"Anybody that plays the clarinet owes a great debt to Benny Goodman, whether they admit it or not," says clarinetist Ken Peplowski. "He had such an influence on every jazz clarinetist: his sense of time, his melodic sense, his way with harmony, his conception as a bandleader, his sound technique, the way he shaped big-band arrangements around his instruments...other than that he was nothing," Peplowski laughs.
Joined by fellow clarinetist Music Director Bob Wilber, Buddy DeFranco, Ken Peplowski and Victor Goines - along with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra - will present a living history of the instrument on May 28 _30 at 8 p.m. in Rose Theater for the Benny Goodman Centennial. The 100th anniversary celebrating Goodman's birth will include a revisit to his historic 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, which forever changed the perception of Goodman's music. "He started out with a dance band," Peplowski explains, "but after that Carnegie Hall concert, people started thinking that this music is more than just dance music, it's an art form."
As a young man Peplowski had the opportunity to play with Goodman and labels him a "benevolent dictator," saying he was a tough bandleader but one who would give you respect if you were there for him. "When we played concerts," says Peplowski, "people would cry when he came out on stage. I think he did [ultimately] know the great impact he had.
"He was the Beatles of his day. You listen to broadcasts of that band in the late '30s and early '40s, people are yelling and screaming. There has been nothing like it since. He really put jazz on the map as being treated as serious and popular music at the same time," says Peplowski.
Born in Chicago in 1909, Goodman took up the clarinet at the age of eleven and was working professionally by thirteen. He would eventually form a band that would literally incite riots by enthusiastic audiences, a band that included influential drummer Gene Krupa and one that publicly shattered racial barriers through the addition of African American musicians including Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. "He didn't even think in terms of 'Oh, I'm going to integrate my band,'" Peplowski says, "He just hired the best people to play with for him: a true groundbreaker."
Decades of successful international touring followed, as Goodman took the world by storm. While the bandleading took up much of his time and energy, he did return to clarinet and remained a virtuoso of the instrument right up to his death in 1986. His influence was not lost on subsequent generations of clarinetists, including those playing in the Rose Theater Benny Goodman Centennial. "We clarinetists are like a family in a way because there's not a lot of us out there," confides Peplowski. "The clarinet has always been kind of an endangered instrument. We all come from slightly different places, but we all play this ridiculous instrument, so we have a love for the clarinet and a love for each other." The clarinet can be an unforgiving instrument. If you put it down for a few days, says Peplowski, you notice it.
In his day, Goodman effectively incorporated bebop into his music, he was also simultaneously moving into the world of classical music. His influence is felt today. "Jazz now is starting to be looked at again as almost a counterpart to classical music," concurs Peplowski. "It's not the popular music of its day anymore and it may never be, and it's not the dance music of its day anymore. But people will go to Jazz at Lincoln Center and choose a jazz concert over a classical concert, which is not such a bad thing. If somebody who's not educated about jazz music wants to come to a concert just because they think it's an important thing to do, Jazz at Lincoln Center will get a few converts along the way. In a way Benny realized a dream of jazz being taken seriously as this great American art form instead of just a functional music to dance to or use as background music. Now it's becoming more and more of a concert music."
For tickets and information on The Benny Goodman Centennial, visit Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director of Public Relations for Jazz at Lincoln Center.