Loren Schoenberg knows his Benny Goodman. As a tenor saxophonist, jazz writer and executive director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, Loren, 50, wrote the extensive liner notes that accompany Mosaic's Classic Columbia and Okeh Benny Goodman Orchestra Sessions (1939-1958), a fabulous new seven-CD box set I reviewed yesterday. Loren also is an insider. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when most 20-somethings were in mosh pits or roller discos, Loren was working for Goodman, helping the King of Swing on a number of projects. In the early 1980s, Goodman took over Loren's big band.
So writing the liner notes for this magnificent box set was a perfect fit for Loren. The notes are a splendid blend of detached research and qualified perspective and analysis. We learn that between 1939 and 1958 Goodman not only led bands made up of carefully selected musicians but that there also was plenty of drama along the way. What remains today is uncommon power, excellence and a remarkable sound.
I spoke with Loren last week about his relationship with Goodman and what exactly makes Goodman sound so special over this 19-year period of his career:
JazzWax: When did you first meet Goodman?
Loren Schoenberg: In the 1970s, through pianist Teddy Wilson. Teddy used to play near where I grew up in Fair Lawn, N.J. My parents and I used to hear him at different clubs in the area and in New York. We'd always talk to him afterward. One night Teddy played at the Cookery in New York. But instead of wearing his typical brown suit, he had on a tuxedo. When I asked him why, Teddy said he was going to play later that night at an event that the National Urban League was sponsoring at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The League was giving an award to Lionel Hampton and reuniting the original Benny Goodman quartet.
JW: Did you go?
LS: I asked Teddy if I could tag along, which, of course, was dependent on my dad driving back later to pick me up after it was all over. My dad said sure and so did Teddy. That was the first time I had heard the famous Benny Goodman quartet, and I got to shake Benny’s hand afterward. I met Benny again a short time later at an exhibit on him at the old Jazz Museum in New York, where I was a volunteer in my high school days. I had already met him at the Waldorf, so we had a point of reference.
JW: Those brief encounters left a deep impression on you, didn't they?
LS: Yes. I later went to Benny's office to get some autographed pictures from his secretary, Muriel Zuckerman. At the time, I also was studying informally with Hank Jones, who was playing with Benny. So I guess I was around a lot backstage when they played. I also had discovered Russ Conner’s book, BG on the Record, and had corresponded with Russ. So I was a member of the unofficial peripheral world of Benny Goodman.
JW: When did you start working with Goodman?
LS: In my senior year of college at the Manhattan School of Music, in 1980, I got a phone call from Goodman. He was looking to donate his arrangements to Lincoln Center. He had asked Russ Connor to write the accompanying provenance for the charts, but Russ was too busy and recommended me.
JW: Did you get the job?
LS: Yes. I went to work for Goodman asking him about the different chart versions and when they were recorded. That lasted for a while. Then he asked if I wanted to come back to his office and answer the phones because his secretary had retired. So I did. I did such a good job that I became his personal manager in my early 20s. I knew many of the musicians he was playing with at the time, and I had already started my own big band. It was an amazing experience for me. A few years later he hired my band to become the last Benny Goodman Orchestra. After Benny died in 1986, I was engaged by his estate and Yale University to curate his archives, and review and listen to all the recordings he had made for his own company. Out of that project came 10 CDs for the Music Masters label. [Pictured: Benny and Loren in the early 1980s]
JW: On the new Mosaic box, which of the many Benny Goodmans do we have here?
LS: This box is the story of Goodman in 1939 with a band of his peers evolving to Goodman, the great bandleader in the 1950s not with his peers. I’m beginning to think that Goodman really peaked in the 1930s, and his zenith as an improviser was in the late 20s and early 30s. You hear the solos he played in 1930, 1932 and 1935, and he's hearing around corners. He rises with the level of players he's with. You get him with a Coleman Hawkins or Teddy Wilson or Lionel Hampton or Eddie Lang or Bix Beiderbecke, and he rises to that level.
JW: What happened to Goodman along the way?
LS: I think he started to try to figure out what he was doing, and I think that was the downfall, if that word is even appropriate in Benny's case.
JW: So where does this box stand?
LS: It’s a different chapter. The more Goodman tried to figure out what he was doing, the less innovative he became. But let’s remember, as Ruby Braff told me, no matter what period of Benny's life we're talking about, he could make everyone on the bandstand sound like a beginner. That’s the level we’re talking about here.
JW: How heated was the Goodman-Shaw rivalry?
LS: When Artie came to New York in the early 1930s, breaking into the major record and radio studio dates was like parting the Red Sea. Benny had it all tied up. If there was a jazz record to be made, they called Benny. Artie was about a year younger than Benny, he was Jewish like Benny, and he also was trying to assimilate. Once Artie broke in and was in the studios vying for the same gigs with Benny in the early 1930s, Artie turned out to be a better alto saxophone player.
JW: Did the tables turn?
LS: There came a point in 1933 and 1934 where Artie started getting calls instead of Benny, which rankled Benny. When we hear Goodman on record in 1927 or 1928, he’s 17 years old and already formed. He’s there. Artie’s different. In 1934 Artie’s with Red Norvo [pictured] and still evolving. He really doesn’t become the great Artie Shaw until 1938 or 1939.
JW: So Benny is feeling threatened?
LS: Early on, it was easy for Benny to write off Shaw as a rival who couldn’t touch him. Then all of a sudden, in 1938 and 1939, Artie has all those big hits starting with Begin the Beguine. All of a sudden, Shaw was much more at ease in the extreme upper register of the clarinet, and this messed with Benny. For Shaw, the clarinet was a means to an end. For Goodman, the clarinet was the end.
JW: Do we hear Goodman take on Shaw?
LS: Yes, one really has to view the early Columbia years as a response to Artie Shaw. Remember, Artie was on Bluebird, Benny’s label. So Goodman leaves RCA for Columbia, which is when this box begins, and puts together a dynamite reed section. Let’s not forget that the Shaw reed section was more brilliant than his brass section. So the Shaw band that rose to fame in 1938 and 1939 was in some ways the mirror image of the Goodman band, which had a brilliant brass section and a less noticeable reed section.
JW: How does Goodman take on Shaw?
LS: Here’s Goodman in 1939 with a great reed section, like Shaw, and he's going after those high notes on the clarinet that Shaw made famous. You have to look at the early stages of this box partly as a response to Shaw’s band.
JW: Why does Goodman's 1941 band sound so astonishing? What are we hearing?
LS: A few things. Benny had an unparalleled trumpet section then, with Cootie Williams, Billy Butterfield [pictured] and Jimmy Maxwell. Benny was famous for wanting his lead players in the brass sections to be jazz players. Remember, Cootie had come to New York intending to be a lead trumpet player. Billy Butterfield had an immediately identifiable style and was brilliant on first trumpet. And Jimmy Maxwell was one of the great first trumpets. So you had three guys who could each play lead, and two guys—Cootie and Billy—who were extraordinary soloists.
JW: The reed section in the 1941 band was a big surprise for me. What are we hearing?
LS: When the Columbia sessions start, saxophonist Hymie Schertzer had been replaced by Toots Mondello, a sheer terror on lead alto. Toots had been in Goodman's band before, but now he was being well recorded. So you're hearing Toots in there. Also, the reed section has a brilliance and presence it didn’t have before.
JW: Did Benny ask his arrangers to showcase the reeds?
LS: I don’t think Benny specifically asked any arranger to write for one section or another. But if you're Fletcher Henderson [pictured] or Jimmy Mundy and you know you have Toots Mondello or Skip Martin in the reed section, you're going to put them to the test.
JW: Did Goodman do anything specific to ensure a high level of quality in his bands?
LS: Benny was involved with every aspect of his bands. What you hear is the product of whom he hired, the music he chose, the tempos he selected, and how he played. He’d rehearse the entire horn section without the rhythm section for hours until they had perfected their parts without the aid of the rhythm section. I encountered this when he took over my band. We’d rehearse Don't Be That Way. Everyone knows the introduction. But it turns out there’s a little grace note that starts it. We’d rehearse that little grace note for quite a while. With Benny, he knew every nook and cranny of those arrangements and wanted them to be played perfectly.
JW: Did that level of perfection come with a price?
LS: Sure. You take a band like Tommy Dorsey's or Benny Goodman's or Jimmie Lunceford's. Each had a very high level of ensemble perfection that was maintained at all times. Those bandleaders never went below a certain level but they also rarely went above a certain level. Now look at Duke Ellington's band. It was far less disciplined. On rare occasions that band could sound really bad when some of the guys didn't show up, which happened on occasion. But because of the personal and musical freedom Ellington gave the players, the Ellington band also could reach heights only dreamed of by the other bandleaders. By the mid-40s, Benny’s sound had a similarity, and his bands sounded pretty much the same. That’s the price he paid. In Benny’s band you were one of the tenors or one of the trombones, and that’s it. Either he was satisfied with you or he wasn’t.
JW: What was at the heart of this issue?
LS: Part of it was that Benny always wanted to be the best soloist in the band. Basie didn’t do that. Neither did Woody, nor Duke or Tommy Dorsey. But with Benny, there was an extra element of competitiveness that had positive and negative impacts.
JW: How did Count Basie wind up playing piano on I'm Not Complainin' in January 1941?
LS: John Hammond and Goodman were responsible for Basie's career as a bandleader in New York. So there was a close relationship there between the three of them, and Benny was nuts about Basie's tenor saxophone star Lester Young. When Basie’s Decca recordings came out, Benny would listen to One O’clock Jump over and over and ask why his band couldn’t swing like that.
JW: What was the issue?
LS: The answer rested in the rhythm section. When Basie appeared, he didn’t have a conventional big band rhythm section—four musicians playing side by side. With Basie, you get a metaphysical thing going. These guys were working together.
JW: What did Goodman learn from Basie?
LS: Goodman began to revel in the counterpoint created between him and his pianist. This had already begun in the 1930s, of course. One of Benny's favorite recordings when we used to listen together was his solo on One O'clock Jump from the Carnegie Hall concert of 1938. It wasn’t that he played such an amazing solo but the counterpoint or coming together of Goodman and Jess Stacy on piano was intimate. It’s a two way street. It’s leading and following. With Basie, it was only natural that Goodman wanted to record with him. And Basie was doing a lot of these types of recordings at this time, including one in 1940 with Sam Donahue.
JW: Who was Margie Gibson? Her arrangement of Take It in 1941 is amazing.
LS: There’s only two or three contemporary references to her. I think there's an article on her someplace but she's a total cipher. She wrote for Basie and a few other bands during this period and is mentioned in a few oral histories in passing. I couldn’t find much on her. Hopefully someone will turn up and tell us the whole Margie Gibson story. Clearly she was very good among other very good arrangers. It also helps that the drummer on all her tracks was Davey Tough [pictured].
JW: I wasn't even aware Buddy Rich had recorded with Goodman, but there they are together in 1945. Did they get along?
LS: Their relationship goes back to when Buddy was first coming on the scene in 1938 with Bunny Berigan's band, and then Artie Shaw's band. I believe Buddy either sat in or made his presence known to Goodman. But Benny didn't want a showy drummer after Gene Krupa left in 1938. Benny and Buddy also played together on the 1941 Metronome All Stars session in February with Count Basie, Charlie Christian and others. Buddy plays there in a clipped, dry style. They also played together on the Merv Griffin show in 1979. There was no love lost between them because Benny was tough on drummers. [Pictured: Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa]
JW: For example?
LS: Mel Lewis had been part of the Goodman band in 1962 that went to Moscow and had rebelled against him. Benny and Mel weren’t friends, but through me, they got back together. In the 1980s, Benny and Mel went on a tour, and their clashes got to the point where Benny put Mel on the other side of the stage. Benny just liked to mess with people. Mel told me Benny took it so far that he wanted to play Sing, Sing, Sing with no drum solo [laughs].
JW: How did their relationship play out?
LS: By the time we did a PBS-TV show in 1985 with my band, Benny at first wanted Mel [pictured]. Then he told me to call Louie Bellson. As soon as he heard Louie could do it, he had me call Mel. Mel had been through this enough times with Benny in the past that he could see what was going on.
JW: What did Mel say?
LS: Mel told me when I called him a second time, “Look, I’ll do it but I want double scale and I want to be paid whether I play or not.” I told him OK. By the time the TV show happened, Louie Bellson was on drums, and Mel was paid triple scale [laughs]. Mel made more than anybody who did the show. For not playing.
JW: What was Benny's beef with Mel?
LS: Like his beef with any of these players. It was purely interpersonal relationships. When Benny started that funny stuff, there was only three ways to deal with him. There was the Mel Lewis way, the Hank Jones way and the other way.
JW: Tell me about each.
LS: The "other way" was what most of us did. When Benny got odd or bossy or strange, you just kind of cowered. The Hank Jones way involved a hat. When Benny would make a face or start some of his shenanigans, Hank would reach for a hat that he kept on the piano. Benny would see it and cool down. Mel’s way was to tell Benny to go to hell.
JW: And the result was triple scale.
LS: [Laughs] Yes, in that one particular case.
JW: If you were to single out specific instrumentalists on the Columbia box who gave Goodman's bands that sound of excellence, who would they be?
LS: Toots Mondello, Davey Tough and Big Sid Catlett [pictured], Mel Powell, Billy Butterfield and Eddie Sauter. They’re probably the ones who stand out to me on the highest level of what makes this set unique.
LS: The sheer brilliance of the reed section with Toots in 1939 and 1940. The excellence that emerges when you have an artist of the caliber of a Sid Catlett or Dave Tough in any band and how every arrangement is exponentially improved by their presence. Billy Butterfield because of his lead trumpet and solo work on the 1951-1953 big band recordings. Mel Powell [pictured] because he was at the peak of his powers there with Benny in the prewar band. And Eddie Sauter because I don’t think any of the arrangers in the period could touch him.