King of Swing

Music has often been called the “universal language,” and sometimes gets a gig as a diplomatic representative. Beginning in 1956, clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman, America’s “King of Swing,” was sent on a series of tours throughout Asia on behalf of the State Department to facilitate good will and cement the impression that “America is not only great in modern plumbing and fancy cars, but in things of the spirit and the arts.” That same year, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev pronounced to the West, “We will bury you.”

The subsequent cold that spread between the Soviet Union and the West was that of concrete shaped into walls and metal looming as missiles poised for crisis. Breaching the divide were artists such as Texan pianist Van Cliburn, whose warmth won over audiences and whose talent the judges could not deny, awarding him—the competitor from an enemy country—the top prize at the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in 1958. Four years later, in 1962, the State Department once again deployed Benny Goodman, sending him and his orchestra to Moscow and Leningrad.

Perhaps Goodman was always the natural choice for a diplomatic mission. In the face of racial segregation, he insisted on equality, integrating his band, and in 1938 he brought jazz to Carnegie Hall in a concert now widely acknowledged as the moment the genre was elevated to a “legitimate” art form. The music that was breaking barriers at home was now called upon to do it abroad.

In honor of Goodman’s 1962 diplomatic journey to the Soviet Union, Morton Gould composed Benny’s Gig, a series of seven duos for clarinet and bass (the eighth was added in honor of Goodman’s 70th birthday in 1979).


From the program notes by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot

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