My ABSOLUTELY Last Words on Benny Goodman!
So, here's an interview that reedman Jesse Cloninger did with me in 2013. He asked really pertinent and interesting questions about Benny Goodman and my experiences and observations about him. It's increasingly more difficult to come up with variations on my answers to interviewers' questions like "What was Benny Goodman like"; the more indolent journalists just give me a "So, tell me about Benny Goodman" and want me to write the story for them....This article really answers pretty much everything that I feel is important about Benny!
Jesse Cloninger: The first question I have is, I know from reading other interviews that you were asked to audition for Benny Goodman’s band, in 1984, when he came out or retirement. What were the circumstances that led up to your audition?
Ken Peplowski: Ok, when I moved to New York, I’m bad on dates, was either ‘81 or ‘82. At that time there were a lot or rehearsal big bands around New York. [These groups had] really incredible musicians, a lot of the ex studio guys, and really good jazz players; just wanting to play really good arrangements. One of these rehearsal band was led by a guy by the name of Loren Schoenberg.
KP: Coincidently enough, he was working as Benny Goodman’s secretary because his old secretary retired. Somehow he had copies of all of Benny Goodman’s original charts. In addition to which he had an incredibly library of big band music that actually I have not seen before or since; really strange things, Boyd Rayburn charts. Things that across the board are rare arrangements, some Duke Ellington things. So, it was really a fun band to play in ,and we worked a little bit around town. I was kind of a regular member of that band. Also, in the early ‘80s, there was a wave of players in New York that were very interested in playing more mainstream, or standards-oriented jazz. There was Me, and slightly older than Me there was Scott Hamilton and Warren Bechet, there was a guy named Dan Barrett, and Howard Alden. So, there was a circle of younger guys that were into that kind of music as there is , actually, again now. All of this is coming to a point, being that, Benny Goodman wanted to come out of retirement and start working again with a regular big band, not just a one-off thing with a band put together for one concert.
KP: He was very serious about it. So, Loren said, “Why don’t you audition my band?”, and that is exactly what happened. We showed up at a rehearsal studio, I tell a story, I exaggerate it, where I say that, and this is true, Benny was late for the rehearsal. [You see,] we were scared to death because he had a reputation of being a really tough band leader in terms of being very demanding of what he wanted...
KP: We were also in awe of him! So, he hadn’t shown up for quite a while, he was very late. We figured the he had either forgot about the rehearsal or had changed his mind, and as he could do, he was quite the absent minded professor, he could have just not told anybody. So, Loren said to Me, “Can you play Benny’s part?”, instead of just going home let’s use the time at the rehearsal studio and play for four hours. So I was playing Benny’s part, playing in front of the band...
KP: I tell this story of stage where I say that I knew that Benny had entered the room because I heard the sound of thirteen pairs of buttcheeks clenching! But this is actually a mild exaggeration, I mean, that exactly happened, he entered the room and I knew he was in the room because I could feel the whole band tense up.
KP: Just the electricity, he had that. He had a real presence to him. Even though he didn’t seem that way, as I said, he could be an absent minded professor, man, [when] he walked into a room... We would play concerts and people would start crying just to see him, let alone hear him play. I’ve met very few people that have had that kind of magnetism: [Frank] Sinatra had it, maybe Ella Fitzgerald, but very few. So, he rehearsed the band, and he really liked it. I think he liked the fact that we were younger guys that were into his music and it wasn't just a job. We really respected him, we really loved that kind of music, we took him seriously, we treated him with respect, and I think he liked that. He did wind up firing the band leader from his own band, effectively (laughs), after a few rehearsals, and, fired most of the band. Actually, Me and Jack Stuckey, who started out on third alto [second alto saxophonist] and later played lead were the only two who survived the run of the band. [Sometimes] people were fired then rehired again. To witness him rehearsing a band was a real lesson for me. We could go through a four hour rehearsal and not even get through one chart. [He was] so demanding, and he developed a technique, as far as I know he was the first guy to do this, he would have the wind instruments play, not only passages but sometimes the entire chart, without the aid of the rhythm section.
JC: Oh, wow.
KP: And I mean nothing, not a high hat, nothing. So, if you didn’t have a strong sense of time you either developed one very quickly, or, you were out of the band. All of those Fletcher Henderson and those Jimmy Mundy charts, and all of the stuff that he loved; they are all about that, about having a really strong internal sense of time. Your own sense of time. So then when the whole band comes together there is this lift. Those charts are all about these call and response [elements] and [often] times the way the figures are written it is almost like parts of the arrangements are making certain sections perform the functions of a rhythm section. [In these charts] there are rhythmic hits that you would normally hear in the piano or drums [written for the saxophones or brass.] He really sharpened us up, he turned us into a Benny Goodman band. It was phenomenal to be a part of it, and to witness him doing this. There are certain musicians that talk about him as an evil guy who would have seemingly random acts of cruel behavior, but, I think that there has a method to much of his madness. All he cared about was the music, and unfortunately he did suffer in the personality department a little bit. He wouldn’t think, “Am I going to hurt the lead trumpet player’s feelings if I switch parts with him and the third trumpet because I want to hear the third trumpet play lead?”, he would just do that.
KP: Things like that.
JC: It really seems that the anecdotes about him, like the Benny Goodman “Ray”, the minor incidents of social awkwardness, or seeming like the absent minded professor, w ere all due to the fact that his focus was entirely on the music, all of the time. And he was thinking about the best interest of the music all of the time.
KP: Yeah, and I think the guys that loved him and respected him knew that he was as tough on himself as he was on the band members.
JC: Of course.
KP: Always! He practiced all of the time. You know, he never stopped thinking about those arrangements, arrangements that he played for almost fifty years and he was still trying to find the right tempo, and making edits to the charts. Very interesting little changes to the arrangements, still tinkering with them. It was really fascinating. I learned a lot from that, if I can tout my own abilities, I think I am a really good editor on the fly. I got this from thinking about him, looking at a chart and thinking about what is going to work and what isn’t going to work, hearing it and then deciding to cut a section or leave out some backgrounds. Depending on who you are playing with you might decide to change things from the last performance.
KP: Also, there is one more thing I would like to say. He was a mercurial guy, there was a part of him that you couldn’t figure out, and you wondered why he did certain things. But, on the other hand, he tried to get me a record deal before I had signed with anybody [to a label], he offered to produce a record of mine which I did not find out until after he had died. The head of the record company that he was with showed up at a club [where I was playing], he told me “I just want you to know that Benny wanted us to sign you.” When I heard this I almost started crying on the spot.
KP: He had become a much mellower guy, he would send us “thank you” notes, and bonuses. Which, if you talk to older musicians, was unheard of.
JC: I imagine.
KP: Although, in the old days he did help Harry James bankroll his own band when he left [Goodman’s band]. There was another whole side to him, he was a very complex guy and I don’t think anybody will ever completely figure him out, nor is there any reason why they should. He was a great artist, and that is what counts.
JC: In reading about Goodman I came across a couple of stories a lot like that. In one he helped one of his player’s children go to college all expenses paid. After the fact he would never talk about it. He admitted that he didn’t want people to come to him with their hands out.
KP: In fact, I heard a story that there is a drummer named [Elmer] “Mousey” Alexander who worked with him in later years, the ‘70s maybe. Alexander was very sick and living in Florida and Benny was down there [most likely] working, he went to Mousey’s home and at the end of the visit on his way out the door left a check on the table in the hallway.
JC: Wow, that is a great story. When you were in the band, what was it like to play in the band, what sort of engagements did you play, were they mostly concerts, and where did you play.
KP: They were all concerts [sit down events, not dances], it wasn’t like we were on the road again. We played maybe once a month at various venues, but we rehearsed every week at the Wellington Hotel in New York. I remember the first gig we played was at the festival in Waterloo, New Jersey, outdoors, somewhere I have a video tape of it, too. That was kind of a warm up gig. The second gig we did was the opening of this giant Marriott Hotel in Times Square, in this huge ballroom, they taped it for a PBS special. You can find a lot of that on YouTube. You can see me sitting and looking scared to death which I was...
KP: ...I had a beard at that time. That was our first official gig in a way, and there were some ringers [alternate people, usually more skilled, hired to guarantee that the band sound at it’s peak] in the band for the TV special. Bob Haggart was playing bass and Dick Hyman was on piano, they were never regular members of the band.
JC: Yeah, I saw those.
KP: Now Louis Bellson was playing drums, and an interesting thing, Louis Bellson played most of the gigs with us because Benny was so hard on drummers. Every rehearsal we would go through a different drummer then he would bring Louis Bellson out to do the gigs. Although, now I wonder if all along he didn’t just want Louis Bellson to do the gigs but needed drummers to do the New York rehearsals. I don’t know.
JC: Right, right. That could be likely. Why would Louis Bellson want to play a weekly rehearsal?
KP: Also, Louis Bellson was living in California at that point.
JC: Ah, that is also true! Going back to those videos, I have seen the YouTube clips from the PBS special you mentioned. There are a lot of familiar faces there: Bucky Pizzarelli playing guitar, Dick Hyman is playing piano, Randy Sandke is playing trumpet.
JC: Is that just because this is that collection of people in this circle in New York at the time, because there are a lot of familiar faces?
KP: Exactly, that is the circle that I am talking about. The younger guys found the older guys and vice versa. It was a real family feeling, we all knew each other and played together quite often. It was a natural occurrence to show up to all of these different gigs and see each other. New York big band are like Los Angeles big bands, you could see ten different bands and at least half of the personnel is the same.
JC: Right, that is still often the case.
KP: When it comes down to it, even in cities like New York or Los Angeles there are not as many people as you would think that can play well in certain styles, and play certain styles of music.
JC: Yeah. I have heard several great players talk about how small the music business really is, and how there is always room for players who can do this sort of playing.
KP: I think that is still true, although it is harder to break in because there are less of those bands [rehearsal bands]. Because I played clarinet and was known as a clarinetist, I found myself subbing in the traditional jazz rooms like Eddie Condon’s and Jimmy Ryan’s which were still there in New York. There were more opportunities, and I have to say, a friendlier feeling in the clubs. They were very musician-friendly, you could come in for either nothing or half price because they liked it when musicians hung out. There would be the inevitable jam sessions and people sitting in on sets. Sadly, that is kind of gone. Clubs [now] are so greedy they charge everyone pretty much, except you get your little Comp. list of a certain number of people. It’s not like it was, it really isn’t. But, saying that, it still is a place where if you can get yourself established for what it is you do, then you are well on your way. You just need to find your own voice, and in the right circle, people will hire you for your voice.
JC: Right, that is great. Okay, let’s move on. I would like to talk about Goodman as a clarinet entity, and what his effect is on jazz clarinet as an idiom. I would relate this question to how as an alto saxophonist [to a certain degree] you can’t escape the magnitude of Charlie Parker’s legacy, technically or musically. Even though you want to be your own player, you can’t really help but draw from his style and music influence somehow. This is a huge question: How as a clarinetist has Goodman influence factored into what you do?
KP: Well, it is kind of a simple answer. To this day, his shadow is, for better or for worse, over all of us. Every clarinet player, almost everybody, I have talked to guys like Paquito D’Riviera and Eddie Daniels, we joke about this. We get reviews of things we have done [played] that have nothing at all to do with Benny’s music or his style of playing, and they still reference Benny. But, that is a testament to how strong and influential he was as a player and bandleader. In a way, his band was as popular as the Beatles. When you listen to broadcasts of those late 1930s bands that he had and people are going absolutely crazy, yelling and screaming. When someone in the band stands up to take a solo you can hear cheering. They [Fans] would follow the band members like people baseball teams. If somebody left the band, everybody would know where they went. It was a phenomenal thing and being such a big star in the late 30s he was at the forefront of that.
JC: This is around the time of his big westward tour that ended with the Palomar [Ballroom] engagement?
KP: Yeah, and around the time of the Carnegie Hall.
KP: Although, that concert became even more famous after it was released on LP which wasn’t until the 1950s. He was not just one of the greatest clarinet players in jazz, but he was one of the greatest band leaders in jazz, and had one of the greatest bands. It all ties together. It’s funny, he was such a giant figure that he is almost unparalleled. You mentioned Charlie Parker, but after him there was Cannonball Adderley, and after him a much smaller circle of players could say they were influenced by Ornette Coleman.
KP: Then another huge wave of alto players were influenced by David Sanborn. But with Benny, it is almost like if Louis Armstrong was the only trumpet player that anyone talked about, if there would have been no Dizzy Gillespie, no Roy Eldridge, no Clifford Brown, no Miles Davis. Benny was such a giant figure that he is still the one that comes to mind.
JC: Very true, those are great comparisons. Going back to his style, I don’t want to put you on the spot too much about your own playing. The famed jazz educator David Baker has said the students of improvisation should “steal from the best”, and this is what we all do. There is a common vocabulary that we all learn at some point.
JC: Were there certain elements [of Goodman’s style], if any, that you borrowed from or that you found particularly interesting?
KP: Yeah! First of all, I will fully admit that when I started playing I had a phase where I copied him. I played all of his tunes.
JC: Did you transcribe his solos?
KP: Actually, the funny thing is, I never was into specifically transcribing solos. I would buy transcription books, but I preferred to listen to the records pick out things that I like and play them. But I would never do [learn] the whole solo.
KP: Then I went through a phase later on where I just didn’t want to be associated with him at all. I think that this is a phase that every clarinet player goes through. I wouldn’t take any gigs associated with the Benny thing, I didn’t play any of those songs. Now I feel like I’ve got my own identity, and people know what I do. [Now] When people ask me to play a Benny Goodman style job it is clear that I am not doing a recreation. I am playing the charts that he used, and the songs, but I am doing it my way with love and respect for him. Now it is fun for me to play these sorts of gigs. The funny thing is, the first guy that drew me to the clarinet was not Benny, it was Jimmy Hamilton...
KP: ...who I loved because he had this beautiful classical sound on the clarinet, and played these impossible things that Duke [Ellington] wrote for him, all of those exotic things.
JC: Right, I know what you mean.
KP: It really struck me that you could play jazz on the clarinet and not sacrifice that beautiful round classical sound. So, he was a big influence. When I heard Benny, you asked what in particular I may have drawn from him. Well, I guess [I was drawn to] his unbelievable rhythmic drive, his great sense of melody, and his warmth as a player. The fact that the guy played Poor Butterfly for forty years.
KP: But every time he layed it is sounded like he was presenting it for the first time, still with all of the sense of love for the song. He had that way of playing a melody with a sense of forward motion. Again, the great artists all have that. Sinatra had that too, he could sing the same songs for years and still make them sound fresh. Benny did this. He would actually say to the audience, “This is not nostalgia for me.”, “I choose to play the Fletcher Henderson charts because he is my Mozart, I think he is a genius, and, why not continue to present his music.”.
JC: Absolutely. Going back to the group itself, what was it like to perform with Benny Goodman. Do you have any stories or anecdotes from this time?
KP: I do actually, I may have told you this, or may have told the [OFAM] audience this one. We did a benefit concert at Radio City Music Hall that Sinatra did every year with different guests. This was the bill, it was: Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny, Placido Domingo, and strangely enough the comedian Red Buttons.
JC: Oh my gosh!
KP: I know! Everybody at this time, I think this was 1984, was still at the top of their game, they all sounded great. Whoever was on stage, the others were on stage watching. When we came on we rose up onto the stage, there is a platform at Radio City below the stage that rises up, so we came up playing. Benny was so on fire that night, we were just stunned, we were in awe of him. He was there, and he was playing for his peers. I remember specifically we played Stealin’ Apples, and there is the part where the clarinet solo comes in. We used to open that part up and repeat the saxophone riff behind him, but we were so stunned with his playing that without even looking at each other we all just stopped playing...
KP: ...with our jaws hitting the floor, saying, “Holy s*** listen to this guy play!”. Just goosebumps, you know! He played so great, so on fire. Afterwards, even Louis Bellson said, “I haven’t heard the old man play like that since the ‘40s.”. It was amazing, it was really amazing. He had that ability, when he turned the heat on, he could lift the whole band. Phenomenal, he is lifting thirteen guys. It was like all of a sudden going into the next gear on a car, because of his playing.
JC: That is a lot of musical force, especially from a non rhythm section player. That is a huge magnetism.
JC: That is a huge magnetism! Let’s talk a little bit about Fletcher Henderson. I have played lots of these charts and can attest to the fact that they are unquestionably fantastic works. In their original form [before Goodman played them] they were just a couple of musical steps from having the quintessential swing era sound. It is also a fact that when Henderson’s band folded, Goodman bought most of his library and employed Henderson as an arranger. What is it about these charts that that we can relate to an average listener...why are these charts so successful [enjoyable], or, why was Fletcher Henderson Benny Goodman’s Mozart?
KP: Ok, let me step back a bit. As a testament to Benny’s abilities as an editor and a bandleader, if you perform an A/B listening test of the same chart being played by Fletcher’s band and Benny’s band, you will hear a vast changes in the arrangements, and big differences in the way that the bands play the rhythmic figures, and differences in the phrasing. That is all Benny. But, he kept hiring Fletcher to write charts for him into the ‘40s, even for the larger band that he had after he added the extra instruments. [Extra tenor and baritone saxophone, five saxophones total] Fletcher’s charts still hold up, and what I have found is that, for instance, you don’t need to have the drummer play like Gene Krupa. We had Mel Lewis at a couple of the rehearsals, and he played like Mel lewis. Those charts swing, and if a chart swings you can play it in any era. As long as you are not making a mockery of it, it is actually worse [doesn’t work] if you are trying to play in an “old” style and you don’t quite get that style.
KP: That sounds horrible, you know. As I keep saying, if you respect the music and play it with your own little subtle differences, you are showing that it is still valid. These Fletcher charts are deceptively simple, as you know.
JC: Very true.
KP: There are a lot of call and response sections, but everything in his charts fits together like the perfect jigsaw puzzle. Take Down South Camp Meeting, it is like a great story from beginning to end. It goes on and on, it progresses, there is a development to it like a great song would have. That chart is unique in that it is an original song and an arrangement. All of his charts were kind of like that. One thing that carries through his arrangements is this really strong rhythmic pulse, even the ballads, as we would say, have a “walking” feel. This is how he wrote. Inherent in the writing is this strong rhythmic feel and if you can latch onto that, it swings like any of the great writers works.
JC: It sure does.
KP: One other thing, when you play the original arrangements, the inner voices are not just fleshed out parts, he was never just filling in the chords. They all [the individual parts] have a beauty to them. The fourth tenor [saxophone] parts always have a nice line, they are fun to play. That is kind of different from a lot of peoples’ writing, a lot of times people get lazy and just...
JC: Write everything in block voicings?
KP: Exactly! Yeah!
JC: I think that most great writers, even as we get into more modern charts like Thad Jones’ works with much more harmonically dense writing, great writers really have a way to give their inner voice melodies a melodically interesting contour.
KP: That’s right, and even though the average listener isn’t consciously paying attention to that I think that the cumulative effect is somehow perceivable. There is an overall completeness to the arrangement that other peoples’ work might not have had.
JC: I know that as a musician, this sort of writing lends itself to easy reading. It is almost like to can’t make a mistake because it lays so well on your horn.
KP: Yeah, that is true.
JC: This must be perceived by the audience on some level.
KP: I think it is, I really do. If I go out and do a Benny Goodman concert, the audience really goes crazy. There is a much stronger reaction to that than anything else I could play with a big band, they still love those charts. That includes playing for younger audiences that would not know that music, let alone, might not even know who Benny Goodman was. They still react to the sound of those arrangements.
JC: Very interesting. That is a great segue to my next question. As the primary audience for swing era jazz has aged significantly, what do you feel is happening with this body of work, how do we maintain its relevance, and how do we recruit and educate new audiences?
KP: One thing that is encouraging to all of us is the fact that they [critics/industry people] have been bemoaning the death of Jazz probably since the 1960s.
KP: If you go back and read old Downbeat magazines and things like that... But, it’s still here. I think a lot of the hand wringing is due to the fact, let me put it this way, it is never going to be the popular music of its day again. That is probably a given.
JC: Of course.
KP: But neither is classical music and it is about the same share of the market. An interesting thing is that the audiences are getting to be a similar kind of audience. We are getting a slightly older audience, and, if they want to go and hear some “culture” for a night now they might choose a jazz concert instead of a classical concert or the theater. Even though they may not know anything about jazz, and, this is fine with me.
JC: Yeah, that is a great starting point.
KP: Yeah, you can make some converts. If you play at Dizzy’s club [Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in New York, associated with Lincoln Center], that is what you get there. It is encouraging because you get that audience, they are not very old, usually in their 40s, plus you get the tourists and there are a lot of young people that come in because the want to go to a “Jazz Club” for the night. But when they hear the music, they love it. I think that now the best way to keep the music alive, to keep reaching out to young people, is literally to do that; to hit the road. It is back to that, just like it is with independent, smaller pop groups, Americana groups, and the all-country bands. They are doing it the old fashioned way, hitting the small towns, word of mouth, trying to network in whatever ways they can, doing a lot of things themselves even if they have agents and managers. There is so much competition now, you are vying for people's attention when they can easily just sit at home and pick and choose whatever they want. This is very distracting, you have to grab their attention. Maybe if you play a small town somewhere people will come out because it might be the only thing to do that evening, but at the end of the night at least a handful of people will say, “Hey, I like this music, I am going to check out some more of it!”. Oh, and one more thing, you have to keep going to the schools as much as possible.
JC: That is true.
KP: It has always been an important thing, and it will continue to be so.
JC: Ok, last question. Is there something that you would like to say about Benny Goodman, or his body of music, that you are usually never asked about? What is the question that never gets asked?
KP: That is a hard question. The only thing I would say, which reinforces something I said earlier, is that Benny was a complex guy. There was maybe a side to him that was not nice at times, but I bristle when people interview me about him and only want to hear the evil Benny Goodman stories, or the funny stories where he forgot peoples’ names. When people focus on those aspects of who he was they are overlooking the fact that he was one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. He really was in so many ways. Without him, we would not have a lot of things that we have in music today. That, in a strange way is now passed over [overlooked]. They like to rewrite history, people will say that he took advantage of Fletcher Henderson and his charts, wrong. He actually paid Fletcher very handsomely.
JC: Right, I just read about this, something like in 1935 he was paying him around $37 per chart and usually he was writing three charts per week.
KP: Yeah, and later, I saw a contract between him and Fletcher, he was paying him around $100 a chart by 1939 or 1940. That is incredible money! Fletcher wrote hundreds of arrangements for that band.
JC: That is great money!
KP: All of these claims are false. Benny broke racial barriers, he didn’t care about race. People would ask him how he felt about hiring an integrated band and breaking down racial barriers, looking for a surface answer, and he would reply that he never thought of it that way. He always hired the people he thought would play the best in his groups. Which is really a great answer. That is the Benny Goodman, above all else, that should be remembered. One of the greatest artists of the last century, I really think that.
JC: Wow, great answer. Ken, it is always a pleasure to talk to you, thank you for taking some of your time to talk with us.
KP: No problem, thank you.