The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert

Pictured above: An LP of the famous concert.

Pictured above: An LP of the famous concert.

On January 16th 1938, the first ever Jazz and Swing concert took place at Carnegie Hall with the Benny Goodman Band and guests. All 3,000 tickets were sold in hours to wealthy New Yorkers.

Metronome magazine reported 5,000 Hoi Polloi were turned away that night – “No room at the inn.” Outside, thousands of people were milling around, mostly demonstrators. We had the German-Americans Bund Gang waving Swastikas shouting “No niggers at Carnegie Hall”. We had both left and right wing Hispanic folk protesting the civil war in Spain.

Into this mix Ernest Hemingway arrived. All the massed media rushed to Hemingway, who said “New York’s wealthy is here and I want their money. I am going back to Spain to kick Franco’s ass, and I want their money to buy guns, bombs and an ambulance.” The mind boggles at this.

Benny Goodman kicked off with Don’t Be That Way. Gene Krupa’s drum solo and a swinging final chorus sent the audience wild. Benny knew he had a winner.

That same evening, in far away Germany, Adolf Hitler’s train pulled into Berlin’s Ann Halter Bahnhoff station, where Hitler told generals Keitel, Model, Von Runsteat etc “I am 50 years old. In 10 years’ time I am 60; far too old to go to war. Next month, gentlemen, we annex Austria, then Czechoslovakia. We need the Skoda works; they make the best heavy guns for our assault on France before 1940.” World War II was just around the corner.

Pictured Above: Martha Tilton, lead vocalist for the Benny Goodman Orchestra.

Pictured Above: Martha Tilton, lead vocalist for the Benny Goodman Orchestra.

Meanwhile, back at Carnegie Hall everybody was swinging. Martha Tilton sang her heart out, then Harry James’s great trumpet solo on Shine blew everybody away. Harry James left Texas aged 18 in 1930. He knew he was good but back then Texas was Hicksville. He had no money and hitched his way to 52nd street in New York, the centre of the music world. On arrival he went instead to the all-black Cotton Club in Harlem.

Metronome magazine said of that night, “Harry James was the only white face there.” Somebody shouted down, “Hey snowflake, let’s hear you blow that horn.” A shabby, down at heel Harry James blew all the black cats off the stage. The crowd went wild. They were witnessing the birth of a star! Within a month, James was with the Benny Goodman Band, where he and Gene Krupa became ‘celebs’ before the word was invented.

Pictured: Trumpeter Harry James.

Pictured: Trumpeter Harry James.

In 1939 Harry James had his own band and on vocals he had an unknown Frank Sinatra. In the 1940s James and Sinatra had numerous hit records. Hollywood soon called and Harry James also had many hit movies. He then married Betty Grable, the technicolour queen.

Sometime later Harry caught Betty between the sheets with B list actor Rory Calhoun. After a quick divorce Harry went on to a long and lucrative career. Betty Grable crashed. Her studio sacked her, telling her she was too old. Ouch! There was no tea or sympathy from those cold, ruthless movie moguls.

Until 1950 we only had 10 inch records that only played two songs, the A side and B side. Then in 1950, Columbia Records gave us the 12 inch long-play record, which had 20 songs or tunes on this miracle vinyl disc. This was a game changer. CBS issued the complete Carnegie Hall Concert on a double-disc album, of which I sold many in Tara Records in the 1950s.

I bought my first copy around 1955. Many years later – 1980 – my son Mark got me a new copy in Dandelion Market on St Stephens’ Green. Then five years ago I read in In Tune magazine that a new 32-bit digital CD version was on sale. This is a superb record as they eliminated any hiss or clicks from the original acetate records.

When the concert ended, Benny Goodman packed his clarinet, said goodnight to his band and told them he would see them at noon tomorrow at the Statler Hotel, where they would do a sound check for that night’s coast-to-coast live broadcast for his main sponsor Camel cigarettes. As Benny headed for the lift through crowds of media people, a New York Herald Tribune music critic shouted at Benny, “Great show Benny; what a shame somebody didn’t record it.” As the elevator doors were closing, Benny smiled and said those famous two words – “Somebody did!”

Let’s leave the last word to Old Blue Eyes, who, as we know, sang with Harry James and knew Betty Grable very well. All of the media, including the movie and music mags, wanted a quote from Frankie, and he came up trumps. “What a shame. Harry kickstarted my career. I loved that guy and Betty was a swell gal. She was the best-looking broad in movies and she had the best pair of pins in the business.”

Frankie was never one for politically correct baloney; he always shot from the lip and said it as it was.

Finally, may I say if you ever see a copy of the Benny Goodman 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Swing Concert, buy it, enjoy it, and marvel!

By Noel Twamley