The Bix-Benny Goodman Connection

The following is an excerpt from Tom Nolan's 2008 Wall Street Journal article "When Carnegie Hall Swung." 

This concert's earlier "history of jazz" segment paid homage to the "classic" jazz of the '20s; its most effective moment, for many, was when Bobby Hackett, a 22-year-old cornet player from Rhode Island, re-created the late Iowa cornetist Bix Beiderbecke's melancholy 1927 version of "I'm Comin' Virginia."

Beiderbecke had died an alcoholic's death in New York in 1931. A generation of jazzmen were haunted by his lyrical sound. Several of the men on stage, including Goodman, had played with Bix back in the day. Jess Stacy, the Goodman orchestra's outstanding pianist, had his style shaped through crucial exposure to Beiderbecke in 1923, in Davenport, Iowa, when Bix came aboard the riverboat an 18-year-old Stacy worked on.

"He played the pian-a," Stacy told pianist Marian McPartland decades later on her NPR program "Piano Jazz," "and he played [the type of] harmony like [he had], you know, [in his own] 'In a Mist'?" Stacy was referring to Beiderbecke's Debussy-like composition for keyboard. Beiderbecke had steeped himself in the sounds of such modern-classicists as Ravel, Elgar and MacDowell. "He played 'Clarinet Marmalade,' with that type harmony. Back in my head, I'd known that that was possible. But I didn't know how to do it, you know? But when I heard him do it -- it just bowled me over."

Bix, with his relaxed manner and modernist harmonies, seemed, for some, the ghost at the banquet of this swing-music concert, with his implied reproach: Mine was the path you might have taken. But toward the end of this longish evening, Benny Goodman found a way to merge these opposing visions of jazz via "Sing Sing Sing" -- the most raucous and elaborate of his big band's signature items, a "killer-diller" that had evolved into an epic.

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