IASPM-US Interview Series: Catherine Tackley, Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert

by Mike D'Errico on August 23, 2013

Catherine TackleyTackley, Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert is Catherine Tackley’s recent (2012) monograph for the Oxford Studies in Recorded Jazz Series. After discussing the book informally during coffee breaks at several conferences this year (IASPM UK, Salford September 2012, Rhythm Changes II, Salford April 2013), Catherine and I had a lengthy email correspondence about the text during the Summer of 2013.

Katherine Williams: Thanks for agreeing to talk about your recent book. As a swing era jazz scholar and reed player myself, I have to say that this book is exceptionally insightful, well written, and a useful contribution to the jazz and recorded performance fields of study. Benny Goodman’s 1938 Jazz Concert is of course a famous event in jazz history. Your book is part of Oxford University Press’s Studies in Recorded Jazz Series, and therefore focuses particularly on the 1950 Columbia release of the recording. I want to backtrack a bit though, by asking you how important you think the event itself was…

As Scott DeVeaux reminds us, the concept of a jazz concert was not a new one. He talks about black musicians performing in concert settings earlier in the 1930s. Can you explain the differences between these earlier ‘jazz concerts’ and Goodman’s much-hyped evening of swing?

Catherine Tackley: Picking up on your introductory comments, the interplay between the presentation of the event and its subsequent ‘re-presentations’ – most notably the Columbia album – has been really fascinating to explore.  Scott DeVeaux’s article on the jazz concert was a very important starting point for me in contextualizing Goodman’s 1938 concert. As I outline in the book, there were many precedents for jazz concerts involving white and black musicians which often took place at Carnegie Hall itself. Although apparently presenting very different musical material and ideas about jazz, there is clear evidence that Paul Whiteman’s ‘Experiment in Modern Music’ concert, which was presented in various venues including Carnegie Hall, and W.C. Handy’s subsequent response to this, again at Carnegie Hall, provided models for Goodman’s concert. So, in terms of format and presentation there is actually a strong sense of continuity between these different ‘jazz concerts’ which has often been neglected at the expense of the adherence to the rhetoric, put about in the 1938 publicity and reiterated when the album was released, that Goodman’s concert was an unprecedented ‘first’. What is clear, though, is that contemporary narratives about swing, sometimes tending towards moral panic, sharpened the apparent incongruity of genre and venue and have contributed to the way in which the event has been historicized.

Following from that, much has been made of Goodman’s band as a site of racial integration. Can you talk about the ways in which this happened in Goodman’s band? Did it happen in the audience as well? How much of this do you think was Goodman’s doing, and how much can be attributed to his manager John Hammond?

Racial integration in Goodman’s main orchestra did not occur until after the Carnegie Hall concert, although he included Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton in his small groups before this date. Nevertheless, this provides a good example of how the concert, although seminal in some ways, has to be seen within the wider context of Goodman’s developing career. What is perhaps most interesting is that the same performance situations in which the ‘jazz concert’ aesthetic emerged – primarily characterized by audiences listening and not dancing – also encouraged racial integration. Goodman’s integrated Trio began as an informal jam at a party, became a recording group and then played for the Chicago Rhythm Club – albeit still as a ‘floor show’ in contrast with the more formal presentation of the full orchestra on the main stage. Notably, both the style and presentation of the Trio and Quartet emulated a jam session, which took place in less regulated, informal environments where racial integration was perhaps more readily embraced. It is no coincidence that the clearest statement of racial integration in the Carnegie Hall concert was in the ‘Jam Session’, which in fact presented a racially integrated big band with musicians from Ellington and Basie’s bands as guests alongside Goodman and his sidemen. Clearly Goodman was in favor of integration, but there is little doubt in my mind that John Hammond was the impetus behind this element of his career including the concert – we know that he had previously involved Goodman in integrated recording sessions, enabled the Goodman Trio’s first recordings,  ‘discovered’ Lionel Hampton, and helped to fix the guests for the concert itself.

Moving on to the recorded version of this performance. When discussing recordings of live events, at one point you suggest the listener’s understanding is just as important (if not more important!) than the performers’ intentions. Can you discuss this idea a little further, with an explanation of what this means for Benny Goodman’s 1938 concert and the 1950 recording?

Again the circumstances of the 1938 concert invites particular consideration of what recordings can (and can’t) represent in terms of performance, the differences between listening to live performances and recorded music, and the ways in which this is distinction is potentially blurred in a ‘live recording’. In this case, the performers were probably not all aware that the concert was being recorded, and certainly could not have anticipated that their performances that night would have been released commercially and scrutinized by fans and scholars (similarly to the many airchecks from the era which are now widely available and hugely useful for researchers)! That’s not to say that the performers’ intentions are not important, but in this case a whole collection of factors, not least the narratives which have surrounded the original concert and the release of the recording, are likely to affect listeners’ responses to what they hear. For example, Goodman fans that attended the 1938 concert were often quite disappointed, expecting to hear something unusual but instead mostly just numbers that were already familiar to them, whereas the concert was clearly a notable novelty for the Hall’s regular patrons. When the album was released in 1950, this position was more or less reversed – it provided an otherwise unattainable replication of a swing era event for Goodman fans, but the novelty of ‘swing in a concert hall’ had worn off and this aspect was hardly mentioned in contemporary commentaries.

Changing tack slightly for my next question, I would like to ask you about your working methods. In the introduction to the book, you mention both archival research and performing Goodman music with your band, The Cheshire Cats. How did these approaches inform your research, and how did you synthesize the information into the end product?

Archival research is a fundamental methodology throughout the book, whether working with scores and recordings or looking at newspaper and magazine reviews – and as with my previous work I have tried contextualize the former with the latter (and vice versa). Another important element in my approach to this project was to strip away the accumulated layers of interpretation to examine the performances themselves, as represented on the recording, and then having done this, replace the layers again – examining the mediating factors to explore what the material has come to mean in its recorded form. Rather than look at the performances in isolation, though, I pursued a comparative methodology and analysed all the available performances of each number before and after date of the concert. This allowed me to demonstrate how the Carnegie Hall concert fits within the overall trajectory of Goodman’s musical development. Often, the performances are reasonably consistent with others from around the time, or fit into a demonstrable evolution of an interpretation, and therefore I suggest that the concert is perhaps just as interesting as a representative snapshot of the Goodman band playing live in its heyday than for its unique or unusual features. I think my research has exposed is the way in which this consistency was achieved, and this is where my own band came in. As part of my research, I used archival and transcribed parts and scores to try to recreate performances that sounded as close as possible to the Carnegie Hall recording. The insights here were gained almost exclusively from the process rather than the end product, and were seemingly neverending! The limits of notation are instantly exposed (and the existent parts include very few markings by the players), and this process made me listen really hard to the recordings to work out what I needed to tell the ensemble to do to emulate the Carnegie Hall performances. As a clarinetist-bandleader, I took on the Goodman role and learnt a lot not only about his clarinet style through transcribing and playing his solos, but also found that his rehearsal method, as described in his often overlooked but fascinating autobiography and in oral history accounts from his sidemen, was inextricably linked with the musical style of his repertoire, dominated by the work of Fletcher Henderson. Most importantly, this process opened my ears to important details of familiar arrangements and the differences between extant recorded performances. So performance was, for me, an integral part of the analysis, truly ‘practice as research’.

And finally, where is your work heading from here? Was this a standalone project, or are you moving seamlessly into further research? In either case, how will you take the skills and knowledge from this project forward?

In many ways, this was the book that I had always wanted to write – I am a clarinetist and have always enjoyed listening to Benny Goodman. There is hardly any scholarly literature on him (surprising for such a major figure) so I anticipate writing more in the future – the role of the clarinet in jazz interests me too. I also have a strong academic interest in the philosophy, aesthetics and analysis of recording which I was able to further here and will continue to pursue. I particularly enjoyed the mix of musical-historical, archival and analytical methodologies which this project demanded, and will be taking this forward into future work on jazz-influenced music between the Wars. I am probably best known for my work on British jazz, but to step outside this to undertake an American project has been very useful and interesting, not least as a comparative exercise, especially when looking at audience responses and reception of swing. I am currently running an AHRC Research Network ‘Atlantic Sounds: Ships and Sailortowns’ – I am personally interested in music and transatlantic leisure travel, which involves but is not limited to jazz, and so I have now begun to study music and musicians on the sea between Britain and America.

Dr. Katherine Williams is a Research Assistant at the University of Bristol, and a Visiting Lecturer at Cardiff University. Her PhD (University of Nottingham, 2012), was completed under the supervision of Professor Mervyn Cooke, and entitled ‘Valuing Jazz: Cross-Cultural Comparisons of the Classical Influence in Jazz’. She has published on Duke Ellington in Jazz Perspectives, and on jazz education in Journal of Music History Pedagogy, She is working on a monograph on the singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright (forthcoming, Equinox Press, 2015), and is co-editor of the Cambridge Companion to the Singer-Songwriter (forthcoming, 2016). Katherine is the saxophone teacher at the University of Bristol, and performs with a number of ensembles (classical, jazz, and new music) in the South West of England.

Catherine Tackley is Senior Lecturer in Music at The Open University. She is author of The Evolution of Jazz in Britain, 1880-1935 (Ashgate, 2005) and Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert (OUP, 2012). Catherine is currently leading the AHRC-funded network ‘Atlantic Sounds: Ships and Sailortowns’ and is a co-editor of the Jazz Research Journal (Equinox). She is Musical Director of Dr Jazz and the Cheshire Cats Big Band.


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