On tour with a British Big Band
Goodman and Reginald Kell
On tour with a British Big Band
Les Tomkins, writing in 1962
Benny Goodman, probably the greatest clarinet technician to emerge from jazz—largely inactive on the big band field in recent years—starts a tour of Europe, fronting an all star British band, on February 5 th (1970) The tour is the outcome of Benny's many incognito visits to Britain over the past 15 years and his realisation that British musicianship is second to none. Saxophonist and woodwind specialist Frank Reidy of Jack Parnell Orchestra fame and a close friend of Benny's is the man responsible for assembling the British band.
"It really all started about 12 years ago, the day I walked into Johnny Franz's office at Philips Records with my clarinet case tucked under my arm," says Frank. "There was Benny, renewing acquaintance with Johnny, who introduced me." Goodman eyed Frank with respect, seeing the clarinet case, and asked if he could try the instrument. He did and fell in love with Frank's mouthpiece, the upshot being that Frank had a replica made for Benny. The gesture led to regular meetings.
Arrangements were commissioned from Peter Knight and Wally Stott, and the men that eventually assembled in the Philips studios were Bert Ezzard, Tommy McQuater, Derek Healey (trumpets); Laddie Busby, John Marshall, Chris Smith, jackie Armstrong (trombones); Bob Burns, Roy Willox, Tommy Whittle, Frank Reidy Don Honeywill (reeds); Bill McGuffie (piano), Lennie Bush (bass), Judd Proctor (guitar) and Ronnie Stephenson (drums).
About three months ago, Frank's 'phone rang at 11 p. m. It was BG. "Get me a British band," said Benny. Frank asked what for, pointing out that the best musicians cost money. BG said that he just had the feeling. So Frank suggested that they plan a recording session.
B Goodman was delighted. "Stephenson and McGuffie to mention just two," says Frank Reidy, "curled him up. Benny told me he could spot ability in seconds and he was carried away by the spirit and enthusiasm." The session completely sold BG on British musicianship and the forthcoming tour promoted by the William Morris Agency's Paris Office is the outcome: Commencing March 5th at Zurich, it will embrace 15 cities, with one London concert at the Royal Festival Hall on February 14.
Available is a whole pile of unplayed charts written by Fletcher Henderson shortly before he died, and additional material has been commissioned from Harry South, Kenny Napper, Johnny Spence, Gordon Franks, Norman Stenfalt and Bill McGuffie. Stenfalt and McGuffie are supplying originals.
The personnel for the European tour will be Derek Watkins, Greg Bowen, Johnny McLevy (trumpets); Nat Peck, Keith Christie, Jimmy Wilson (trombones); Bob Burns, Don Honeywill, Bob Efford, Frank Reidy, Dave Willis (reeds); Bill McGuffie (piano); Lennie Bush (bass); Bobby Orr (drums); Louis Stewart and Bucky Pizarelli (guitars). In addition—by special request of Goodman—a band vocalist has been booked in the shape of the very versatile Barbara Jay (Mrs. Tommy Whittle).
The tour itinerary; Zurich (February 5), Geneva (6), Milan (8), Florence (10), Gestadt (13), London (14), Bucharest (16); Copenhagen (18), Stockholm (20), Gotenburg (22), Paris (24), Amsterdam (27), Hamburg (28), Frankfurt ('March 1), Berlin (3).
For me, it's a good band. They might even be a little better than some of the bands I've had. It didn't surprise me too much that there were some good musicians here. In the classical field I always knew it.
I think they've overcome any complex they may have had in the past, of feeling second rate to America, as far as jazz is concerned. Naturally. there are some great individualists from the States.
Certainly, the general level of musicianship is pretty high here. What is it they like to play? Is that it?
Well, they're just professional—that's about it, really.
I guess that's it. Professional yeah. They've got a lot of vitality; they work hard. Our band used to do that, too.
How did the tour come about?
About two months ago I was in England and I thought it would be interesting to hear a band. So we set up an audition; I just wanted to see if I could feel comfortable, and if they would feel comfortable with me. And that seemed to work out. When we did the recording for Philips, I found them first class.
We were in the midst of negotiating to come over here; so I decided to use a British band. We have negotiated many times before, but there were always various reasons it never came off. This time it did. We're only playing one concert in London, but that's one, anyway.
I Of course, Frank Reidy is the fellow responsible for picking the people. Frank's a bright boy.
I believe you found his instrument to be a good one.
No, he found my instrument was a good one; so I finally got him one. Frank uses the full Boehm system. I just brought him a clarinet from the States, which had been worked on by a particular repair man, by the name of Hans Moen nig. He's kind of a genius, really just unbelievable. You ask some of the boys about him some time. Comes from an old German family. I just spent about eight hours with him the other day m Philadelphia, getting my clarinet fixed.
He does something to a clarinet if he's got a good instrument to work with. He kinda tunes 'em. A great many players have his instrument. When I say his, I mean one after he's worked on it. Quite an unusual guy. Most of the boys, six months before they go touring, make a point of going over and seeing him.
When you started playing what made you single out the clarinet?
I don't know. There's kind of a story about it. We were three brothers, Harry and Freddy being older than me, and we went down to get these instruments. I think the first place we went to was the synagogue. Harry, as he was the biggest, got the bass, Freddy got the trombone and I got the clarinet. But I used to play a little saxophone, all those things, in the early bands.
Your first band, in 1934 when you were 25, was formed f or a radio show, wasn't it?
That's right. Well, not really we played in Billy Rose's Music Hall first. And just about the time we were leaving there, we auditioned for the National Biscuit programme, and were fortunate enough to get that. Then we went to the Palomar Ballroom, Los Angeles, where we were quite successful. After that: back to Chicago to play at the Urban Room, then to the Pennsylvania Hotel, New York. In the interim we made three or four pictures out in Hollywood. I disbanded for a while, on account of an operation. When I reformed we played the New Yorker Hotel; Peggy Lee was with me then.
We didn't play very much during the war, if I remember right. Also, here and there, I always played a certain amount of classical music.
We played here at the Palladium I forget what date that was. Do you remember that? What was that '48, or some thing like that? I just came over with a few musicians, including Buddy Greco. Johnny Dankworth was in that band, I think.
So that was really your first experience of British musicians.
In a sense, yes. Well, a lot of time's gone by since then, and there's been a great development here. I think that's the important thing. We're talking about a quarter of a century that has elapsed, really, aren't we? Outside of the real originals in America you can name them as well as I can Duke, Louis, Coleman Hawkins Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, and in a later group, Charlie Parker, Miles and so forth. . . the sort of steady musician has been the one you have to depend upon. I do; all those people have to. You can't have an all star group all the time, you know.
They can't all be individuals.
No, you see that's the point. Well, they can. But somebody's got to mind the store! And that type of musician has developed in Britain and America; the communications are very close nowadays. Re cords, radio, television, you name it. That's one of the reasons, I think, that you have such a good quality of musician here.
Then there's a good deal of work here, certainly in recording, radio, jingles and whatnot, isn't there?
Thinking of the kind of enthusiasm young people display today, can you make a comparison between that and the kind of frenzy you were arousing with your band back in your King of Swing era?
Oh, I guess there's a similarity, sure. The tumult and all that about my band at the Paramount Theatre and wherever we played. Not quite as much, I'd say! Of course, we never used to play in the size of places that they play in now. And we didn't particularly like playing in huge places, because it wasn't conducive either to good playing or good listening, as far as we were concerned. I think there's a ratio of the size of place you should play in with the size orchestra you have. I don't see any sense playing in a 25,000 seat auditorium with, what fifteen people. I suppose if you have the most magnifi cent kind of acoustics and amplification it's possible, but there's not the rapport that you get in a place like Festival Hall, really. Even a symphony orchestra; there's certain limitations.
But those smaller places have been discarded, as you well know. By me sometimes, too not necessarily to my liking all the time.
Of course, that whole Swing period has been glamorised in your own film life story and elsewhere; but at must have been a magical time, 1 think.
Yes, it was a good period. As much as I don't talk about it, it was. There were some rather good characters around, weren't there? There were Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, myself and still the Duke and Count Basie. I suppose you could compare it to a certain age of sports, whether it be tennis, baseball or whatever, when they had a lot of characters. I guess that's what makes a kind of era like that.
In those days leaders of big bands were idolised by the public in a certain way.
Well, I guess they were; but they didn't start looking out to be idolised, I don't think. They were very much interested in what they were doing. Not to say that a lot of people aren't nowadays. And they were good musicians. The proof of the matter is: a lot of the things still sound pretty darn good, don't they?
Sure do, yes. And there's always an element of nostalgia; people like to hear those things again. I suppose when ever you get a band you feel you have to play a lot of the old charts, do you?
I do, but I don't do it for nostalgic reasons at all. I really don't. There are some of 'em I don't particularly like to play, but really, some of the good ones, I think they sound well, period. Even by comparison with a lot of things that are going on currently. I don't mean to say that what’s going on is not good, and we will be playing a lot of other things, too—which I like. Some different songs and arrangements of tunes. It's a different style, a different medium or whatever you call it, but I think it's necessary.
I think you'd agree that what you brought to jazz, certainly in your clarinet playing, was a kind of elegance. In that way, you raised the level.
I hope so. I think we did. That's a natural evolution of working. Work at it long enough, I suppose you do it better, huh?
For instance, it's been said that the Fletcher Henderson arrangements, as played by your band, had more polish, better intonation, as compared with some of the Negro bands playing them.
Well in spots, yes. They had certain qualities that were better than us in spots, too. But, generally speaking, I think it’s true. Well, we worked rather hard, we played continuously, we rehearsed very much. There were no secrets about it.
Just hard work, that's all. And we knew what we wanted.
Fletcher Henderson and me, we thought a lot about everything; there wasn't any doubt about what we were striving for. He used to rehearse or I'd rehearse, tempo wise and so forth; it was a very agreeable, happy kind of partnership.
Lionel Hampton has commented that he feels you have done more than anybody towards the integration of white and coloured musicians in bands.
I grew up that way; I can thank my parents for that, and thank my environment at that time. When I first studied with my old clarinet teacher in Chicago, a Negro followed me into the room, and we played duets together or something like that, you know. It's a question of fair play, too.
Initially, though, you must have had to encounter some degree of staunch prejudice.
I guess we did. I don't remember too much of it, because we were pretty adamant about it. We were quite fortunate, too, you might say, in the sense that we were successful. And we certainly didn't compromise about that, any more than we did about a lot of other things. I must say that we would tell promoters, or whoever it might be, if we were going into a territory that we knew was against this kind of procedure we'd tell 'em in advance that that's what it was. We didn't want to give 'em any surprises. And if they didn't want it, we'd go some place else.
You did it by diplomatic stages, I suppose, by first having Negro soloists featured with the band before you brought them into the sections.
That was interesting, yes. Well, it worked out that way because they were extraordinary players. There were Teddy and Lionel, and we had the little trio and quartet. We also had Jess Stacy on piano he was very good, too. Actually, Lionel didn't play much in the band, except to play drums occasionally, which he did later on, after Gene left. But I think we made something out of it, yes. 'Then later it didn't make any difference where we played.
But do you think, with all the good work you did, that some of the younger musicians with their ‘protest' kind of attitude have done some harm? I don't know. I don't like to lose track of what I'm doing; if I'm playing music, that's the job in hand. You've got to be pretty clear in your mind; you've got to be in pretty good shape. It's tough enough to do that. I don't know what this is this protest thing. I've heard about it, you know; but I think if you go about your business and do what you're supposed to do, it'll do the trick.
The music will speak for itself.
Yes, whatever it may be. That's the most direct way to do it that I know of.
But you've always done it with a feeling of gaiety, happiness, abandon that kind of emotion rather than an angry emotion. You would say that's the better way to do it?
Oh, I think so. As far as I'm concerned, it is, yes. I don't want to be angry about that!
That is the problem, 1 think, with some music today, that it seems to represent anger too much.
Well, that's a long discussion in itself, isn't it? I think, if you're sitting down to practise, no matter what it is, you better not be angry with the instrument. Better be kind and friendly towards it, and you might get along better!
With your own clarinet, you've always tended to want to progress, haven't you? At one point 1 believe you felt that you had to go into the woodshed, as they say, when you got together with Reginald Kell. What was the idea about that? There's a lot to learn about the clarinet. And it wouldn't make any difference if it was Reg Kell or any other clarinet player; if I can exchange ideas; learn something from that and develop, it's good. There are many approaches to playing the clarinet, and you might take a lot of different approaches, then use your own with the peripheral kind of learning you've had from all this investigation. Which I think I've done.
But did you feel that in a sense you had to un learn some of your earlier methods?
Well, in a way. I think there's a difference between jazz music and classical music. There's kind of a similarity, in a sense, in that I think every classical musician would like to really play as freely as a jazz musician plays, if he's playing well.
So you'd say you've had the advantage of being able to fuse the best of both worlds? I'm still working at it.
You have been able to combine your jazz work with a lot of straight classical playing, haven't you, in recent years? Appearing as a guest with symphony orchestras.
Yes, that's what I've done. I think it's quite possible for musicians to do it. The worlds are far apart, but the individual doesn't have to be that far removed. Sure, it takes a lot of doing, but possibly by my doing it some other person might be inspired to do the same thing.
Do you feel yourself that your exposure to a more classical approach to the instrument changed your sound?
It probably did, yes. You can compare 'em. I like a lot of things I did when I was young; that was another period, you know. And I don't dislike a lot of things I've done lately.
As a jazz player, of course, you were greatly admired and used as a model by many musicians, right down the line.
Yes. Well, what I'd like to stick to, basically, is music. And when I say music, I don't think there's any tricks about it.
It's what you learn out of books and apply yourself to.
But really, the jazzman has to go against the books at times, in order to produce the effects that he gets. Such as to get a dirty tone instead of a legitimate tone.
Well, yes—that's all right, as long as it doesn't get you into bad habits. When I say bad habits, I mean that—de pending on what you have to do, you know. You should keep an open mind. But it's a question of what you're trying to play. You don't need a dirty tone if you're going: to play the Brahms Trio, do you? If you want to, that is; you might not want to play it.
In the ‘thirties and early ‘forties, you brought the clarinet to a certain jazz prominence. Then, in the mid‘ forties, when the bebop or modern jazz era came in, the instrument went out of use to some extent. It seemed that nobody could play it convincingly in the new idiom—other than Buddy De Franco. Would you agree?
Well, I think also Stan Hasselgaard was a very great clarinet player.
Yes, you brought him into your group, didn't you?
Yeah. That was too bad, him having such a short lived career. He had the talent! Real talent.
And you feel that, had he lived, he would have taken the instrument further?
Oh, I think so. He was kind of a natural. Couldn't read a note, I don't think, but that's nothing to be held against him at all.
But you have these kind of innovations in jazz because. the music is limited, isn't it?
It's the blues, a tune, a popular song—you know. What are the great works? You can't name great works in jazz, can you? Unless you want to name—what, "Take The `A' Train"? Okay—a pop song, isn't it, really, when you get down to it?
Well, there are great written works by some of the outstanding composers in jazz. Duke Ellington's various suites have a quality of greatness about them.
They do, but—and I don't say this in criticism at all—they're basically a series of tunes. I think Gershwin wrote a series of tunes, too—they're great. And a lot of the so called classical composers have been influenced by jazz.
So it's possible for them to draw from one another.
Sure. I think we just live that way. The whole environment of music we belong to influences everybody else in music.
The problem with jazz, I think, is a confusion of definitions, plus closed mind attitudes. For instance, even nowa days, you get people saying that only coloured musicians can play jazz. You'd think that idea was long forgotten by now.
Well, I don't believe it. And I don't think a lot of coloured people believe it, either. I don't see how anybody can have a monopoly on any kind of art. It's much bigger than who's using it, as a rule, isn’t it Or who’s giving it.
This whole `revolt' business is just going on lately and angriness, as you say. But this too shall pass!
In your jazz lifetime you've seen many things become integrated, that initially, caused a sensation. The kind of fee ing you were getting with your early big bands was unique at the time; yet studio musicians today can reproduce it.
That's interesting, yes; I guess that’s true, generally speaking. It's just part of the deal.
You've obviously always striven to maintain what you regarded as the necessary high standard with your bands. In the course of writing for this magazine, I've met a lot of musicians who have worked for you at one time or another. The general opinion seems to be that you are quite a perfectionist, and can at times be a pretty stern disciplinarian.
Somebody's got to know where you're going, wherever it might be. That's the way I like to approach anything I do in music; so I'm not satisfied to have people around who don't want to do it that way. It's as simple as that. I don't say I al ways get 'em !
I suppose you've encountered a few musicians who didn't like knuckling under, as far as discipline was concerned.
Oh sure, I think there always will be these rebellious types, and always have been such people.
What makes a great bandleader is being able to handle all types of musicians, really.
Yeah, I guess so. You hope you learn more about musicians the older you get.
With fewer big bands, do you feel that musicians in general get enough discipline today?
Well—I really don't know. There was a sort of standard, as you can well imagine, in the 'forties and the 'thirties, involving the people we were talking about earlier. Maybe it was on account of the competition; call it whatever you may.
And I wouldn't be surprised if that was found to be lacking occasionally these days.
Perhaps the amount of. competition caused the musicians to strive particularly hard to be good.
Yes, there was more idealism about it, I suppose. It got to be just a habit you know. Then, you see, if somebody joined the band, he followed that habit; he had to toe the mark that way. I think you'll probably find the same thing in England; you have all kinds, don't you? I'll give you a good example of that. They said Toscanini was a terrible disciplinarian, but when he was there that old New York Philharmonic Orchestra used to play. It took a long time to get rid of that influence, too.
I think a lot of the English symphony orchestras have it. Possibly they're not as good as some of the American orchestras, but they sound better.
It's been said that they're quicker readers, but that's not the whole story, is it? That's just a fraction of the story. They have a desire, and a dignity about their music, a good deal of 'em.
Looking back over the bands you've had, are there some particular people you would regard as having stood out? Oh boy sure. I don't care who the hell the leader is, if you haven't got any special people, you're not gonna have a good band. Gene Krupa was a terrific drummer. He was a ball of fire—not only with his audience, with the music. He had a tremendous desire. Lionel, Teddy, Ziggy, Harry James—all these guys had real drive, you know. They were on. They knew what the job in hand was.
And, of course, Charlie Christian.
Yeah—he was unbelievable. Just a dream, you know.
How did you come across him? Well, I think John Hammond was the one who told me about him. He heard him in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Somebody else, too—a writer whose name I can't recall—was telling me quite a bit about his family and his upbringing; I didn't know very much about that.
Did you feel that he was ahead of his time? No, not as far as what he was playing then. But he was an extraordinary player; everybody liked him.
The thing is, jazz guitarists now are still playing Christian style.
You mean trying . Sure, he was the guy who lined it up. Then, of course. Eddie Lang was quite a beautiful player, too, wasn't he? When he used to play with Joe Venuti.
But as far as modern amplified guitar is concerned… Well, you know—his was only amplified a little bit. Charlie played the actual gut string guitar. Sure he did. I mean, you could throw away the amplification, you'd still hear him. Just put it in front of a microphone and he'd play. It wasn't that he was a powerful player—he was a good musician. He played the guitar. As compared to some of the guitarists now—they don't work without electricity, do they? With some of 'em, it's more amplification than anything else.
Apart from your classical work in latter years, have you had bands in the States?
No, I usually get a small group together and play some concerts. I've kept busy. When I get back, I'm going to play some concerts with the young pianist Peter Serkin—you know, Rudolf Serkin's son. He's quite a player.
I'm always interested in that aspect of it. Because there's an awful lot of great classical players coming up now—really talented youngsters. Especially in America; I don't know about here.
So would you say jazz is a sideline only to you now?
Well, I don't know. No, it's not a sideline once I get into it. I think I'm proficient at it enough to know what I want to do. I'm serious about it when I do it. But it's also interesting to see all these youngsters who are coming up, playing the 'cello, the clarinet, the fiddle—you name it. And they're really working at it.
I suppose this is just as true with jazz. On the other hand I don’t see it as much; maybe I'm not in the picture.
But whenever you do have occasion to look into it, do you find the standard continuing to rise?
What—in jazz? No, I don't think it is—not all over.
Well, is it as easy for you now to get a band together as it was in the old days?
I really don't know. That's a good question. I don't think you can do it any more in New York City, frankly. Maybe if you go to the hinterlands, you might.
I suppose you could do it by using studio men—if they'd come with you.
Well—if you want that. It's not the answer, though.
When you were forming a personnel in the past, how would you set about it?
You'd be floating around, playing all over the place, going from one town to another. You'd hear a little group here, something else there. That's a vast country, America. And I suppose that's true about Britain, too; you don't necessarily have to get everybody from London, do you?
No, they come from all over the country. London is the nucleus, as New York is over there.
But they don't come to New York any more, you see.
It's not the centre today? Where is it—Los Angeles?
No. I think they're both difficult places to live. People aren't anxious to go there now. Economically, for one thing, it isn't easy. My wife really hates New York. But she hates all big cities. I'm from Chicago, but it wasn't as big then as it is now; I rarely go there these days.
We lived in Los Angeles many years ago—only for a few months. I don't know as I prefer the New York environment, although I have to live in it. I also live in Connecticut, though; I have a house there.
We keep hearing how tense it is in the States now. Is this an exaggeration, or does this atmosphere of tension exist?
Well, I think you can learn to live there, but it is a difficult place. Not for terribly young people, maybe, that grew up into it and don't know the difference.
I find this city (London) a much more relaxed place. Yes, I've been over here on visiting trips quite a few times. I've got a lot of friends here, and I like it here. Well, luckily; there's plenty of airplanes; you can get the hell wherever you want, can't you?
Copyright © 1962, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.