Thursday, April 2, 2015

#A-TO-Z CHALLENGE 2015 – LETTER “B” - BENNY GOODMAN – THE “KING OF SWING”


It was 1944, and swing music was making huge inroads in places in America and overseas, following American troops as they made their way into the various theaters of war. The U. S. O. was putting on shows for the boys in the various branches of the Military, and one of these boys, was serving on Okinawa, at the young age of seventeen, having been given permission by his mother (his only living parent) to join the Army, after having dropped out of high school the year before, bored with the whole thing. He mustered out of San Francisco and joined up with the forces on Okinawa, partially as occupation forces and partly as escorts to the U. S. O. girls. Talk about letting the fox into the hen house! The young man's name? Glenn Alton Wallace, Junior. He would not only go on to not distinguish himself in the Army, but he would later go on to join the Air Force and become a pilot of B-29s in the Korean Action. The man loved to take risks.


Lieutenant Glenn A. Wallace, Jr., Korea, 1952

He also loved music and he loved Swing. In 1955, when he somehow became ensnared by my mother's wiles and they married after his Air Force stint, I came along – funny how that happens. My mother had decided early on that she was NOT going to be married to a man of leisure, nor one that had no education, although my father, for a high-school drop out, was a smart man. He aced the college entrance exams and went back to college on the GI bill and graduated from college within three years; third in his class. I came along during his second year of school. He brought me home from the hospital and was my primary care-giver. He took me to class with him, took me to the bar – I learned to walk in that bar at 9 months of age; the Wallaces being precocious drunks – after class and I “did” homework with him. Doing homework with him meant me shutting my trap for a few hours, and the way to do this was to put SOMETHING on the 33 1/3 record-player.


Sheila Wallace, circa 1980. Yeah, my mom was a pilot, too. Me? I hate hate hate hate hate hate hate loathe flying. I'm not keen on balloons, either

In all probability, and in hindsight, he most likely could have played anything and I would have been happy. But, he played music he liked and in turn, growing up with that kind of music, I learned to love it. Thank God he and my mother were eclectic.


My 2nd Christmas, 1956. My first one was spent in an incubator. Note the festive bottle of talcum powder by the Christmas tree; a must-have for Festive Christmas-type decorations. My dad just looks relieved because he's on winter break from school. Unfortunately, there was no winter break from me.

He played everything from Debussy to Rachmaninoff, from Artie Shaw to Margaret Whiting, from Beethoven to Schumann. But his absolute favorite era was the Swing era, typically from the mid-30s to just after World War II. His absolute favorite group was the Glenn Miller (more about him later) Orchestra, with songs like “In the Mood” and “String of Pearls”, but for my money, the one song that is just so much fun and exemplifies so much excellent musicianship (for reasons I'll explain) is Benny Goodman's “Sing Sing Sing”.

courtesy:youtube.com

My folks used to jitterbug and I learned how to do it at an early age. It's rather improvisational, once you get the basic steps down, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. Think break-dancing while being vertical. Anyway, my dad and I would jitterbug to “Sing Sing Sing” and my mother would holler from the kitchen, “Don't break the furniture!” I'm pretty sure she thought we were rough-housing, but we were dancing.


There are several versions of this, but this is my favorite. 

The song was originally written by Louis Prima and has lyrics, but is most strongly identified with Benny Goodman, when he played it at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1936, during his second tour there. For the next several years, Goodman said, they were never able to play one-nighters without including this favorite.


Me, now, unscathed by any airplane encounters.

In analyzing the song itself, I note that the sudden crescendos and decrescendos in the horns and trombones are completely tight. The “bent” notes, so very typical in jazz and blues, are also precise, without seeming so. Goodman's playing is also remarkable because he, unlike many of the “Big Band” players had some classical training and later went on to commission pieces from Bartok, collaborate with Ingolf Dahl, an emigre composer at USC and director of the Victor Borge show and Goodman also recorded versions of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. Clarinetists of the modern era will be forever grateful to Goodman for his work with composers Aaron Copland, Morton Gould and Malcolm Arnold, as well.


There's only one composer that I dislike intensely and have throughout my life; Mozart. With the exception of his "Mass in C minor" and "Don Giovanni" his music is like the same thing written 600 times over and it's a pain in the ass to play. Since I'm going to be 60 years old this year and have played violin and/or viola since age 11, I'm not going to be changing my mind about him anytime soon. Deal with it, Mozart lovers.


I know that in my musical life, when I first started out playing and listening, I fully expected to play predominantly classical music, but that's not the way it turned out. Although it is my first love, I did learn to play other styles; blues, jazz, hip-hop and even rock and roll. I've even play “Sing Sing Sing” with Bobby Vinton of all people. The great and wonderful thing about music is that you're not restricted to one genre, nor should you have to be. The only requirements needed are a willingness to learn and an open mind. Without those, we would not have the inventiveness and the brilliance that we should expect in all musicians; something I try to aspire to, but not always successfully. 
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