Book Excerpt: Benny Goodman And The Swing Era
Author: James Lincoln Collier
pages 239 - 241
What Goodman was attempting is not known, but it is clear that he had, by this time, become a great admirer of Young. According to John Hammond, the story was this. Hammond had, sometime in the middle of 1936, discovered a guitarist working in the Black Cat, an obscure Greenwich Village club a few blocks away from his apartment. Hammond felt that he had the finest beat of any rhythm guitarist he had ever heard. This of course was Freddie Green. Hammond was in the process of revamping the Basie band, and he wanted Basie to fire his guitarist, Claude Williams, and bring in Green. Sometime in late November or early December 1936, he brought Basie and some of his musicians, including Young, down to the Black Cat. He has also asked Goodman, who was finished for the night at one a.m., to join the party.
Both Goodman and Young sat in. Hammond said: "It was quite a night. Benny had brought his clarinet so he sat in. Basie took over on piano and Jo Jones on drums, but Frank Clarke remained on bass, and, of course, Freddie Green continued on guitar. Goodman played so beautifully that everyone in the room was overwhelmed. Lester had brought along a metal clarinet, an instrument much less expensive and not so tonally rich as the wooden clarinet most players use. Lester did not have much clarinet technique, but he did have the same intimate sound and sense of phrasing he had on the saxophone. After Lester played a while Benny handed Lester his clarinet. "Here," he said, "take mine" - meaning, keep it. Goodman could get as many clarinets as he wanted; still, it was an extraordinary gesture, a tribute to Lester's playing, an indication that if Benny cared he could be very generous."
John Hammond is never an entirely trustworthy source, but it is clear enough that Goodman was enormously impressed by Young. And this finally led to his inviting Lester [and Freddie] to the March 1938 recording session which so distressed Art Rollini and apparently caused [guitarist] Allen Reuss to give his notice.
What was going on [at this recording session]? Page and Green are under-recorded, and do not appear to be any improvement over Goodman's own men. What was the point of having them [and Lester Young] on this date? The episode alienated Rollini and possibly others as well. Allan Reuss left soon after, although he may have already decided to go, and was replaced by Ben Heller who would stay with the band for some time.
We cannot, or course, know what was going on in Goodman's mind. My guess, however, is that he heard something in Young's playing that he wanted to capture. It is my feeling that Goodman recognized in Young's work the existence of clear statements which were rarer in his own playing, or indeed in the playing of all but a handful of improvisers. I think Goodman in these records, and in some later ones, was trying to pare down his usually busy playing to the kind of cogency he was hearing in Young. And I would further guess that he brought in Page and Green because he suspected that the Basie rhythm section may have had something to do with Young's effectiveness: What would happen to his [Goodman's] own playing with such a rhythm section?