The short life of David 'Benny' Goodman
Let’s get the cliches over with. The first concerns the old maxim about a man dying as he lived. In this instance – or rather in both – then it’s certainly true. The reason for the departure from the singular is simple; we’re dealing with two men who shared the same name, one of them gifted it by his parents the other adopting it as a stage handle very much in tribute to the first. That jazz should have two Benny Goodman’s isn’t perhaps all that surprising. After all, it had two Willie Smith’s, one a creamy-toned altoist the other a two-fisted pianist who bifurcated his given name with a further sobriquet ‘The Lion’. It has two Bill Evans’s (three if you count the former William Evans, multi-reedman Yusef Lateef) and a trio of Benny Green’s – one a trombonist who preferred the spelling Bennie, another a baritone playing English jazz critic, the last a volcanic pianist whose career has never suffered much from confusion between himself and his identically-named forebears. But it’s two Benny Goodman’s who are as different from each other as is possible to imagine and that’s where the notion of emblematic deaths come in. The better known – in fact, the only one most people, jazz fans included, have ever heard of – did indeed die as he’d lived – quite literally – collapsing from heart failure, aged 77, while practising the clarinet in his Manhattan apartment. In his time, he’d been a worldwide sensation, as close to a bona fide superstar as the music could ever make, crowned ‘The King of Swing’ (the jury remains out on the legitimacy of his claim to the throne). The other died, well, when exactly? Possibly around 1974. Nobody seems to know for sure. Nor does anyone really know the circumstances of his death. Was it drug-related or not? Were criminal elements involved (one rumour was that Goodman's body was found in a public toilet, bound up with barbed wire)? Or was it suicide? Again, nobody seems to know.
And it’s those four words - nobody seems to know - that make a pathetic, repeated epitaph for the ‘other’ Benny Goodman, a British jazz drummer who, like his more famous namesake, also died like he lived; in obscurity, not quite visible enough to register a strong impression, a marginal figure who, if he ever did have a fifteen minutes of fame as per the Andy Warhol model, certainly never made much of it.
You may have seen the name before, in various British jazz histories, or on the back of album sleeves, and done a double take, as did a friend of mine when looking at a Vic Ash EP on which Goodman features. ‘Wow! Benny Goodman on drums! I never knew he played drums.’ It’s a line almost as old as the hills and I dare say there were times when Benny the drummer tired of all the ‘forgotten your clarinet?’ clever dicks.
As far as we know, the two Benny’s never met, let alone played together, yet in some ways, an ocean and a decade or so apart at check-out time, both came from exactly the same stock; Jewish Old Worlders who’d fled from Eastern Europe at the end of the nineteenth century to start a new life in a new land. The American Goodman’s had got as far as Chicago, where their ninth child – Benjamin David – was born on May 30th 1909, straight into a life of borderline poverty. The rest of that story is rags to riches to the letter. The British Goodman’s didn’t make it nearly as far, geographically or otherwise. Indeed, they made landfall barely after leaving continental Europe, settling in Southend-on-Sea, the postcardesque English seaside town located in the county of Essex, clinging to the Thames Estuary on the southern shore of the bulge that is East Anglia. But whereas everybody knows Chicago Benny’s backstory – the sweatshop tailor father, the idealistic Jewish mama – there’s absolutely zilch on Southend Benny. We don’t even know his year of birth, much less an actual day or month. The only real reference work in which he features at all, John Chilton’s masterly and otherwise methodical Who’s Who of British Jazz (Continuum 1997) is notably vague, stabbing generally at ‘c1927’. A sleeve note for an album issued in 1956 on which Goodman features notes him being ‘the age of 25’ which means a birth date in 1931 at the outside. But as for anything more specific than that – nobody knows.*
(*Edit: Essex clarinettist/pianist Tim Huskisson has confirmed that Goodman was born in Rochford not Southend and that his birth was registered in June 1931. His younger brother Jeff's birth was registered in September of 1937. The register also records the Goodman boys' mother as having the surname Weinberg)
The two Goodman’s, despite their being at least twenty years, one ocean and several cultural aspirations apart, share one thing though; the example of music as a lifting tool able to hoist those who play it away from the circumstance of birth, religion, race even. ‘Playing music was a great escape for me from the poverty’, the American Goodman said in a 1975 interview. The English Goodman never opened up to a journalist of any kind as far as is known but he’d have probably concurred with his distant, legendary transatlantic ‘cousin’. Music – or rather jazz – was to take Goodman to all points North, South and West of Southend, and even, on one memorable trip as a ship’s musician aboard the Mauretania in the late 1950s much further afield. By his late twenties he had played on stage at such esteemed concert venues as the Royal Albert and Royal Festival Halls; if not quite of the same import as Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall back in 1938, the core meaning remained the same; that once poor Jewish boys, born into a life of expectation and impacted prejudice could, with hard work, sacks full of irreverence and plenty of idealistic ‘fuck you’ attitude, outmanoeuvre every clichéd life path laid before them. One might grow to become the ‘King of Swing’, play Mozart or go down in history as one of his chosen instrument’s greatest exponents, the other to be a capable but functional footsoldier of a jazz drummer, rarely if ever anyone’s first call. One might die one of jazz’s rare millionaires, a clean liver unsullied by peccadilloes or addictions; the other might end up a potless mess in hock to a habit that robbed personal dignity, the cruellest irony being that those same addictions had once been part of his ticket to moderate success.
We’ll leave American Benny here for the moment, parking the comparisons and ‘what if’s’ where they belong; firmly in the realms of fantasy. Save just for one. Benny Goodman, clarinettist supreme, had been born Benjamin David Goodman. Benny Goodman, British jazz drummer circa. 1950’s to early 1970’s, was born David Goodman. All good Jewish names, so no surprises there. But by his teens, an interest in jazz meant that Southend Dave had become ‘Benny’ to his friends. He had a trombone playing younger brother by this time, Jeff, but like all elder siblings he had first dibs on everything, nicknames included. This one soon stuck. Not that he baulked about it; after all, wouldn’t you want to keep anything that aligned you, a short, bespectacled Anglo-Jewish kid stuck in a seaside town a million miles from the action to the bright lights, with the opportunity and glamour of your idols?
By the late 1950s when he was a sort of jazz everyman, Benny Goodman was anything but glamorous. He was still short (‘5 ft. 0in’ according to one colleague), still bespectacled, and now boasted a balding pate that looked highly out of keeping with youth movement of modern jazz under whose banner he operated. One of his some time employers, the maverick clarinettist Sandy Brown, compared his appearance to a nesting Osprey, the face dominated by an ‘aquiline hebraic nose’, his accent ‘yodelling cockney, though he came from Southend’. It didn’t sound, nor was it, an attractive package. Encroaching baldness certainly made him look much older than his years. In the few surviving photos he looks not unlike Woody Allen minus the crazy locks; he never, ever, appears young.
Yet despite not having either the look or the looks (surrounded by men as sharp as the Cary Grantish Ronnie Scott, Goodman wore utilitarian suits which looked like they’d been slept in), he was a well-known, not to say ubiquitous face in local jazz circles, maybe not a front-ranker like Bill Eyden, Jackie Dougan or Tony Kinsey, and definitely several leagues behind the sort natural brilliance of Phil Seamen, British jazz drums’ Mister Big of the time, but still worthy of many a gig. He’d often crop up, unbilled, at London clubs like the Flamingo, the Marquee and the ‘old’ Ronnie Scott’s in Soho’s Gerrard Street, which is where my father saw him in the summer of 1960, accompanying both Jamaican altoist/flautist Harold McNair and prodigal son returning Victor Feldman. It was a plum job, one that could have just as easily gone to Eyden, Dougan or Seamen themselves and might well have were it not for some undisclosed mishap. But Goodman was there, as he often was, the kind of second string player you could ‘always’ see and who, owing to his particular combination of solidity and availability, would always be a favoured dep. Nobody’s favourite but everybody’s stand-in. A more ambitious soul would have crumbled at being reduced to a B-lister, but then Goodman was never a man to think big.
I asked my father what he remembered of Goodman that night. ‘Nothing’ he said, except for the name, the bald head and the pallid, wiry presence, which made him look for all the world like he should have been some clerk of works or delivery driver or a bloke at a football match in some Kitchen Sink drama. He looked anything but a musician, but this was by no means an unusual thing during the ‘never had it so good’ era; plenty of modernists looked far too English to be taken seriously – trombonist Ken Wray, all brylcreemed hair and sensible glasses, might have passed for an accountant, for example. Writers had a field day with such images; Tubby Hayes, crammed into a bum-freezer jacket, was once described as ‘resembling a school boy who had borrowed his father’s Saturday night special.’ Another drummer, Tony Kinsey was said to look like ‘a research scientist.’ If very few of the capital’s leading modernist’s had the look, virtually none had the sort of names that sounded like those of jazz giants; this was a scene of Berts and Eddies and Ronnies not of Zoots, Chets and Arts. Benny Goodman as least sounded half-right; a second hand name highly appropriate for a borrowed idiom.
So what exactly was he borrowing and from whom? The brief list of band associations in Chilton gives the impression that the drummer’s early days were as nondescript and bland as those of his immediate peers; an underwhelming run of names perhaps best forgotten - Sammy Herman’s Windjammers, Geoff Sowden, Ronnie Caryl, Paul Vaughan. These were jobs where the requirement would have been keeping the dancers on the floor. It wasn’t jazz, it was yesterday’s music. Despite the backdated nickname, Goodman though was casting his spectacled eyes ahead to bebop, the music of tomorrow occupying the todays of musicians worldwide in the late 1940s. After his dance band apprenticeship, in 1954 he upped his game, again following a musical chairs sort of career path typical of his generation; joining Vic Ash, then Don Rendell, Ken Moule, Dill Jones, Dizzy Reece, Joe Harriott, the impacted list of second-wave UK modernism. These were demanding jobs and Goodman filled each with varying degrees of success.
Someone outside this sphere, but whose natural musicianship, intellect and sharp observational skills made him an ideal chronicler of its virtues and drawbacks, was Sandy Brown and it was he who, in an uncompleted autobiography that was eventually to see the light of day after his untimely death in 1975 as part of The McJazz Manuscripts (Faber and Faber, 1979) penned an affectionate if objective tribute to Benny Goodman which sums up both his musical and personal character. Brown thought him ‘a very ordinary drummer’ who nevertheless possessed an ability ‘[to] play in ¾, 6/8, 12/4 or any other 3-based time signature and make it sound as if it were a 4-based beat.’
To his dying day Brown maintained ‘I never heard any other [British] drummer do this or even approach it...The effect on the other musicians was quite shattering.’
Given this revelation, it might appear that I’m lining Goodman up to be one of those ‘ah, but have you heard about so-and-so?’ ‘forgotten’ talents jazz aficionados like to pepper their conversations with, usually highly obscure players who rarely, if ever, recorded, but who are rumoured in the jazz underground to have been ‘really something’. In US jazz history, you might nominate another drummer, Ike Day, whom Sonny Rollins maintained was one of the best drummers you never heard. Over here, you might dial up the names of Dickie Devere or Wizard Simmons or even Denis Rose, all of whom were early boppers said to be sensational on their night.
Goodman might just edge into their company too, not only for Sandy Brown’s enthusiastic appraisal of his metric ease but for that of a fellow drummer, Colin Barnes, whose own front-rank career with the likes of Dick Morrissey, Michael Garrick and Shake Keane then subsequent retreat to the back-rows of commercial work has its own whiff of thwarted promise. Like Brown, Barnes remembers Goodman as an otherwise unexceptional player, but one who had a party trick like no other; he could reproduce Art Blakey’s thunderous press-roll, the patented call to arms that the American drum icon would use to kick a recalcitrant soloist into the higher realms of impassioned creativity. According to Barnes, Goodman’s impression wasn’t a spirited pastiche, it was more like a forged signature; so imperceptibly similar as to be identical. A man in possession of such a gift for mimicry, and moreover the technical ability to pull off such a tribute, would clearly go far. Wouldn’t he?
Of course, it takes more than one lick to a great jazz drummer make. Closer inspection of Goodman’s (albeit slender) recorded legacy reveals little of the power Barnes recalls and no magic Blakey fake. And nor does Sandy Brown’s recollection of ‘meandering rambling solos which varied in tempo but had no perceptible form’ seem to suggest much in the way of higher musical thinking. Complaining that following such an outburst was a challenge, Brown attempted to pin down the drummer’s concept.
‘How are we supposed to know when to come in?’ he asked, to which Goodman (in Brown’s own written intimation of his hybridized Jewish/East End/Southend accent) would reply ‘I do moi bit and ven you come in viv yors.’ Brown further added that, at its most spirited, Goodman’s soloing sounded less like music and ‘more like someone shifting furniture.’ Small wonder then that he was never first-call for players as exacting as Tommy Whittle and Jimmy Deuchar, who expected a drummer to be as up on the form of piece as any frontliner.
Inclined to be temperamental
It’s rather senseless (and maybe a bit cruel, given he’s not around to state his own case) to compare Goodman’s playing to that of others. Far better to concentrate on what exists on record, meagre though that it. Like many British modernists in his circle, Goodman recorded only infrequently. The stories of disinterested record labels, restrictive budgets and the like, which are in many way the legend of British modern jazz for its first eighteen or so years, aren’t quite so applicable in this instance. Let’s be clear; Benny Goodman wasn’t recording little because he was being ignored – he was recording little because there were better players out there, those who, like Bill Eyden or Phil Seamen (on a good day), could make far more of whatever limited opportunity afforded them than might a less capable man. There was another factor; British jazz had few stars, but among those who truly deserved the title, a surprising number were drummers; Seamen, Tony’s Crombie and Kinsey, Eric Delaney, Ronnie Verrell, even Jack Parnell. All these men were big personalities; Goodman was not. Indeed, if anything he was a little man through and through; little charisma, little charm, tiny in stature, limited in ability. The occasional victories he scored – little as well – came about in a suitably small-time way too; other players might be unavailable and there being simply too few drummers around who knew their way round the basics of bebop, Goodman could sometimes rise to the top. Once there he could be impressive or underwhelming, like most UK modernists of the day.
His 1950s discography has examples of his playing both expedient and apposite. On Victor Feldman’s Transatlantic Alliance (Tempo, 1957) he gets in by sheer flook, replacing Tony Crombie on the album’s lengthy ballad medley for no other reason than Crombie having to head to another gig. Nine and a half minutes of swishing brushes tell us nothing of his talent. The two preceding years, however, provided ample, if not especially expansive, displays of exactly what he could bring to the table. On Don Rendell’s Meet Don Rendell (Tempo 1955) he does everything the music requires of him and more; the leader was then deep into his water-coloured, West Coast phase, the tone light, the phrasing altogether rather four-square. Behind him, Goodman does the expected brushes and light ride cymbal thing, but then quite suddenly, on the introduction to ‘From This Moment On’ there it is! An early tell-tale sign of his fascination with Art Blakey - a superbly executed, and moreover, passionately played Latin set-up which might have propelled a less-restrained horn man into Hard Bop heaven. Sadly, Rendell’s solo is jerky and mannered, as if the intensity from the drums is crowding a little too close for comfort. What would Tubby Hayes have made after such a launch, one wonders?
Actually, in a sabotaging quirk of fate, perhaps the best track from this session (‘Blow Mr. Dexter’) was squandered away on a multi-artist anthology, a realm shame as both saxophonist and drummer play with far looser abandon than on the album proper. What Rendell was after, though, was something less assertive more Shelly Manne-ish, and by the time of his next recording taped two weeks later – the Tempo EP Don Rendell Quintet, with an added starter in baritonist Ronnie Ross – Goodman is back in his box, ticking off nice time nicely.
He’s more off the leash on clarinettist Vic Ash’s set issued as part of British Modern Jazz Scene (Tempo), recorded at a Royal Festival Hall concert in February 1956. Part of the reason is undoubtedly Ash’s more relaxed style – looser, more free blown, less fussy, funkier – another is Goodman’s rhythm section partners. Rendell’s band was a model of stiffness in this department with the sometimes downright odd pianist Damian Robinson and the spirited but never especially accurate Sammy Stokes on bass. Ash’s outfit had Terry Shannon, although then still a semi-pro already one of the best (and most natural) bop players in the capital, and bassist Pete Elderfield, fresh from six months in the Tubby Hayes bootcamp. Some of the music grooves remarkably (‘Doxy’) but it’s on the up-tempo ‘Just One of Those Things’ that Goodman really registers. Climaxing with a thrashing (and that is the word) clarinet and drums duel, it’s possible to feel both the sense of occasion – 1956 was still early for a big deal festival gig like this for Britain’s moderns – and the sheer power of Goodman’s playing. Again, the ride cymbal is relentless, the kick of the kit palpable.
Sharing a bill with bands featuring Bill Eyden, Allan Ganley and Tony Crombie, Goodman may not have been the best-known drummer on the Festival Hall stage that night yet in some ways he was perhaps the most modernistic. Eyden’s playing (on a set with Tubby Hayes semi-commercial octet) is held down by frequently lethargic arrangements, Crombie’s bigged-up by expectation, Ganley’s a little too tight. Goodman’s, however, partly due to Ash’s decision to play the least scripted set of all the bands, sounds absolutely spot on; Tony Hall’s sleeve note for the album described the drummer as ‘inclined to be temperamental at times’ but praised his ‘enthusiastic’ approach. These were words that would serve equally as an encomium of British modernism of the time. Like trumpeter Dizzy Reece or pianist Stan Tracey, Goodman had a raw edginess and on a scene that had more than its share of polite dance band vestiges, that counted for a lot.
Hall had also called Goodman ‘a seasoned ‘veteran’’ who ‘is in constant demand.’ This was sleeve note as hyperbole. True, Goodman was a time-in player by this point (it appears he turned pro at the very tail end of the forties, while still in his teens) but as for the heavy workload, well? Beyond Rendell and Ash’s bands, Hall had used the drummer in various editions of his own ‘Hall Stars’, a touring troupe of players who gained as much reputation for personal misdemeanours as they did musical modernism. Goodman, it seemed, appeared to come doubly equipped. Sandy Brown thought his ‘personality quite disgraceful’, recalling Goodman as a man beyond ‘sequential thought’, as clever a euphemism for thick as you’ll ever read. Indeed, The McJazz Manuscripts is almost cruel in its unmasked account of Goodman’s gullibility, never more so than when Brown and another musician bait the drummer with tall tales of a night with an accommodating boarding house host formerly of ‘Bertram Mills’ Indiarubber Ladies’.
A bit thick, gullible, easily drawn by a white lie. These were risible characteristics the like of which fellow musicians will always be drawn to. They make for good stories, for shareable laughs, for the occasional outrage of how one man could persist in functioning in such a dysfunctional way. But Goodman had a far darker side, one Sandy Brown may well have alluded to under his blanketing of a ‘disgraceful’ persona. He also provided tell-tale signs of something far more worrying. Goodman was, he says, ‘aggressive’ and ‘truculent’, tense in a way that ‘could be measured in zillions of Newton’s per angstrom unit.’ Signs of a flawed character, one impatient with the perceive injustices thrown at jazz by matter of course? Or a flag of a genuine problem with, well, what exactly?
*Goodman didn’t hear his hero live until 1965, when he reviewed a London gig by the Jazz Messengers for Crescendo magazine, thinking Blakey ‘wonderful to watch’
Like a way in
That Benny Goodman was a serious drug-user was common knowledge to insiders on the early 1960s jazz scene. His colleagues in the Sandy Brown/Al Fairweather All Stars (a superb mainstream band in which Goodman sat more Cuckoo than Osprey-like) knew it. So did the cognoscenti around Ronnie’s. And they knew – or thought they knew – just what had lured him into a circle that was as fraught with danger as it was exclusive. Weed was one thing – even players as tightly-drawn as Allan Ganley and Vic Ash liked a bit of puff – but serious drugs, the injecting kind, well, that was a whole different league. Heroin had already killed one British bebopper by 1960 – the pianist Tommy Pollard – who’d got in early and deep and whose music, a sort of broken-up Bud Powell, might have made a greater impact had his health not collapsed so disastrously in the mid-1950s. But there remained as much ignorance as there was fascination. Some young men (such as saxophonist Peter King) still believed the myth of the Parker-pushers; that the deeper reaches of the musical soul required a pact with the devil of dope or, if you were really serious, something far heavier. Others were drawn in less through artistic appeal than career desperation. Benny Goodman was one. Interviewed in 2004, Allan Ganley remembered;
‘a big thing[ was] there were a lot of sort of fringe musicians, like a drummer called Benny Goodman and another called Dave Smallman, and to keep in with the chaps as they were called, the Jimmy [Deuchar]’s and the Tubby’s, they’d be getting the drugs and start selling them and buying them and all that. It was like a way in and then all of a sudden it was the way out. It was pot and then it became cocaine and then heroin. The same sort of mindset - keep in as everybody’s doing it. Tragic.’
Another veteran of this scene, pianist Brian Dee was equally appalled by ‘guys who’d got into the drug thing because it would get them closer to someone they either idolized or wanted to work with. If you were fixing with someone, you had an in with them.’ Quite how widespread or cynical this practice was is now almost impossible to say. Many of the key participants are now gone, as indeed are many who witnessed their descent into this moral morass. And, even though the discussion of drug use and its impact on the careers of musicians as prominent as Phil Seamen and Tubby Hayes is now something of the norm (a frequently tiresome one at that), there still remains a veil pulled tight around the actions of several individuals at this juncture. Was, for example, baritonist Jack Sharpe, a middling talent at best, really only included in Hayes’ big band because he was a covert ‘connection’ for Hayes and co. Did players like Benny Goodman really take to the needle because it meant the joining of some select club? Moreover, did shared drug use really force a musicians as exacting as Hayes to pick Goodman as his drummer of choice in early 1965? Really?
Amazingly, it appears so. If this is a repugnant thing, reducing Goodman to a career leech and Hayes to his willing victim, Faust in neo-Italian tailoring as it were, then consider the example of the other junkie drummer mentioned by Allan Ganley, Dave Smallman, a player so marginal that he even fails to get a mention from someone as forensic as John Chilton. Musically, Smallman lived up to his name – a performer as weedy and insignificant as he looked. If Benny Goodman appeared unprepossessing everyman, Smallman had arrived straight from Nerd Central Casting; a mop of hair and National Health glasses framing a features for which the word gormless might have been coined. You can see them too, on the BBC’s The Street, the 1984 documentary centered upon the cine films of Denis Rose taken in and around Soho in the early 1950s. On screen, Smallman clowns with Ronnie Scott but there are few laughs from the assembled bunch of grey beards watching thirty years hence (many of whom are seeing their younger selves). ‘He got done in’, someone says off-camera as Smallman’s chinless profile darts across the screen. Indeed, he did; not that this was in any way an ordinary murder. In fact, the drummer might well qualify for the grisly honour of ‘Most Horrific End in British Jazz’. The story goes that, deep in debt to criminal drug connections, Smallman had tried to out-run his pursuers. He only got so far, being found, in the words of Sandy Brown, ‘naked and trussed up with wire or flex or something. He’d been dumped on a bomb site.’ Brown had tactfully omitted the worst part; word on the street was that Smallman had been decapitated. ‘The police had some kind of lead’, the clarinettist recalled, but it had come to nothing. Tragic as the murder was, it was no great surprise that no-one was ever arrested or convicted for it. As is well-known, the interrelations between the criminal underworld and the Metropolitan Police ran deep in the 1960s and, anyway, these were murky waters. Nobody much understood junk in these years, much less anyone within the police, and so the unexplained death of nobody druggie went by unnoticed, much like Smallman’s jazz career.
It had been a horrendous price to pay though; death through association. Bound, gagged and beheaded because of bebop – it’s the kind of thing that makes Art Pepper’s public junkieisms look like play-acting. Only Wardell Gray’s equally bizarre death, possibly through the same vices, comes close. But messages like this didn’t stop Benny Goodman from indulging in his frightful balancing act of third-tier talent and front-rank company.
Goodman and Tubby Hayes had known each other since the early 1950s when, both young men, playing modern jazz was a exercise based more on cultish dedication – a religion, really – than hard talent. Thrown into the distant world of the capital’s pre-Flamingo club scene, the town of tiny venues like the Boathouse Bop Club, the Beehive and Club 23, they were jostled around like raffle tickets in a bag, drawn out to form fitfully winning combinations. Some, like Hayes, soon outgrew this amateurism; in others, like Goodman, it remained part of the DNA. And so it was that by the time of the Jazz Couriers and the poll-winning early Sixties Tubby Hayes Quartet, Hayes was happy to forsake the players he’d slummed along with barely a few years earlier, Goodman included. He was going somewhere – America and Europe mainly; they were going off to a blow in a pub. Come 1964, there’s something of a shift, though, a sea-change to be precise in which the waves of Beatledom have began to erode the edifice of Brit-Bop. Now what matters is that jazzmen stand together in shared interest. It can’t harm things, surely, if that while doing so they share each other’s nefarious off-stage habits too?
Stan Tracey once spoke forcefully about a lack of a junkie brotherhood – of how supply and demand was quite simply a purely selfish equation. While this is true of narcotics themselves, it wasn’t strictly true of the cliques of musicians who bandied together at this time, some bound by drug use. How else could you possibly explain how Benny Goodman, within the space of barely a few months, goes from adding supporting percussion on a few tracks of Tubby Hayes latest big band album (Tubbs’ Tours, Fontana, 1964), an ephemeral role to be sure, to being the drummer in the Tubby Hayes Quartet not just on its club an concert work but on national radio? Is it circumstance or suitability, opportunism or connivance?
Forget drugs for a moment – and who are we to really say what that side of Hayes and Goodman’s relationship may have encompassed? – and let’s look at music. Was Benny Goodman really, if ever, a first-call studio percussionist, especially for a recording on which Hayes could have, quite literally, hired anyone he wanted? Was this just jobs for the boys? More than likely; in fact, I know of no other recorded instance where Goodman was hired to play hand percussion, although I suspect I will be proved wrong by an eagle-eared reader. Actually, he’s far more discreet than might be imagined on Tubbs’ Tours; he does a neat line in decorating ‘Israel Nights’, a pretty camels-at-rest kind of piece, with considered conga drums, and adds to the general African vibe of the 9/8 timed ‘Sasa Hivi’, a groove so strong it would take an idiot to unseat it.
But what of Hayes’ quartet, a band in which the drums were always a central part of the drama? Following players as accomplished as Phil Seamen and Bill Eyden must surely have been a nerve-wracking experience for Goodman? Again, audio evidence suggests not. The Tubby Hayes archive contains a recording of a BBC It’s Jazz broadcast from January 1965 (more than likely taped at the close of the previous year) on which the personnel is Hayes, Terry Shannon, bassist Jeff Clyne and Goodman. It is bracketed by some of the best – meaning most focused – and worst of the drummer.
On the opening ‘Mini Minor’, a kicking blues from the pen of the Hayes’ big band’s lead trumpeter Ian Hamer, he’s perky enough, underpinning a tenor solo that appears to take much of its energy from the drummer’s relentless ride cymbal. The only real misfire he makes is on the programme’s closer, a two-tempo account of Miles Davis’ 'So What' on which Hayes seems to be seeking something beyond the boundaries of Hard Bop. Goodman is less effective here, his playing splashy and ragged, although in mitigation it must be said that what Hayes was after – and one suspects that is was something positively Coltrane-like – would have been beyond drummers far better equipped than Goodman; musicians can be highly prescient but they can’t be mind-readers.
Around the same time as this broadcast was aired, the same line-up was taped at Ronnie Scott’s, most probably on Les Tomkins’ Ferrograph recorder (although Tomkins fiercely denied the recording was his), this tape eventually being issued as Intensity on drummer Clark Tracey’s Tentoten label in 2008. The recording quality is remarkably well balanced given the circumstances and Goodman’s drums register especially strongly, helping Hayes create a further pile-driving ‘Mini Minor’, this one capped by a series of exchanges between tenor and drums that, if anything, suggest a revision of Goodman’s place within the firmament. Issued thirty-plus years too late for him to be the beneficiary, this was the drummer’s finest hour on record, a performance in which he almost fully countered all the received wisdom of his being an ineffective presence, so long after his passing. Record buyers of the 1960s hadn’t heard this Benny Goodman, but club-goers had. And more crucially, so had Tubby Hayes, who seems well satisfied with what’s going down behind the kit, save for a deep sag in energy during the ridiculously overblown ‘Sometime Ago’ (‘up Benny!’ shouts Hayes) on which Goodman appears to have no real grasp of what it takes to sustain such a marathon. Still, the album even gained the drummer some posthumous fans, including the Guardian’s John Fordham, who singled out his ‘Art Blakey-like bustle.’
Benny Goodman isn’t the only minor (or obscure) jazz talent to benefit from the unearthing of a buried, after the fact, recording; it happens all the time these days – but what makes Intensity’s issue all the sweeter is that it finally proves Tubby Hayes wasn’t making his appointments on purely extra-musical grounds. Goodman shows he can play here, better than anywhere else and that is vindication enough for someone long passed over. And his sounding so very much at home on stage at the UK’s best jazz venue was no lucky punch. In 1962, he’d been a member of Ronnie Scott’s own quartet, playing both the club and for a London production of A Thurber Carnival, based around the work of James Thurber, for which he had to sight-read a demanding score by American multi-instrumentalist Don Elliott. This wasn’t exactly a low-key, hack job. Nor indeed was his stint behind Dexter Gordon at Ronnie’s that autumn, a run which became legendary for the amount of deps the visiting US guest had to endure (Sandy Brown witnessed the spectacle of the six feet five Gordon arguing a rhythmic point with the five foot nothing Goodman. The drummer was immovable, Brown noted. 'Dexter would just have to learn how to count.')
Yet these were highs that, like the Hayes gig, didn’t, maybe couldn’t, go on. Goodman didn’t last long enough with Hayes to make a real impression, as had the saxophonist’s previous drum chair choices. Indeed, within a year of Intensity Hayes had discovered Tony Levin, a drummer who met his every need and for whom he even penned a dedication, ‘The Second City Steamer’.
Post-script: Fifty nicker...fucking marvellous
Quite what happens next isn’t clear. Goodman’s late 1960s work is hardly documented at all. Slipping away from even the most tangential of associations, he simply ceases to be a contender. In 1964/5, as well as working in Peter King’s quartet, he was briefly a member of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quintet of Keith Christie and Jimmy Deuchar, a band that makes a couple of broadcast appearances but never records officially (‘a much improved player’ Crescendo said of Goodman after one of the radio spots). The following year, he is a member of pianist Pat Smythe’s trio at Annie’s Room, the nightspot run by vocalist Annie Ross in Covent Garden, sometimes also working in a duo with organist Roger Coulam. In the autumn of 1967 he forms what must have been an intriguing band to hear – a pianoless threesome with saxophonist Peter King and bassist Ron Mathewson, which makes a single BBC Jazz Club broadcast, a copy of which has yet to surface. His final on-record showing comes two years later on Duke Ellington saxophonist Paul Gonsalves album Hummingbird (Deram, 1970), a mix of late-night bossa grooves and chilled-out swing whose after hours ambience was greatly enhanced (according to one participant) by copious amounts of dope. It’s a curious sort of record; rewarding as kind of elevated background music but one in which nobody really goes for anything profound. Throughout Goodman ticks off polite time, almost as if he were watching the clock or regarded his presence as merely a contractual obligation. With Jack Sharpe producing the session, who knows, maybe it was, with all sorts of little sweeteners slipped into the pay packet perchance.
And we’re back where we started; the ‘nobody knows for sure’ line. The final musically active years of Goodman’s life are glossed over in John Chilton’s book, blanketed by the usual jazz euphemisms for inactivity and hardship - ‘freelanced in the late 1960s.’ Quite what happened between then and the drummer’s death (‘c1974’ Chilton suggests) is not recorded. It’s not hard to imagine something of an outline though; as a straight-ahead jazzman weaned on bebop the early 1970s would have been a tough time anyway, even without the (alleged) monkey of serious heroin addiction on your back. ‘The word jazz has many fixed associations in people’s minds,’ Goodman had evenhandedly said when discussing the avant-garde a decade earlier. ‘But if it means sheer improvisation, regardless of form and of a formal sequence, of time and of key...’ One can hardly imagine a player who’d once had the chops to ape Art Blakey, really underwriting such a thing. Or maybe free-form would have been the ideal forum for a player whose solo's were once described as 'meandering'?
It’s become a tradition – a cliché really – to close pieces like this with some thoughtful reflection on a thwarted life, of opportunities withheld, of ill-fate and the whole ‘but for the vagaries of jazz’ romance. I can’t – won’t – turn Benny Goodman into some sort of musical martyr. Just as he didn’t deserve to die so young, or to be reduced almost permanently to Cinderella status when he was alive, in death he really ought not to be transformed from fascinating minor figure to overlooked major one. He should be remembered with truth and not sentimentality, accuracy and not myth. Look at the facts; he had opportunities aplenty, some he took to better than others; he did record enough to show what he could do, most often in company that elevated him rather than the other way around. And he had time enough to show what kind of person he was, off-stage. Professional in some ways, spiky in others, Goodman left few genuine friends. 'I can’t say I, or anyone else in the band, ever got round to liking him,’ Sandy Brown wrote honestly after his passing (although in mitigation, he also recorded how well Goodman got along with children).
Likewise, I won’t even make the mistake of attempting some neat little personal resolution – you know the sort of thing, '...but his music lives on in his son/daughter/grandkids etc.’ I know nothing of his personal life beyond what I’ve been able to glean from the few musicians left who remember him, nor do I know if he was married, or was ever a father. Were there ever little Benny’s, I wonder, or is there a living bloodline somewhere, possibly unaware of its musical roots? Like so much in Benny Goodman’s short but not at all uneventful life, these things remain a mystery.
He did leave at least one great jazz anecdote though, and, rather unsurprisingly, it involves the ‘other’ Benny Goodman. Confusion over the name was perhaps inevitable and, every so often, sometimes very useful. In the early 1970s cornettist Digby Fairweather was desperately attempting to get his unknown Essex-based band a gig at the 100 Club in London’s Oxford Street, continually stonewalled until he revealed his trombonist, Jeff, was Benny Goodman’s brother. Stopping to explain that this was, in fact, the almost forgotten British drummer and not the legendary American clarinettist would have soured the victory.
But that’s not the best Benny Goodman Story; that concerns the BBC researcher who rang the drummer one day with an offer he simply couldn’t refuse. ‘I wonder if you would like to be interviewed on TV about your work in jazz?’ The fee on offer was £50 plus expenses - a king’s ransom in the early 1960s – to which the earnest caller added ‘it will help to publicize your performances.’ According to Sandy Brown, Goodman’s response was ‘to hell with publicizing performances; fifty nicker...fucking marvellous.’ Arrangements were made and a date duly booked to record Goodman’s reminiscences, that was until someone further up the Beeb food chain sensed something was amiss. To his credit, Goodman had never claimed to be the Benny Goodman (the accent was a dead giveaway) and so, in good faith, he received a small sum in compensation for the error. ‘It would have been nice to hear his life story in jazz from the wrong B.G.’ wrote Brown appreciatively.
Some of that story is here. What isn’t, well, nobody seems to know...
Photo: Goodman in a good band: the Fairweather/Brown All Star, 1961. Left to right; Al Fairweather, Brian Lemon, Sandy Brown, Benny Goodman, Brian Prudence and Tony Milliner.