Benny Goodman: “Down South Camp Meeting”, from the album “On The Air 1937-38”, Columbia Records
The Goodman organization in the late 1930s was an absolute force to be reckoned with. They had weathered a nearly disastrous cross-country tour, only to find unparalleled success on the west coast, most famously at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in August 1935. Goodman, only in his late twenties, found himself being hailed as the “King of Swing”, a title he certainly never claimed for himself, but rather had placed on him by the press, eager to whip up excitement over this crazy music the kids were listening to.
But, to be fair, Goodman, and his band at the time, was phenomenal. Every player on the bandstand was no less than excellent, with a few members out-and-out stars. Some of them would leave to front bands of their own within a few years: Gene Krupa, Harry James and Lionel Hampton would all go on to their own fame and fortune. But for a couple of years, 1937 and 1938, few bands on earth could match Benny Goodman and his Orchestra for sheer, powerful swing. One of my favorite tracks to argue this point is this live air check of “Down South Camp Meeting”.
First off, it’s a Fletcher Henderson arrangement. Goodman was, famously, a big fan of Henderson’s charts, and featured them heavily. (For his part, Fletcher told his wife that he was happy Goodman played his music, since he felt Goodman’s band played them best!) So we have a fantastic arrangement of a riff-heavy tune, filled with CLASSIC call and response, which had not yet been done to death as would happen over the next decade in popular swing music.
Second, it’s a live recording, done in front of a room full of dancers in 1937, when the Swing Era was really cooking! And you can HEAR it in the way the band plays. Driving, swinging, pushing, with a fire and ferocity that Goodman’s band would never really have again. They are absolutely committed to the music, spurring one another on to higher and higher heights.
But let’s listen to the song itself and pick out some good stuff…
We hear applause, then the band comes through, stating the opening theme, and some KILLER call and response work between the reeds and the brass. A word about the trumpet section at this point in Goodman’s band: Harry James. Chris Griffin. Ziggy Elman. These guys loved each other. They were among the best trumpeters in the world. And they just loved to play together. No less than Duke Ellington called this particular trio of trumpets, “One of the wonders of the age.” So keep an ear open for their work.
Then Benny takes a few bars, playing with the tune and really enjoying some fun little rhythmic motifs.
A few bars each for sax, trumpet, sax, trumpet, then the reeds come in again with something to say, and the brass again providing biting commentary in reply. A few cowbell hits from Krupa and then the whole band is at it again, swinging hard. A unison section for the saxes, then more full band, some build-up, and then they fall back to give way to Benny again with the other reeds all playing clarinets for the ride-out…
Featured photo: BW E-flat Clarinet Macro from www.michaelbshane.com