goodman came from! All the parts of his style he didn’t rip off from the Black New Orleans clarinetists who’d come to Chicago, he got from the folk music of his own people — duh!”)

The last bit on the disc is a so-called “audio interview with Benny Goodman” which I had high hopes for because the Duke Ellington package in this same series had included a fascinating interview from 1941 in which Ellington talked about his rehearsal practices (he said he only rehearsed the band when there was a piece of new material they needed to learn; otherwise, they practiced on the job) and paid tribute to his newly hired arranger, Billy Strayhorn. Alas, the Goodman “interview” is merely about a minute of him from a radio show on which he’d served as a guest D.J. The whole package of clips is fascinating in its way, and some of the music shows Goodman at his very best (alas, a narrator talks over a chunk of “The Monk Swings,” which otherwise sounds like quite a good composition and a real departure from what people expected of Benny Goodman in 1966), but visually these clips simply aren’t as interesting as the ones from the Ellington disc — quite possibly reflecting Ellington’s lifelong interest in the visual arts; though he wasn’t credited as director or designer of any of his short films, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Ellington had been involved in the visual aspect, since the Ellington band shorts are generally quite interesting visually and “push the envelope” of how the big bands were shown on film just as Ellington’s music pushed the envelope of how big-band music was supposed to sound. (I’ve joked before about how the origin of the swing era was the great Black bandleader/arranger Fletcher Henderson, whose charts formed the foundation of the book of the band that made Goodman a star, evolving the rules by which swing music would be played — and Ellington following right behind him and figuring out creative ways to break them all.)

The Centennial Collection celebrated the centennial of Victor Records, not of any of the musicians involved, and the other entries in the series included Coleman Hawkins, Glenn Miller, Fats Waller and Artie Shaw — and the Shaw one would be especially nice to have because, while Goodman looked like a Jewish accountant all his life, Shaw was a hunk, and it’s easy to see from his film appearances how he got movie stars like Lana Turner and Ava Gardner to marry him.