Benny Goodman

The King of Swing himself. Every dancer knows his music, but not all understand just how significant it is.

Early Life

Benny Goodman was born in Chicago and was influenced by musicians travelling through the city to or from New Orleans. He was given a clarinet to play at the early age of 10 and his father took him and his two brothers to the local synagogue to have lessons. Benny took to his instrument naturally and by the age of 14 he was already in a band featuring prominent jazz musicians including Bix Biederbeke.

Music for the youth

Goodman was a member of, and led a large number of bands during the late 1920s and early 1930s. It was at a regular gig at Billy Rose’s Music Hall that Goodman was approached to audition for a radio dance programme. Let’s Dance premiered in 1935 and featured three bands on rotation- one ‘sweet’, one ‘Latin’ and one ‘hot’. Goodman’s band were selected as the ‘hot’ band. In order to keep producing fresh repertoire, Goodman hired Fletcher Henderson to write arrangements for the band to play on air. They practiced hard and played at an exceptional standard. At this point, Gene Krupa joined the band on drums and took the quality of the band up another notch. Let’s Dance was on quite late on the East Coast and didn’t attract much of an audience but it was a different story on the West Coast where it was broadcast 3 hours earlier- during prime time. A subsequent tour proved the difference this made, being rather disastrous until they reached Los Angeles where youths were queued around the block to get into the Palamar Ballroom to hear the band. They danced in the aisles and it was at this point that the “jitterbug” went mainstream. When the band returned to the East Coast they were famous.


In 1938, Goodman was approached to do a concert in Carnegie Hall. Until this point it had been the reserve of the upper classes and strictly classical. The Benny Goodman Orchestra would be the first jazz band to play at this prestigious venue. Naturally, Goodman was nervous, this was his opportunity to make or break jazz for the next generation. If he was successful, he would prove that jazz can be a serious art form and acceptable for an upper class audience. If he failed, he would face ridicule and scathing criticism, and the future of jazz would be in jeopardy. As if this wasn’t enough of a risk- Goodman also brought a racially mixed band onto the stage, featuring black artists such as Lionel Hampton. Not everyone shared Goodman’s opinion that

If a guy’s got it, let him give it. I’m selling music, not prejudice


The 1938 concert ended with one of the Benny Goodman Orchestra’s biggest hits- Louis Prima’s “Sing Sing Sing”. Featuring Gene Krupa on drums, it has become an iconic piece of music in today’s swing scene.

Skilled musicians

The Benny Goodman Orchestra featured some of the Jazz world’s most accomplished musicians. Alongside leader Benny Goodman and arranger Fletcher Henderson were Lionel Hampton, Gene Krupa, Harry James, Glenn Miller, Jack Teagarden, Coleman Hawkins and Ziggy Elman. Billie Holliday recorded with the band, as did Helen Ward and Mildred Bailey.

All Dancers Should Know:

Mostly known for swung arrangements of popular songs at the time, the Benny Goodman Orchestra brought Fletcher Henerson’s arrangements into the dance scene. You should also know:

  • Sing, Sing, Sing
  • In the Mood
  • King Porter Stomp
  • Bugle Call Rag


Also Listen To:

  • Let’s Dance (theme tune to the radio programme, based on Invitation to Dance by Carl Maria von Weber)
  • Loch Lomond (It got 3 encores at Carnegie Hall!)
  • Moonglow
  • Watch: Stage Door Canteen which features Benny Goodman and various other talents of the 30s and 40s.

Listen out for:

  • Even sections within the song
  • Groups of instruments playing melodies and countermelodies (slightly less important tune at the same time)
  • Dramatic changes in dynamics (suddenly softer or louder)

When You Dance:

  • Use the even structure of these songs to expand your repertoire of moves or gain confidence on the social floor. eg: 3x 8 basics, 1x 8 variation.
  • Use your body and select your moves to reflect the dynamics- small steps, gentle movements for quiet sections, big movements and lots of energy for loud sections.