Writings about Music

Benny and Bird

Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker

Phil Woods would say "Bird, Bach and Benny" when asked about his favorite music, and the inclusion of Benny Goodman mystified me because I had always read how Goodman was significant for being a popularizer of jazz much more than for being a great artist.

And Rollan Masciarelli, who introduced me to the music of Charlie Parker and Lester Young, the former becoming such an obsession that I would listen to his solos with the other instrumental solos edited out even while taking a shower, subsequently attempted to hip me to Benny Goodman, even giving me a CD with his favorite tracks to no avail because I lacked sufficient experience and readiness to comprehend it at that moment in time.

The thing is we are overwhelmed by so much music from so many genres and cultures, including our own infinitely varied American music, and it is simply impossible to hear every important artist properly, partly because we are indoctrinated into having standard opinions from a crowd of like others prior to forming our own individual insights.

This being the case, it has really only been the past year or so it dawned on me why Woods and Masciarelli were so smitten. Listening freshly myself, having as evidence existing recordings and videos of Benny Goodman's improvisations and interpretations of standards, he is absolutely as great as any jazz artist - this opinion comes from someone who knows the music of Charlie Parker and John Coltrane as well as anyone, while scarcely believing I'm saying it due to all the ubiquitous disinformation out there - and I would go so far to say he is also the first Modern jazz artist despite obviously being spawned by the Swing era of jazz. By that I mean he doesn't sound dated at all in any way, but rather miraculously sounds completely in the here and now impervious to the days, months and years posted on calendars and websites.

Reasons why I say this begin with utterly unique inventiveness and expression born from fermentative Jewish roots and musical culture synergizing with the richness and door opening magic of African American influences. Goodman had an irrepressible passion and drive for achieving excellence, and thus surrounded himself with the finest musicians for intimate combos where improvisation held sway more so than in big band settings, Benny's large ensemble soloing being equally great, of course. Goodman's small groups included two of my personal favorites, Gene Krupa and Charlie Christian, and also Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton.

While I have not read all the books about Swing, or seen all the documentaries, the ones I am familiar with tend to communicate a lack of musical perceptiveness about the history of jazz when it comes to the subject of Benny Goodman. It is naive to believe that history of jazz books and documentaries are any different from those focusing on various aspects of world history as often as not leading us astray with erroneous clichés, however well articulated, ultimately missing the point.

For instance, it is plainly evident that a key part of Charlie Parker's innovative sound and style was evolved from the piercing intensity of Benny Goodman's clarinet adopted to the lower pitched alto saxophone, together with broad outlines of improvisational lines, form, swing and feel, contrasting complexity and simplicity in various degrees. Bird has deep roots in the playing of Benny; a fecund foundation from which to soar.

Both Goodman and Parker have a penetratingly piquant style as opposed to the numinous, unfleshly manner of Lester Young in his by far the greatest earlier period - the playing of Young is equally intense in its own way - the tenor saxophonist being another central influence on Charlie Parker in terms of rhythmic fluidity, phrasing and breadth of musical vision. It is often overlooked how Benny Goodman was one of Young's primary inspirations - a reinforcing conduit between Benny and Bird - and how Young had a transformative effect upon Miles Davis together with the more commonly credited Parker.

The manic, no holds barred aspects of Charlie Parker's improvisations are a direct descendent of Benny Goodman, pertaining both to technical fury and rasa, Goodman making more use of sustained high tones, something Dizzy Gillespie, no doubt, was very familiar with, while Parker focused more on splintering tones into heat-seeking melodic molecules.

If ever a jazz musician's appearance belied the full nature of their music, this would be Benny Goodman, who looked so gentile (with a name sounding equally benign), perhaps passing for a doctor or pharmacist, while his hair-raising intensity at fast tempos could raise the dead.

The Modern jazz largely invented by Bird together with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, Oscar Pettiford, Max Roach and others, is more chromatic, polytonal, polyrhythmic, complex and generally faster than the Swing jazz Benny is a primary architect of along with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Gene Krupa and others, both Goodman and Parker being technical wizards who played beyond each other's respective capabilities. (Yes, for those who may be unaware as I was until recently, Benny Goodman also reached technical heights that have never been matched before or since.) One significant common link between Goodman and Parker is Charlie Christian, his playing and compositions creating a fluid bridge between Swing and Modern jazz even obfuscating the differences.

Part of the difficulty some seem to have suffered is due to being unable to accept how sometimes immense popularity at the level afforded Benny Goodman coincides with the highest level of artistry, as witness other examples like Frank Sinatra and the Beatles. They seem to be unable to reconcile the two, or perhaps there is something about the person or persons outside of music itself that distracts them from comprehension and understanding.

The tantric melismas of Benny Goodman, relatively new to me, continue to astound. I'm now feeling he is the jazz instrumentalist who comes closest to the human voice in feeling and nuance, elevating the clarinet beyond measure, including uncannily precise control in the upper stratospheres. Awestruck fellow musicians said Benny was incapable of playing a bad note. I once wrote something similar about Zakir Hussian and tabla strokes in a cover feature for Pacific Review published by the UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology.

There is a depth of expression and musical subtlety in Goodman's playing that leaves one grasping for parallels among masters of Indian classical music and European classical music, not that jazz lacks artists at this level, of course, but Benny Goodman transcends any specific genre. It is a truism that oftentimes a few notes are more meaningful than dozens of notes depending upon specifics. I've even found myself learning about ragas from the playing of Goodman and the singing of Frank Sinatra from their profound musicality in those areas where jazz and raga intersect, despite Goodman and Sinatra never actually interpreting ragas or even engaging in modal improvisation, with Benny's recordings of Sing, Sing, Sing being a notable exception.

Being a composer and improviser myself, my focus is on music as both a learning experience and source of aesthetic enjoyment. While much more may be written about the influence of Benny Goodman on Charlie Parker, I'm glad to have this beginning born from when I actually listened rather than repeating what one is expected to say in order to conform to what has been overlooked, including self-defeating tendencies of maintaining such because it is easier than correcting it.

Comparing and contrasting the improvisational styles and substance of Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker is unavoidably essential towards a fuller understanding of jazz evolution and jazz itself, the dramatic differences perhaps being a daunting deterrent for some, but the connections are clearly there if sometimes beneath the surface.

Artie Shaw influenced Charlie Parker as well, especially in terms of sheer elegance of sound and line, including the memorizing of solos, but the main clarinet-driven impetus resides with Benny Goodman.

Overriding all connections however close or far, pertinent or ancillary, is the fact that the music of Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker inhabits different worlds, as is true for any great jazz artist. They build a musical world of their own defying imitation beyond the superficial with very specific rules and parameters only broken and modified by their own fastidious instincts and standards comparable to the guided elevation and design informing improvisations by masters of Indian classical music.

We all have our personal preferences for what musical worlds we wish to enter, which ones speak to us most deeply, and which ones we prefer not to stay long in after visiting. It is thrilling to lift the veil off of a musical domain we previously found aesthetically inhospitable, savoring what we were unable to divine upon first engaging our sonic palate; the phenomenon of developed taste where sometimes the finest things are elusive in nature for a labyrinth of reasons.

I wish I had been receptive to Benny Goodman when I knew Phil Woods and Rollan Masciarelli so as to discuss his music with them, but am grateful for being able to perceive it now, music that first passed over my head for being dated and trite, partly from being misled by existing literature and documentaries, actually being forever timeless, fertile, and even ever avant-garde.

Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker

At this point I would say that the two greatest misunderstandings in the history of jazz are the true artistic significance of Benny Goodman and the real story of Charlie Parker becoming irreversibly addicted to opiates, beginning when Bird was only fifteen when a catastrophic car accident killed his best friend and left Charlie with a damaged spine and broken ribs for which he was actually given heroin or perhaps morphine. Not having the benefit of proper medical supervision, including how the field of pain management was non-existent at the time, teaching how to taper off opiates, the teenager growing into adulthood was tragically never able to overcome the physical and psychological effects of those potent substances during the course of his whirlwind brief lifespan, excepting the forced stay in Camarillo and it's all too short immediate aftermath, nonetheless becoming an immortal creative god who transformed jazz and much of Western music. The trick is to be nourished by Bird without attempting to emulate him (outside of practicing), which I agree with Miles Davis despite armies of imitators is an actual impossibility, the same applying to John Coltrane and Bill Evans, of course.

Less than an hour after my initial draft, I was delighted to discover the above video with evidence of Charlie Parker practicing with Benny Goodman combo recordings in February 1943, a timely confirmation of my apparently innovative insights, but even without this audio document Goodman's imprint on Parker's playing is abundantly evident if you just listen with some degree of familiarity with their respective styles and sound.

Now let's turn to Whispering played by Benny Goodman in 1936, and it's famous offshoot, Groovin' High, played by Charlie Parker in 1945, revealing how the feel, instrumental sound (despite their playing different instruments!) and broad outlines of their respective solos are highly similar even with Bird branching out into the delightful innovations he brought to jazz melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. The musical sophistication of their efforts are in no small part due to Goodman and Parker sharing a yen for composers like Stravinsky and Bartok, that consciousness connecting them together with passionate love for the music and lyrics of standards, knowing how the latter are equally inextricable for instrumentalists.


Next are two blues-soaked examples using what became known as the Charlie Parker blues progression, beginning with Goodman's The King and Me (1958), which is not strictly a blues, followed by Parker's Blues For Alice (1951), which is an actual blues. The closeness of tone quality, feel and expressive thrust is remarkable beyond Bird's customary inclusion of double-time passages.


Here we may experience the evolution of jazz as personified by Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker using another example of a Swing standard followed by its Modern jazz reincarnation, these being (Back Home In) Indiana (1939) and Donna Lee (1947). As in the previous examples, we may savor the parallels and divergences informing the improvisations of Goodman and Parker.


Lastly, let's turn to what was termed a "killer-diller" in the Swing era with Benny Goodman playing I Found A New Baby live in 1955, while Charlie Parker's version is from a live 1940 broadcast.


These music examples illustrate how Charlie Parker's revolutionary alto saxophone sound and style was largely born from a profound understanding, assimilation, and subsequent expansion of Benny Goodman's clarinet sound, style and expression, an insight I don't believe has been articulated at least in writing before, but was plainly evident once I recently added knowledge of Goodman's music to the Bird I've known since high school.

It is puzzling how there doesn't appear to be any record or story about personal interactions between Goodman and Parker given their supreme stature within the worlds of Swing and Modern jazz. To date, I have not heard or come across any such mention. I very much doubt they never had a single encounter. We sadly have such paltry information about Bird in terms of interviews in print or film!

Imagine how wonderful it would have been to have a recording or transcript of a conversation about jazz between Benny Goodman and Charlie Parker, including their shared enthusiasm for European classical music. Even more, a recording session pairing the two would have been monumental.

There was a relatively brief period whereupon Benny attempted to deliberately blend Bird's musical milieu into his own, but he was soon strong and sensible enough to realize how both his and Parker's music was timeless and complete unto itself beyond momentary and fleeting welcome stylistic diversity from a wise, encompassing perspective, ultimately retaining his natural identity, allowing continuing evolution within the uninhibited constructions and arabesques of a self-drawn constitution.

Historically speaking, Benny Goodman is also part of a quartet of Jewish American woodwind geniuses with Artie Shaw, Lee Konitz and Stan Getz whose irreplaceable collective imprint upon Swing, Modern and Avant-Garde jazz, the latter referring specifically to Konitz, is everlasting. Bird was good friends with Lee, stoked by his originality; was inspired by the playing of Shaw as mentioned; and was wowed by Getz's style.

Charlie Parker was scheduled to perform as a guest artist with the Lee Konitz Quartet in Boston on a March night in 1955 featuring Ronnie Ball, Jeff Morton and Peter Ind, a supreme alto saxophone jugalbandi engagement continuing through the week. Perplexed and disappointed when Bird didn't appear, Lee only learned days later of the tragic passing of his friend and colleague in New York City, a shock that never really wore off given the high expectations and anticipation. They had previously performed together as featured soloists with the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Dizzy Gillespie, also featured on this tour, said Lee was cutting Bird, the other musicians concurring. Konitz modestly attributed it to knowing the arrangements better, his featured number being Lover Man, while Bird's was My Funny Valentine. Peter Ind heard from New York that Charlie's actual last words were, "I gotta get to the gig."

Charlie Colin, a leading trumpet teacher and brass music publisher whose students included Dizzy Gillespie and Mercer Ellington, had a number of riveting stories about Charlie Parker, including how they once rode on the train from Grand Central out of the city together, Bird playing with flashcards that allowed him to recreate a movie, completely entranced by the effect, exhibiting a childlike enthusiasm, joy and purity also attributed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Returning to the opening pairing of Bird, Bach and Benny brings to mind how only roughly half of Johann Sebastian Bach's scores survived, the other half lost forever, and how only a miniscule fraction of the lifelong improvisations of Charlie Parker and Benny Goodman are captured on recordings.

There was a related unforgettable moment when I was part of a small audience of a dozen or so in a private home in San Jose gathered to hear Pandit Jasraj, the leading Hindustani music vocalist of our time, and an improviser second to known in all of Indian classical music and jazz. It was afternoon, and it became evident we would be blessed to hear the revered Raga Bhimpalasi at its correct time assignation. Prior to beginning the performance, the host asked Pandit Jasraj for permission to record the concert. The maestro immediately and firmly said, "No," and this decision seemed to purposely heighten the drama of the moment - Pandit Jasraj always sings directly to God first in his consciousness - knowing his summoning of Bhimpalasi would only exist once in the present if still there among my bountiful memories of him.

Being too young to have heard Charlie Parker live, I once met John Lewis, the pianist on a number of classic Bird tracks, and asked him if their recordings do full justice for what it was like hearing Parker live. Lewis matter of factly said those albums were fully representative, surprising me, but it's also possible people who have heard an artist live retain pertinent details eluding recordings they automatically fill in subconsciously, something I know happens with myself whenever I listen to Jackie McLean, an artist I especially loved hearing live, his essence forever imprinted inside me. Because there are numerous videos of Benny Goodman playing compared to only a meager few we have of Bird, it's much easier to have a sense of what it was like to hear him in person.

- Michael Robinson, June 2023, Los Angeles

© 2023 Michael Robinson All rights reserved


Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer, programmer, pianist and musicologist. His 199 albums include 152 albums for meruvina and 47 albums of piano improvisations. Robinson has been a lecturer at UCLA, Bard College and California State University Long Beach and Dominguez Hills.