“The Benny Goodman Orchestra’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert” (Cadogan Hall, 26 January)

“The Benny Goodman Orchestra’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert”, presented by Richard Pite’s Jazz Repertory Company, is a successful show: the booking link below at the time of writing already says “Limited Availability”. The show returns to Cadogan Hall on Sunday 26 January 2020. Peter Vacher delves into the history: 

Richard Pite’s Jazz Repertory Company returns to London’s Cadogan Hall on 26 January to once again recreate the timeless wonders of Benny Goodman’s famous concert of January 16th 1938 and performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Master-clarinetist and band leader Pete Long appears as Goodman with vocalist Louise Cookman and vibes star Anthony Kerr as his special guests alongside his 13-piece Goodmen orchestra evoking the majesty of the Goodman band on that far-off day. All the famous charts and featured numbers, yes, including the immortal ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, will be heard.

Pete Long at Cadogan Hall. Photo credit: Ravi Chandarana

Rest assured, too, that Long’s soloists will be a match for their predecessors and that the majestic Cadogan Hall’s fine acoustic will enable them to play without amplification, as happened in Carnegie Hall on that historic night. Even the stage seating plan will be authentic. Unsurprisingly, the JRC’s fabulous Carnegie Hall show has sold out Cadogan Hall on no less than four occasions already. Prepare to be astounded.

So why all the fuss over a single jazz concert from so long ago? Well, the history of jazz has its own unique timeline, one that often defies analysis or prediction. Random movements from one major US city to another often set the music off in entirely new directions – think Louis Armstrong’s arrival in Chicago to join King Oliver’s band in 1922 or Count Basie’s enforced 1930s stay-over in Kansas City and so on. It’s also fair to say that certain public events have left their mark on the music’s shape and destination. John Hammond’s Spirituals to Swing concerts in 1938 and 1939 exposed New York audiences to the wider reaches of black American music and set the boogie-woogie craze in motion while Norman Granz’s first-ever Jazz At The Philharmonic concert in Los Angeles in 1944 created a template for international concert presentations by the era’s great jazz stars. Recordings helped of course.

It was Goodman’s publicity agent who dreamed up the idea of a first-ever Carnegie Hall appearance for a swing band and top impresario Sol Hurok who was keen to stage it but Goodman turned the idea down at first. Then at the height of his powers and at the peak of his popularity, he had doubts: would the elite of New York consider supporting big band swing in the hallowed confines of Carnegie Hall? After all, the band was used to a dancing audience – this could be an alien if not a downright hostile environment! As Down Beat magazine’s hipster-style headline put it: ‘B.G. INVADES SANCTUM OF LONG HAIRS’.

Nervous to the end, Goodman allowed himself to be persuaded and prepared carefully, augmenting his orchestra’s efforts with appearances by a number of significant African-American stylists and set the ball in motion. When ace Goodman trumpeter Harry James looked out on the packed audience, all dressed up to the nines, he said, “I feel like a whore in church.”

Structured in part as a simplified history of the music under the heading ‘Twenty Years of Jazz’, the concert included allusions to such earlier pioneers as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and Bix Beiderbecke, plus a jam session suffused with star soloists from the Basie and Ellington bands and of course, the Goodman orchestra in its pomp. If there were great moments from Goodman himself, as well as James, and drummer Gene Krupa, it was the extraordinary piano solo by Jess Stacy on an extended version of Louis Prima’s ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ that seemed to have captured the public imagination then as it still does now. As Goodman said, “Jess Stacy stole the complete show with his solo.” And don’t let’s overlook the glories of the Goodman small groups with black musicians being seen alongside their white peers for the first time on that sumptuous stage.

Far from raised eyebrows and negative reactions, the applause was tumultuous and the outcome a matter for back-slapping jubilation. Goodman’s earlier nervousness rapidly dissolved and was instead transmuted into his own kind of calm joy. The Benny Goodman Swing Orchestra concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall on that freezing January night had achieved a new level of recognition for jazz.

Truth to tell, all this inspirational music and promotional folderol might well have become a distant memory or merely the subject of yellowing press cuttings save for one significant fact. Goodman had had the good sense to have acetate recordings made of the whole show but as ever distracted and absent-minded, he then promptly forgot all about them. It’s his daughter Rachel we should thank for their re-discovery in 1950 – they were hidden in a cupboard well out of view.

Once cleaned and restored and available on record, the full glory of the occasion became known, its every musical bar and moment scrutinized, transcribed and celebrated. Thus The Famous Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert as it is forever known entered the folklore of jazz and has gone on to sell millions of copies. And thus the inspiration for Long’s extraordinary musical recreation as it will be heard at Cadogan Hall yet again. (pp)

LINK: Cadogan Hall Bookings

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