Historians tell us that many major turning points in history can be traced to a decisive victory in a single military battle, for example, Nelson’s victory in the Battle of Trafalgar. Changes in musical preferences and specific events signaling those changes, while culturally important, certainly do not alter the course of history, although I am sure there are some who feel that Elvis Presley’s 1956 appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show signaled the decline of the Western World. While the world didn’t really change after that performance, the fortunes of Elvis certainly did.
The difference between a cataclysmic defeat on a battlefield and a rock performance on TV doesn’t really merit an analysis; however, somewhere between these extremes there are events that change peoples’ perceptions and therefore the course of events thereafter. And so it was that a jazz performance in New York on Jan. 16, 1938, forever altered the course of jazz history. The location was Carnegie Hall, the Mecca of classical music at that time, and some say the most important concert hall in the world. This was the citadel of high American culture — classical music.
To place the performance in the proper perspective, one has to remember that jazz was considered to be the stepchild of popular music. In the early ’20s, jazz was seen by many as the devil’s music, played by black musicians in bordellos and honky-tonk bars. It was perceived to be vulgar and low class by the white establishment, but slowly it began making its way into the main stream of American life and culture. By the early ’30s it had arrived with the Swing Era. Young white kids were dancing to the music of the big and era. Americans were beginning to take notice of the music, but no one would dare compare jazz to classical music. Jazz was PLAYED in clubs and in dance halls. Classical music was PERFORMED at concerts.
Today, many would agree that jazz is the American classical music of the 20th century, but in 1938, to even mention jazz in the same breath as classical music was frowned upon by the purveyors of cultural correctness.
So on that fateful night, Benny Goodman (the “King of Swing,” at the height of his popularity), his orchestra and some guests (Count Basie and members of Duke Ellington’s orchestra) made their Carnegie Hall debut. Tickets sold out weeks before the show ($0.85 to $2.75) and the show was broadcast live nationally. The performers were racially integrated (not a first by any means; Goodman had hired Teddy Wilson, an African-American in 1935), but this was a very important venue for a public display of integration. In the coming years, jazz would go on to continuously shine a light on the sad reality of the separation of the races and by example, establish that the creative process of making music could rise above bigotry.
The result of the concert was astonishing. Jazz was elevated to the upper reaches of American music, acknowledged as an art form that deserved to be given recognition with the improvisational skills and virtuosity of its players to be admired and respected. The performance has now come to be feted as the single most important public performance of jazz in the history of the music — legitimizing it and celebrating it. Jazz had its coming out party — not in a club or a dance hall — but at Carnegie Hall and it was presented as a CONCERT.
Each Labor Day weekend, the Vail Jazz Festival presents multimedia tributes to legendary jazz musicians. This year on Aug. 31, clarinet virtuoso Ken Peplowski will pay tribute to Benny Goodman, the King of Swing. Playing some of Goodman’s most famous tunes, Peplowski will use videos of Benny’s performances and narrative to tell the story of one of the most famous jazz men to have ever lived.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of The Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Celebrating its 20th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music, culminating with the Labor Day weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information.