Fifty-two years ago, spring of 1965. Accompanied by a police escort, the world famous clarinetist Benny Goodman was driven into the biggest crowd IHS has ever seen when the news of Goodman’s visit swept the streets of Ithaca.
To this day, Benny Goodman is considered to be one of the biggest celebrities of jazz. Often referred to as the “King of Swing,” the Chicago native helped initiate the thrilling swing era during the peak of the Great Depression. Swing music, with its roots from the already well-known big-band jazz style, is especially unique for its emphasis on the offbeat or weaker pulses of the music.
Goodman started his career with financial motivations, as his Jewish immigrant family from Poland was struggling with twelve children in the house. Goodman left school at the early age of 14 to pursue his music career, and debuted that same year with his first full-time professional band, the Ben Pollack Orchestra. In 1928, after a stint leading the orchestra, Goodman left for New York City to work for radio shows and form an orchestra of his own. His worldwide career was kickstarted at the well-known 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert, where Goodman and his orchestra made history for being the first group to perform jazz at Carnegie Hall, a place known for its classical music. Goodman contributed the the shift of jazz’s already established popular culture setting to American high culture through this legendary concert, numerous top selling albums, and commissioned works.
Among Goodman’s colleagues, he was known as a terrific leader but had an uneasy relationship with some members of the bands he played in. Pianist Jess Stacy went as far as to say that “If I’d had any spunk I’d probably have thrown the piano at him.” Often, Goodman had a caustic intolerance for imperfections, but his intensity and pickiness was the trait that led him to the top of the jazz scene.
In the 1960s, the IHS Band was under the direction of the wind ensemble legend Frank Battisti, who led the IHS Band to national recognition as one of the best school bands in the United States. One day, Mr. Battisti took his chances, not expecting any results, by writing to Benny Goodman and inviting him to come to a school assembly. Battisti noted in his book One Band That Took a Chance that the popular IHS Jazz band was having its biggest concert of the year, and he had run out of ideas for candidates to perform with the band. With time ticking and his colleagues growing skeptical of their chances at landing Goodman, Battisti noted in his book that the IHS Band, a frequent commissioner of pieces, finally received interest from Goodman since he also had interest in commissioned works, commissioning pieces from composers such as Aaron Copland, Paul Hindemith, Malcolm Arnold, and Béla Bartók to expand the clarinet repertoire.
Weeks passed, and one morning over the phone, a short-lived, three-sentence conversation took place between Goodman and Mr. Battisti, with the confirmation on a visit to Ithaca. As the news spread, the community went ballistic about the fact that one of America’s all-time favorite musicians was about to set foot on their doorsteps.
Initially in disbelief about the caller being the real Benny Goodman, Battisti only made the arrangements with followups from Goodman himself. The visit was only a quick stop during Goodman’s to visit his daughter, who was studying at Boston University, though the IHS community was nevertheless thrilled to have him. Reluctant to play at all, the students somehow buffaloed Goodman into playing during the assembly. With a burrowed Selmer clarinet, Goodman was introduced into the assembly after the jazz band jammed out few swing classics, such as “Tuxedo Junction.” He and the IHS Jazz Band shared the stage on one of Goodman’s signature tunes, “Sing Sing Sing,” which opened with the iconic drum solo performed by an IHS student.
Thundering roars were heard from the audience after the performance. It meant a tremendous deal to the IHS students onstage as they were regarded highly enough for a legend like Goodman to play with them. After the concert, Benny Goodman signed students’ sheet music and hung out with them, intrigued by the school and its emphasis on music. The legacy of Benny Goodman will always be important in American music history, and is a gem in IHS’ ongoing musical tradition.